Memory and Fear Dominate Philippines' Pre-Election Scenarios

The Philippines lives in a kind of extended déjà vu: yellow flags bearing the images of a fallen hero and his widow flutter on Manila's boulevards reminding Filipinos of a groundbreaking event almost 25 years ago that would shape the country's future.

The man's face is that of Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr., the assassinated rival of a dictator, with his famous battle cry, "The Filipino Is Worth Dying For." His widow Corazon would be proclaimed president in a people power revolt to restore a fragile democracy. Her death from cancer last August brought about a twist in the scenario for the upcoming presidential elections with her only son now seeking the presidency. Hence the return of the yellow banners.

Benigno Aquino III, commonly known as "Noynoy," is a lackluster senator whose record for political acumen and oratorical brilliance hardly matches that of his legendary father, whose political instincts and charisma were rivaled only by his nemesis, the late President Ferdinand Marcos.

But with the dictator long gone and Ninoy and Cory dead, it seems that the Aquino family's hold on the nation's political life is destined to continue.

Nonoy is leading the polls with an average 44 percent approval rating, a high mark by local standards, largely on the afterglow of his mother's death and the outpouring of Filipinos in the streets in honor of a woman whose legacy of sacrifice has been embraced as a quasi-religious act by the largely Catholic country. Analysts see Nonoy benefitting from his mother's legacy of honesty and morality. Never mind his record in the Senate.

"People, especially the poor, always feel that no matter who is in power, their lives do not get any better, so they decide on feelings, on what appeals to them as honest, and that's good enough" says Antonio Abaya, who runs a research outfit that advises local political candidates.

The parallel between what is happening today and what took place in the past is also reflected in public desperation to get the current tenant of the presidential palace out. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has been in power for nine years. According to most polls, people have had enough, and they see similarities between her tenure and earlier corrupt and badly managed administrations. With Arroyo perceived as someone who clings to the top at all cost, there is always talk of a worst-case scenario in which she refuses to leave.

Not a few political commentators have raised the possibility of an election failure that might be triggered by the Philippines' new election computers breaking down since this election will mark the first shift from manual to automated voting. If this happens, they warn, it could lead to unrest and a breakdown of order, which in turn could provoke the establishment of a civilian-military junta.

Arroyo's national security adviser once spoke of a "transitional revolutionary government" that, in his view, would get the country out of its perpetual morass. He even called the Supreme Court chief justice into a secret meeting on the matter, which they later denied took place. Rather than censuring him, the president appointed him to be secretary of national defense – a move that was seen as politicizing the armed forces.

Those watching the scene unfold are wary not so much of the military, where senior officers are said to be professional, but of the national police, whose key commanders are being replaced by those loyal to the president in quick succession, as if there was a rush to beat the deadline for promotions before the polls. Likewise, the elite unit of the police's Special Action Force has been beefed up gradually in previous months, to five battalions.

If there were to be such a takeover scenario, "the military does not need to be brought into the picture," says a former military general. "All you need is the police to secure vital installations in the city [Metro Manila]."

A survey by Social Weather Stations, a prominent polling outfit, says the public is nervous about computerized voting (which is meant to lessen cheating). Nearly half of respondents said if something goes wrong "people power will probably happen" of the kind that booted out Marcos in 1986 and put Cory into power; and in 2001 installed then-Vice President Arroyo in power after Joseph Estrada was shown the door. Both events were backed by the military, with the latter being little more than a popular coup.

The fears of the past always seem to keep the country from moving forward. The president herself is in "panic mode" over past actions, says a former cabinet adviser. Her fear, he says, has to do with keeping herself out of jail when a new administration comes in that might finally look into all the alleged shady deals that have plagued her government.

Arroyo's best-case scenario is to run for a seat in Congress, which she has said she would do. For her it would mean retaining her political clout and hopefully gathering the strength of her allies in the lower House where she might, by a stroke of luck and perseverance, push for the parliamentary form of government that many analysts, dealmakers and theorizers seem to think is the answer to the weakness of Philippine democracy.

Senator Noynoy's possible victory could put Arroyo in a bind: those in his circle are the same people who helped install Arroyo in power and later left her government in disgust. They might not be so forgiving of her as she was with her predecessor, whom she pardoned from charges of corruption.

The Philippines has become conditioned to see history as a soap opera with a repetitive plot and familiar characters. Meanwhile, the population keeps growing (past 90 million now) under severe strain and the economy holds up, barely, on the remittances of overseas workers. It is estimated that remittances could rise to US$18 billion this year, contributing to a small rise in GDP despite the slump in the world market. Election-related spending, which could cost US$100 million for those seeking the highest office, could also give the economy a kick.

Inching closer to the lead in the polls, however, is another senator, Manuel Villar, a business tycoon who harps on the poverty of his childhood (as opposed to Aquino's landed-gentry roots). He appeals to Filipinos living in a perpetual cycle of difficulty and upheaval.

So it is Villar's self-made man versus Noynoy's yellow flag of memory, with Arroyo's dark shadow just offstage. More drama for Filipinos and still no idea of how we move ahead constructively.