New Philippine Government Taking Shape

The incoming Philippine administration of Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III is starting to take shape with a slap in the face for outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Noynoy has appointed several members of Arroyo's administration who resigned in 2005 in anger over massive electoral irregularities in her 2004 presidential campaign.

They include Corazon Juliano "Dinky" Soliman as Secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and Teresita "Ding" Deles as presidential adviser on the peace process. Others are rumored to be the former Defense Secretary, Avelino Cruz, and the former Ombudsman, Simeon Marcello although the latter two say they have made no commitment yet.

All were members of the so-called Hyatt 10, a group of eight of Arroyo's cabinet members and two others who held a press conference at the Hyatt Hotel in Pasay City to quit and demand that Arroyo resign in the wake of the ballot-rigging allegations. Several served in Noynoy's election campaign. Aquino is also expected to name his ally and attorney Pacquiton "Jojo" Ochoa as executive secretary.

Several members of the administration of Noynoy's mother, Corazon Aquino, are also expected to be appointed, according to sources in Manila.

Arroyo's outgoing cabinet had 23 members.

Aquino faces a vast array of problems in trying to get the Philippines back on its feet, from a growing and acute energy shortage to endemic corruption to a perennial rice shortage to a burgeoning population and the refusal of the Catholic Church to do anything about it. Despite the fervent hopes of the millions of Filipinos who voted for him as a reformer, Aquino springs from one of the country's most aristocratic families and most analysts believe he will do little to break the stranglehold they have on the economy. In his years in the Congress, he displayed little of the fire in the belly, to use the American cliché, that would indicate he intends to clean up the place and end the culture of impunity that has characterized Filipino politics for decades, allowing the privileged to literally get away with murder.

However, Aquino has sounded uncharacteristically aggressive in attempting to reverse the midnight appointments of some of Arroyo's allies in government, particularly her blatant naming of her former press secretary, Renato Corona, as chief justice of the Supreme Court after the presidential election.

Whether these appointments can be reversed is unsure. They are term appointments rather than pleasure ones. But anything is possible in Filipino politics, and if Aquino has a big enough mandate he might be able to do so.

Another question is how the new president can work with the two houses of the Congress, or whether he could largely ignore them and use his administrative power to accomplish his ends. So far, only 133 of the 278 seats in the House of Representatives have been certified by the Philippines Commission on Elections, or Comelec, so the final composition is up for grabs.

The 24-member Senate may be controlled by either Manuel A. Villar, who lost to Aquino and who goes back into the Senate, or by Juan Ponce Enrile, Gloria Arroyo's champion in the upper house. While considerable campaign vitriol grew up between the two, with Aquino tying Villar to the unpopular outgoing president, Villar, the politician-tycoon, issued a graceful concession speech and would have little to gain by opposing Aquino forcefully. No. 2 finisher Joseph Estrada, the disgraced former president, has still not conceded.

The Senate is a striking collection of misfits, including at least two leaders of coup attempts as well as Estrada's son Jinggoy, Ferdinand Marcos's son Bongbong, and a handful of celebrities. Although the betting is that Villar will have the upper hand, that remains to be seen until the canvassing is completed.

The House of Representatives is another matter. Prior to the election, the alarmists in Manila thought it was a foregone conclusion that Gloria Arroyo would sweep to power as the house speaker. As Asia Sentinel reported on May 14, the election results appear to make that a problem. Instead of the 142 seats Arroyo's Lakas-Kampi-CMD held going in, they appear to have ended up with only 109 out of 159 who ran under the Lakas flag. Aquino's Liberal Party ended up with 44, considerably fewer. But given the notorious proclivity of Filipino politicians to go where the money was in the past, the smart money says Gloria is not going to get the job. It must be said that Arroyo has a considerable amount of money gained from allegedly illegal deals while in office, and a willingness to spread it around.

That leaves Arroyo in an interesting position – formerly the most powerful face in the Philippines, perhaps reduced to minority leader in a house made of members who all are out for themselves, and pursued by Noynoy's forces, who would love to indict her for a wide variety of alleged crimes while in office. It is a question of whether, with the appointment of Corona as head of the Supreme Court, and with the help of the Ombudsman, she can insulate herself from prosecution. On May 28, the Ombudsman's office cleared Arroyo and her husband, Miguel, of complicity in a US$329 million scandal involving the Chinese telecommunications company's ZTE Corp's plan to build a national broadband network.

At a press conference, Aquino denounced the decision, saying his office would prosecute those responsible despite the ombudsman's move.

Perhaps Aquino's best strategy would be to look at that of Fidel Ramos, who may well have been the country's most successful president ever. Although he was elected in 1992 with only 24 percent of the vote in the Philippines' first-past-the-post system, Ramos managed to build a coalition in the Congress to push through some good legislation. He was also able to use the power of his office to open up the national economy, which had largely been closed by Marcos, to invite more foreign and domestic investment and encourage private enterprise. He managed to cure the endemic brownouts that had plagued the country under Noynoy's mother, Corazon, although they have returned with a vengeance in 2010.

By contrast, Noynoy won in a landslide, with 42 percent of the vote. Now the question is whether he is a skilled enough – and ambitious enough – politician to build the coalitions he needs to rule effectively. He is expected to have the help of his uncle, Jose "Peping" Cojuanco, the family patriarch and one of the country's most influential figures, who was elected to the Congress for the first time in 1962, serving as speaker twice. And while between them they may well build a strong coalition, it is unlikely that, unless Noynoy stages an astonishing rebellion, he will do anything about the hold the old families maintain on the economy and the society.