Noynoy Aquino Readies for Center Stage

With the inauguration of newly-elected Philippine President Benigno Aquino III due Wednesday, the composition of his 25-member cabinet hints of a compromise between old faces in politics and the daring style of governance he says he wants to achieve.

Aquino is riding high on his majority win of 42 percent from last May's elections, the highest since the post-dictatorship years nearly 25 years ago from which his mother, the late President Corazon Aquino, rose to power in a popular revolt. His official proclamation by Congress more than two weeks ago stirred emotions and hope that the heir to the country's most revered democracy icon will snap the Filipinos out of apathy, decline and corruption.

A longtime lawmaker who was considered lackluster by many, Aquino has been showing a new, more activist and independent face to his country. He has chosen a dissenting Supreme Court justice to deliver his oath of office, a demonstration of his anger over his predecessor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's post-election appointment of Renato Corona, formerly her legal counsel and spokesman, as chief justice. That was a controversial move that was widely regarded as part of Arroyo's plan to protect herself from allegations of corruption and mismanagement by stacking the courts with her loyal allies.

Arroyo has no friend in Aquino. Both he and his mother called for her resignation in the wake of a massive vote-buying scandal in her 2004 election and he said in his campaign that he would get to the bottom of the myriad financial scandals tied to her and her husband Miguel Arroyo during her nine years in office. When Cory died of cancer in 2009, the family turned down a state funeral as a gesture against Arroyo.

Aquino's immediate and possibly long-term challenge during his six-year term is to help restore public faith in the judiciary – a separate branch of power patterned after the American system – which might seek to thwart his administration's priority to lessen the corruption and patronage embedded in the Philippine culture. Justice has been slow and inept in many cases and where even major crime trials proceed at a snail's pace and where impunity reigns.

Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, the only woman member of the Supreme Court and likewise the only one who went against Arroyo's decision to pick a chief justice despite a ban on appointments during an election period, has since been perceived as having the moral ascendancy in the highest court whose shaky reputation has recently been brought to light. Aquino has also given the justice portfolio to a woman, Leila de Lima, the former head of the human rights commission, who is known to be an outspoken and feisty lawyer.

Unlike his mother, who had the revolutionary backing to undo Ferdinand Marcos's dictatorial rule, Aquino must "follow the law, taking care not to further undermine the very institutions that Gloria relentlessly abused," wrote Randolf David, a prominent sociologist in his popular newspaper column. Aquino, he said, is about to inherit the same problems his mother did: graft and corruption, rising poverty, politicized military, weak economy, unabated criminality, and insurgency.

The incoming president, whom he called P-Noy – a play of words combining the Tagalog term for Filipino and the president's nickname – could carry out his vision of reform in a culture not lacking in resources, and "so long as that vision is clear, he need not be deterred by the land mines that his predecessor has planted all over."

As things stand, there has yet been no significant resolution to the massacre of 57 people, 30 of them journalists and other media workers, in the shocking killing spree that took place in Maguindanao, a strife-torn province on the southern island of Mindanao last November, involving a Muslim political clan close to Arroyo. The only eyewitness willing to testify was killed under unclear circumstances, thus delaying a verdict that many fear may end badly in any case.

Last week three journalists were murdered in separate incidents, apparently related to post-elections, bringing the toll to 107 killed during Arroyo's term. In light of these events, the US State Department came out publicly to call for an end to the killings, saying it would support efforts to investigate and prosecute them.

Aquino has described his idea of a justice secretary as someone possessing the caliber of the legendary American crime fighter Elliot Ness in the 1930s. He says he wants the department to be the "face of the prosecution" against crime syndicates, drug lords, and smugglers. "Are you ready? Is your family? There will be a drastic change in your lifestyle; even your children could be at risk," Aquino was quoted as telling his prospective appointee.

There has been a heightened sense of anticipation as Aquino sets about selecting his advisers and key officials, making it clear that he would undo Arroyo's 200 midnight appointments in the waning days of her administration. He has already engineered the departure of the powerful Armed Forces chief of staff. Gen. Delfin Bangit, Arroyo's chief of the presidential guards, who was regarded as having been rewarded with the top military post for his loyalty rather than merit. When Aquino announced that he would not let him stay on the job, Bangit had no choice but to step down a year ahead of his mandatory retirement.

Earlier it had been assumed that Mar Roxas, his vice-presidential running mate and the man who had provided considerable funding for his campaign, would play a major role in the cabinet, Aquino's allies have spread the word that Roxas would be a member of his cabinet but wouldn't be more important than others, which probably smarts, because Roxas had stepped aside to the lesser role so that Noynoy could run.

It was not surprising that Aquino chose a retired general, Voltaire Gazmin, who was chief of his late mother's presidential security guards, to be his defense secretary. Gazmin is among those in his close circle and one he feels he can trust to choose the right generals, to keep the military professional and in check. His mother suffered major setbacks in eight coup attempts – one of which almost killed Noynoy -- when she knew little what to do with a politicized army that had grown powerful during the years of martial law of the Marcos period.

Aquino appears to be less sentimental when it comes to politicians harking back to the old days of his mother's era when they were fighting in street protests together against Marcos -- whose children have won local seats and have offered gestures of cooperation with Aquino. He has, for example, refused the overtures of Vice President Jejomar Binay, who won by a margin of less than a million votes against Mar Roxas. Binay was among the lawyers who had gathered support for Aquino's mother, who had subsequently appointed him mayor of the country's financial district, which has remained his bailiwick throughout these years, generating allegations that he had enriched himself.

Binay had wanted the post of the interior department, one of the most powerful seats in the cabinet, in charge of the national police and all local government units. Aquino was apparently turned off by his maneuvering through associates from Cory's friends and family, sources say; and he has instead chosen an unassuming former city major of the Bicol region who has received high marks in good governance and has won the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize for his leadership style.

By tradition, Philippine vice presidents normally get the concurrent position of the foreign affairs department as a way of keeping close links with America the former colonial master. That has changed considerably over the past two decades; and the current foreign affairs secretary (who has learned to play both sides with Arroyo and Aquino) will keep his post, but only for a year as a strict concession.

"It will depend really on Aquino, not his group, not his family," said analyst Mon Casiple, head of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. "It will reflect his choices based on his ideas and platform." And so far, he added, the new president seems to be doing just that.

He ultimately will face the challenge that cast a shadow over his mother's years in office – agrarian reform of the family landholdings, the 6,500-hectare * Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac. Violence erupted in 2004 over the retrenchment of workers at the property, eventually leaving seven people dead. Critics say Aquino will only be able to prove his revolutionary credibility when the Hacienda Luisita land is redistributed fairly.

*Story corrected to reflect reader comment