Noynoy Pulls It Out

Sitting a few weeks ago with Senator Benigno Aquino III in his family home in Manila, it was hard for me to believe that quiet, unassuming Noynoy, as he is universally known, was really running for president. Even inside the family, he was the forgotten Aquino. His sister is the big celebrity. His mom had been president. His dad was the political star of his generation before he was murdered. Noynoy was always in the background. He was a plodder.

Well the plodder is going to be president after an election that seems to have gone remarkably well both for him and the country.

That outcome was anything but certain. His main opponent, slick real estate developer Manny Villar, also a senator, seemed to have more money than anyone could count and had tied up endorsements from the country’s biggest TV personalities and even boxer Manny Pacquiao.

“Villar has a lot of money,” Noynoy said. “But we think people want change, they want a cleaner government.” At the time, in addition to being behind in money — although the Aquinos are not without considerable resources — the campaign, with its slogan of curbing corruption, was torn by internal feuding. On one side were supporters drawn to the memory of the candidate’s late democracy-icon parents, Benigno, Jr. and Corazon, whose massive funeral last year propelled her son into the limelight. On the other were party hacks from the Liberal Party. The two sides did not see eye to eye on strategy or tactics.

One of Noynoy’s uncles, a senior strategist himself, told me that the combination of Villar’s money and the Noynoy camp’s disorganization could doom the effort.

“We just have to count on the people,” Noynoy said. It sounded painfully naive.

There were also darker rumblings in the more excitable quarters of conspiracy-prone Manila. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who after nine years in office had reached a nadir of popularity, was said to be maneuvering to use new automated voting machines to manipulate a meltdown of the vote itself that would cause a failure of elections that would leave her in office indefinitely. She was said to be gathering allies in the police and military to her side in a last-ditch effort to cling to the ramparts.

The scene, a disorganized, if clean, challenger facing a well-oiled machine in an atmosphere of rumor and fear, was reminiscent of Noynoy’s mother’s campaign for president in 1986 against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. That event, of course, led to the People Power uprising that installed Cory Aquino in office with the help of disaffected colonels and rosary-chanting nuns.

I was in the middle of the 1986 uprising as a reporter, so the prospect of more great political drama in the Philippines was exciting. The reality of a failed election or a disputed result, however, would have been disastrous. The 2001 People Power II revolt that overthrew the corrupt President Joseph Estrada and installed Arroyo in office was more of a coup than a revolution, brought about by the military and a Manila elite that was as embarrassed by Estrada’s coarse ways as his corrupt actions, which were hardly new to the country.

By most accounts they got something worse in Arroyo, who has clung to power through patronage and muscle. She has been accused of massive electoral frau d and her husband and son have been implicated in everything from illegal gambling to crooked dealings with the Chinese government. Her extra-legal rise should have been a sobering lesson in the perils of pitching governments out with street protests. Cory Aquino herself was involved in efforts to depose Arroyo via street action a few years ago, along with a coalition of like-minded reformers. Thank goodness it didn’t work.

For the Philippines — as it did for Indonesia — waiting for an election to achieve change should restore a modicum of stability to a badly tattered political system.

Like many people, I came away from my discussion with Noynoy being reminded more of his mother than his firebrand father. She was a flawed chief executive but she was a decent woman who had the best interests of her nation at heart. Cory was a patriot and she had a steel backbone. Noynoy struck me as similar — not flashy, but honest and decent and stubborn. Maybe this time, an Aquino will get it done for his country. We should all wish him well.

Jakarta Globe

A Lin Neumann is the chief editorial adviser of the Jakarta Globe. He was one of the founders of Asia Sentinel.