Philippine President Aquino Faces Growing Trouble

After five years of relatively stable government – for the Philippines, anyhow – President Benigno S. Aquino III has found himself with trouble on several different fronts and with his once-formidable popularity descending rapidly.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin acknowledged in a Senate hearing on Feb. 13 that coup rumors are circulating although seasoned political analysts give them little credence. Despite the rising crescendo on social media, Aquino appears secure enough.

The immediate cause, although not the only one, is a disastrous firefight that occurred on Jan. 25 between an elite police unit and Muslim rebels during a raid in Mampasano on the island of Mindanao, which killed 44 officers and angered many Filipinos for the seemingly badly botched and secretive planning.

The president and his cabinet have been hunkered down since the incident took place. Critics are charging that Aquino went outside the normal police planning process to set up the raid to catch two notorious terrorist rebels and that Alan Purisima, the national police chief who was forced to resign last month over allegations of corruption, may still have had an operational role in the raid despite his suspension.

Fidel Ramos, who reigned as perhaps the country’s best chief executive in recent history from 1992 to 1998, publicly rebuked Aquino for breaking the chain of command by keeping it out of the loop over the operation.

“As commander in chief, not as President, he broke the chain of command,” Ramos said in a TV interview.

Both the president and Purisima have said they were involved in the pre-planning stages but not in the execution of the raid, however.

A number of Catholic Church leaders, still smarting over the president’s successful crusade to pass a reproductive health bill in 2012, took advantage of the public dissatisfaction to call for Aquino’s resignation. But the president isn’t running for reelection and has enough support from lawmakers in his own Liberal Party to stave off impeachment, a distinct legal possibility if Purisima was involved in the operation despite his suspension.

Despite his descending popularity, Aquino continues to enjoy a level of public acceptance that probably precludes a coup attempt like the many that marred the presidency of his mother, Corazon Aquino. But he has clearly lost considerable traction in his bid to name his successor for national elections that must be held in May 2016. From the start of his presidency, Aquino has sought to prepare the way for his friend and associate, Manuel A. Roxas, to succeed him. But Roxas has stumbled repeatedly during the president’s reign, appearing both arrogant and weak.

With the president’s disappearing clout, it appears more likely that Aquino’s endorsement would be a millstone around the neck of the person he would endorse, although if he were to regain his footing, it could change among a traditionally forgiving populace.

With Vice President Jejomar Binay and members of Binay’s family in serious trouble from the widely publicized evidence of vast amounts of what appear to be illegally acquired wealth, Binay, thought to have a lock on the presidency, could be fatally crippled as well. While the allegations of Binay’s vast wealth may have been generated by the elite establishment connected to Aquino, they seem to be genuine. That would leave the presidential race open to people who have yet to appear as strong candidates.

The bigger risk for Aquino now is the threat to the peace agreement he has spent much of his presidency hammering out with Muslims in Mindanao. That is the Bangsamoro Basic Law creating an autonomous region on Mindanao. The Mamasapano shooting, in which rebels are said to have murdered policemen who were wounded and incapacitated, has caused public outrage towards the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which doesn’t appear to have played a role in the shooting. The agreement still must be voted upon in the Philippine congress, and if that is construed as a vote in support of the rebels, lawmakers are likely to run for cover.

Aquino, immediately after the shooting, sought to calm the situation, calling for a day of mourning but saying the peace process has taken years to reach a point close to becoming a reality and must continue. He and his allies have tried to frame the agreement as a benefit to the country and not just one that benefits the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, with whom he is attempting to conclude the agreement. The public largely wants none of that. They see 44 dead officers, some slain as they were lying wounded and defenseless.

Aquino has also faced considerable criticism over his seemingly tone-deaf stance towards eliminating discretionary funds accruing to his office despite the political fallout from the massive pork-barrel scandal of 2013, in which scores of lawmakers including some of the most prominent pocketed vast amounts of money supposedly targeted towards building infrastructure or social projects in their district. Three of the most prominent – Juan Ponce Enrile, Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada, the son of former President Joseph Estrada, and Ramoin “Bong” Estrada, all have been indicted.

When Aquino’s office was discovered to have a similar account, the Supreme Court ruled it illegal. Aquino responded by threatening an impeachment campaign in the Senate against the members of the Supreme Court who had voted against him.

Aquino hopes to use 2015 to launch 16 long-delayed public-private partnerships totaling US$11.6 billion in an attempt to upgrade the country’s infrastructure, which has to rank among the poorest in Southeast Asia. That could result in a major boost for an economy that slowed slightly in 2014 but finished the fourth quarter with a still healthy 6.90 percent GDP growth.

Arguably Aquino’s signature accomplishment is a major cleanup of the country’s tender process. But that has meant years of delays in getting the badly needed projects off the ground, especially after he cancelled several that were already underway under the scandal-ridden regime of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who remains under house arrest on charges of plunder.

Given a crippled presidency, it is unsure if the strong national leadership needed to overcome the political hurdles from politicians anxious to fill their pockets can be overcome. With the Mamasapano issue continuing to distract a cornered leadership, the projects could be in danger. With a burgeoning population and growing economy feeling the strains of inadequate infrastructure, Malacanang can’t afford the distraction.