Triumph for Aquino in the Philippines

The voters Monday delivered Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III a resounding mandate along with nine of the 12 Senate seats his slate of candidates were contesting. In the process, voters ignored a last-ditch campaign by the Catholic Church to defeat candidates who had voted for the Reproductive Health Act passed last December.

Only about 70 percent of votes had been counted by Wednesday evening. However, given the trend the vote against the church was historic, demonstrating both the waning power of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, which had kept the birth control bill bottled up for 14 years until it was signed into law last December, and the rising clout of the president, Aquino finished the first three years of his term with a 72 percent approval rating, the highest in the country's history at this juncture. The church had vowed to defeat by name candidates who voted for the reproductive health measure.

Despite the fact that 86 percent of Filipinos call themselves Catholics, 75 percent prior to Monday's vote approved the reproductive health act's passage. Now it remains to be seen if the government will try to push through a law liberalizing divorce. The Philippines is the only country in the world that does not allow divorce, although laws are widely flouted and expensive, time-consuming church annulments are available.

Archbishop Ramon Arguelles, who had publicly endorsed senatorial bets against Aquino's slate, conceded defeat Tuesday, saying in a text message to the Philippine Daily Inquirer that he was "resigned that the country is not yet ready for better things."

Besides 12 of the 24 Senate seats, all 229 seats in the House of Representatives and 18,000 gubernatorial, mayoral and other seats on the country's 2,000 inhabited islands were up for grabs.

Aquino's Senate slate triumphed over one advocated by his vice president, Jejomar Binay, which managed to win three seats, including one by Binay's own daughter, Nancy, a housewife who appeared to have landed on the list purely by the strength of the Binay name. Binay, the former Makati mayor, is expected to be a front-running candidate for the presidency when Aquino finishes in 2016 and is expected to take on Aquino's close ally, Manual Roxas II, whom he defeated for the vice presidency in the 2010 race.

Binay did have better luck with the Manila mayoral race, where Joseph "Erap" Estrada, in a resuscitation of sorts, triumphed over the incumbent Alfredo "Dirty Harry" Lim, Aquino's candidate. Estrada was driven from the presidency in 2001 by popular protest over corruption charges but recovered to finish second to Aquino in the 2010 presidential sweepstakes.

Other controversial winners included former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whom Aquino has been trying to jail for three years, and who retained her House seat, running from a hospital room where she has been confined while accused of corruption. Likewise, several members of the Marcos family retained their political seats, including Imelda, the wife of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, who retained her House seat as well.

With the election having gone quite smoothly and the bishops polished off handily - and with a minimum of the usual electoral violence, with only seven shot dead in Mindanao - the question is where Aquino goes from here. The vote gives the president not only control of the upper house but the chance to try to force through major changes that have hampered the economy and society as a whole during the three years remaining to him in office. He is expected to turn to education reform and to seek ratification for the Philippines' participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks sponsored by US President Barack Obama.

The President reportedly has plans for a series of measures to strengthen fiscal discipline and drive up tax collections. A long-stalled initiative to open the country's vast mineral resources to international mining companies may be in the wings, along with liberalized labor laws. The Catholic Church in the past has rejected liberalization of mining laws and allowing for less restrictive labor laws. It is unsure whether Aquino, who was threatened with excommunication over his advocacy of the reproductive health law, will seek to take the church on again.

Corruption, a Philippine malady, is expected to be addressed. So far, Aquino's efforts to clean the stables appear to be limited to arresting Arroyo and driving two of her chief allies, Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona and Ombudsman Merceditas Guiterrez, from office. That has made it appear that his quest for justice is rather a quest for vengeance. The police force remains unrelievedly corrupt, The daily corruption that grinds the lives of common Filipinos almost across the entire society - "tea money" to get anything done, or get police off the backs of traffic offenders, remain as ubiquitous as ever.

It should be noted that Aquino has also made a strong effort to straighten out a corrupt government tender process, reversing several projects put in place by Arroyo, and replacing the process with a transparent one. Nonetheless, an architect source told Asia Sentinel he set out to bid a project in one province, to be told a whopping 50 percent would have to go to the governor.

Economic problems are at the forefront of the presidential agenda. Although he has been aided by a growing economy, with gross domestic product growing at 6.6 percent in 2012, the second-fastest growth rate in Asean, unemployment hasn't budged, at 7.1 percent, and the recorded poverty incidence remains at nearly 28 percent.

Instead, growth is built on such things as the US$25 billion in inward remittances from the estimated 10 million Filipinos working overseas send back to their families, and a burgeoning business process outsourcing industry that last year surpassed India's to become the world's biggest, employing 700,000 people and expected to contribute US$25 billion to the economy in 2016.

The economy must be broadened if real economic health is to be brought to the country.

Manufacturing, which produces between two and seven jobs for every primary job in the industry, accounts for only 8.3 percent of employment in the country. In order to drive up manufacturing's role in the economy, Aquino must address the question of a constitution that limits foreign ownership of listed companies to 40 percent of the share value. Other restrictive laws prohibit foreign ownership of property.

Likewise, agriculture, which employs 32 percent of the work force, provides only 11.9 percent of gross domestic product. The industry is inefficient and badly organized, with irrigation infrastructure a mess. Despite justifiable pride in rising foreign direct investment by percentage, the country still ranks far behind Asean's leaders in dollar amounts at time when foreign investment in manufacturing is desperately needed. Without it, the country must continue to depend on the relatively fluid sources of overseas remittances and outsourcing.

While the World Bank indicated in its investment report last year that the Philippines received US$1.5 billion in foreign direct investment in 2012 - a 15 percent jump over 2011, it still badly trails its Southeast Asian neighbors in volume, compared with US$8.4 billion to Vietnam, US$8.1 billion to Thailand, US$19.2 billion to Indonesia and US$54 billion to Singapore.

Infrastructure is also in woeful shape. Last week a widespread power shortage broke out in Metro Manila and many parts of Luzon, disrupting metro rail systems and office services. In General Santos City, power shortages cost the Antonino dynasty the election despite the backing of the president.

But in general, despite the problems the country still faces, the election represents a major triumph for Aquino and his Liberal Party slate of candidates. International markets have been reassured that the voters knew what they were doing.