Saturday, March 27, 2010

Filipino Political Scion Set to Assume the Mantle

QUEZON CITY, the Philippines

THE couple’s only son, he had never shown his father’s raw political ambition or his sense of a predestined place in this country’s history. He had, more like his mother, occupied the low-key, public role expected of him until circumstances forced him to act.

Benigno S. Aquino III, 50, despite being the only son of the Philippines’ two democracy icons, had a quiet, unremarkable career as a lawmaker, overshadowed by countless politicians of his generation. By his own admission, he had never imagined himself leading this country. But he now finds himself the front-runner in the May 10 presidential election.

The nation’s emotional reaction to the death of his mother, former President Corazon C. Aquino, last August led to calls for his candidacy. After some public waffling, Mr. Aquino, known as Noynoy, accepted, though not before spending half a day inside a convent for guidance.

A quarter of a century earlier, his mother also visited a convent before agreeing to run against Ferdinand E. Marcos, the American-backed autocrat whose soldiers had gunned down her husband, Benigno S. Aquino Jr., the opposition leader known as Ninoy, at the airport in Manila. After Mr. Marcos tried to steal the election, Mrs. Aquino was thrust into the presidency on the strength of “people power,” a large-scale, nonviolent protest in the capital.

Asked whether he harbored doubts, Mr. Aquino, who is single, said: “Well, you know, my friends who have gotten married tell me that they’ve resolved so many issues before they go to the altar. But at the altar itself there are still some doubts that flash in their minds.”

With less than two months left before election day, though, some of the popular emotion surrounding his mother’s death has lost its intensity and Mr. Aquino’s lead in the polls has started to shrink, perhaps as a result. Criticism that he offers little besides lineage has been sharpened by the fact that his closest rival, Manuel Villar, a senator, rose from poverty to become one of the Philippines’ richest businessmen.

ON a recent morning, in a middle-class neighborhood, Mr. Aquino sat down for nearly 90 minutes at the family home, a modest, one-story house that has belonged to the Aquinos since 1961. It is where Mrs. Aquino lived until her death, and where the son now lives alone. In a living room dominated by portraits of his parents, Mr. Aquino spoke of channeling his mother’s people power movement to victory. He promised to break with the Philippines’ corrupt political culture, trying to capitalize on widespread disillusionment with the deeply unpopular President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is prevented from running again by term limits.

“We believe if it is the people’s campaign, then our bosses are very clearly defined,” he said in a voice made raspy from campaigning and smoking.
Without referring to notes or consulting any aides, Mr. Aquino spoke at length about his priorities for the Philippines: creating jobs and strengthening education, health care and the judicial system. He would seek to recalibrate his country’s relations with the United States, a former colonial power here.

Since 2002, American Special Forces have been operating in the southern Philippines, training the Philippine military to hunt for Islamic extremists. While Mr. Aquino credits the Americans with increasing the Philippine military’s “capability,” he said the United States force should not become “semi-permanent or permanent.” He also said that the Visiting Forces Agreement, the bilateral pact that allows the United States military to hold its servicemen in its custody during criminal proceedings here, “will have to be reviewed.”

“I get the impression at times that in our relation with America, they seem to follow the mold of a corporation that has to report to its stockholders every year, as opposed to thinking about generating a long-term relationship,” he said. Policy debates and party loyalty have little influence on campaign outcomes in the Philippines, where families dominate.

So his campaign rallies are punctuated by the color, symbolism and music that evoke, in his mostly middle-class supporters, the martyrdom of his father and the promise of his mother’s people power uprising — leaving aside Mrs. Aquino’s more mixed record as president.

Inside a sports stadium here, Mr. Aquino walked onto the stage to “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” the song that was the theme of his parents’ movement and recalled his mother’s trademark yellow dresses. The event ended with “The Impossible Dream,” the favorite song of his father, a precociously successful politician who came to embody the democratic opposition to Marcos. Before he was killed, the father had extended his ambitions to his only son, in a letter whose contents were highlighted at the rally: “Son, the ball is now in your hands.” Mr. Aquino, who has four sisters, said his father had great expectations of him because he was the only son.

“When I was younger, I think at one point, I was top three in my class. I was really, really proud of being in the top three because the other two were really nerdy individuals I couldn’t see myself being,” he recalled. “And my dad said, ‘Why only top three?’ ” BUT Mr. Aquino’s reliance on his parents’ legacy, coupled with a modest legislative record, has begun to draw increasing criticism. “He can’t forever depend on his name and hisparents,” said Bobby Tuazon, director of the University of the Philippines’ Center for People Empowerment in Governance. “It’s becoming too obvious.”

Supporters say Mr. Aquino was unable to propose laws simply because he was in the political opposition. More than anything, supporters point to Mr. Aquino’s probity, though some wonder whether he will be tough enough to rein in the kind of corruption that flourished in the government of his mother, who was also considered personally honest.

Critics say that Mr. Aquino, like his mother, will be unable to push through policies, like land reform, that go against his extended family’s interests. “All the major candidates have similar economic programs,” said Alberto Lim, executive director of the Makati Business Club, an influential organization. “The reason we support Noynoy is that he hasn’t used his post in government to enrich his business.”

Other backers also express their support of Mr. Aquino, though, tellingly, in sometimes defensive terms. He is widely regarded as a tepid campaigner who, despite improving his public speaking, rarely electrifies crowds.

Mr. Aquino says he has enjoyed meeting people at rallies but recoils at what he describes as the “circus aspects” of campaigning. He has allowed his sister Kris, one of the country’s most famous entertainers, to pick out new clothes for him. But he has rejected advice to work on his thinning hair or get Botox injections. He said he was comfortable being himself, though he was keenly aware voters would invariably compare him to his parents.

“I never sought to compete with them because I believe that was a test that was not possible,” he said. “Early on after my dad died, these ardent supporters would say I’m very far from my dad.

“How does one compete with an idea?” he added, alluding to his parents’ struggle for democracy. “So that would be a useless venture on my part. I concentrated on making sure that their sacrifices were not squandered.” By NORIMITSU ONISHI forThe New York Times

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