Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Why Benigno should become Philippines president

THE last polls before the election of a new Filipino president show exactly what the front-runner privately predicted -- he would pull away from the competition, and the one-time presumed front-runner, Senator Manuel Villar, would slip far behind to a tie with the disgraced former president, Joseph Estrada, running to redeem himself.
We can now think a bit about what his presidency portends; but first we have to note that his election on May 10 is not the same as his inauguration on June 30. The latter requires the cooperation of the incumbent, Gloria Arroyo, who it's widely assumed will use any excuse to "fail" the elections and remain in the palace. Her administration gives daily assurances that the election will be fair and that the turnover to a new president will be smooth.

Why does no one believe it, and why does the palace feel it necessary to give such reassurances?

The answer is simple. She has put in place everything needed to ensure that she can "fail" the elections. She has tamed the Supreme Court so much that, astonishingly, it voted to sustain her power to make "midnight" judicial appointments, including a new chief justice.

She has revolved the door of the military to put her favourites in the highest positions, and she continues to have the legislature under enough control to do her bidding.

She thought she had the Americans under her thumb, but since the arrival of a new ambassador, who unlike the predecessor intends to be the American ambassador to the Philippines, rather than the Filipino ambassador to Washington, that part of Arroyo's control apparatus has become less predictable.

Finally, she has announced that there will not be parallel manual counts to the new automated system. Her candidates like this; the others, especially Benigno "Noy" Aquino III, do not. "The credibility of automated elections has suffered because the Commission on Elections removed many of the safeguards that were initially set in place -- source code review, ultraviolet mark checking, authenticity check through digital signatures," wrote a prestigious business group to the Palace.

So, vote watch groups will take polls outside stations early in the voting to see if the new machines are being rigged.

Who is the new president-to-be, if the good military, the threat of "Power Power III", and diplomats in Manila have their way and Arroyo leaves on June 30? Not many people would have predicted that Benigno would take the lead in a presidential election, or look so presidential. As a young man he was overwhelmed by his dynamic father, who was assassinated in 1983.

He seemed a little lethargic as a young man and young professional. He didn't particularly stand out in his past posts as senator and lawyer. He's not as quick on his feet as many Filipino politicians.

So why does he have so huge a lead -- 40 per cent to 20 per cent each for his principal opponents? A lot of it is loyalty to his mother, Corazon Aquino, whose death last August brought out a national mourning, thought also to be a demonstration to Arroyo of what a good president should be. But it has to be more than that; his lead has widened despite an originally sloppy campaign organisation.

Well, life is developmental. People change and grow to challenges. His mother exacted his promise to run, on her deathbed. She knew the Philippines needed a wake-up call after nine years of Arroyo's presidency (over a thousand journalists and non-governmental organisationworkers killed so far on her watch). Filipinos understand what's been going on and they want something better.

They sense that Benigno has moral backbone. One of his close friends told me that, unlike his father, he isn't the forgiving type. The father would make deals -- a genuine politician. Noy won't make deals. He's not forgiving where dastardly things have been done. He's made clear that prosecution must go forward if crimes have been committed by or under Arroyo's rule.

His circle of friends is a relaxed bunch and laugh about the disorder in the campaign and in Noy's life in general. But nobody is perfect. What he has is moral order. Although he hails from one of the richest and most powerful families in the Philippines, the Cojuancos, he lives modestly and alone in a Quezon City house. He just won't tolerate corruption, though rooting it out of public life will be wrenching.

He doesn't have any economic expertise, and worries about that, but he knows how to listen, and to put contrary experts in a room to slug out policy options.

The most important thing he has is sincerity and integrity. He's a committed person; committed to a decent Philippines, to the rule of law, and to improving the lot of all Filipinos. He's also been tested; he had to deal with his father's murder, and the repeated attempted coups against his mother, during several of which he was in the palace.

Put it all together and you have a remarkable president-to-be. Everyone in the Philippines prays that the incumbent will have the decency to hand the reins of power over to Noy gracefully and thoroughly. That is the only uncertainty remaining about the election. Filipinos don't want to go back into the streets to sustain constitutionality but at this point, and once again, they are ready.

W.SCOTT THOMPSON professor emeritus at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

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