Aquino’s mixed presidential legacy

Author: Patricio N Abinales, University of Hawaii

President Benigno Aquino III completes his six-year term much less popular than when he began it. His approval rating has dropped from a high of 79 per cent at the beginning of his term to 54 per cent as of September 2015. So what explains his falling popularity?

A handout picture dated and released on 10 November 2015 by the Malacanang Photo Bureau shows Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shaking hands with President Benigno Aquino III inside the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, 10 November 2015. (Photo: APP).

Under Aquino, the Philippines maintained its remarkable 6 per cent growth rate, second only to China in Asia. But job-generation has not caught up. Unemployment continues to hover between 6 and 6.6 per cent. The Philippine poverty rate remains one of the highest in Asia at 16.6 per cent, while income inequality has worsened in the last three years, though the remittances of overseas Filipino workers — which rose to a high of US$28.4 billion in 2014 — mitigate this sad portrait.

Aquino continues to score well on his promise to stem corruption. His predecessor is still in jail on corruption-related charges. The president also ousted a Supreme Court Chief Justice, who was a close ally of former president Gloria Arroyo.

Yet the president also took some hits.

Aquino’s lackadaisical response to the massacre of 51 policemen after an operation to catch a Malaysian terrorist went awry portrayed him as an insensitive leader who cared very little for the welfare of those defending the Philippines.

The activities of some of Aquino’s relatives and family friends have also reflected badly on the president. His cousin, who heads Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport, has been accused of turning a blind eye to a scam by airport police where policemen inserted bullets into passengers’ luggage, ‘discovered’ the weapons and then demanded bribes from the hapless traveller. The former military aide-de-camp of Aquino’s mother, Corazon Aquino, has also been subject to popular derision for his failure to repair the ageing Manila Metro Rail Transit System that has been showing signs of strain, including a derailment on 13 August 2014 that injured 38 people.

A peace agreement between the government and the armed separatist Muslim group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, failed to pass the legislature. Parliamentarians exploited widespread anti-Muslim sentiments among Filipinos for personal political gain. This forced Aquino to give up the fight for a renewed peace deal and pass on the burden of renegotiation to his successor.

But international relations successes have offset these political setbacks.

Aquino has demanded that China stop its reclamation activities in the islands along the West Philippine Sea (also known as the South China Sea) and recognise Philippine sovereignty over that area. On 29 October a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Tribunal admitted the Philippines–China case for arbitration. A final ruling will be made in 2016.

Aquino is quite aware of how puny the Philippine military’s fighting capacities are when compared to China. His efforts to bolster the navy with the purchase of old US coast guard cutters and a squadron of South Korean fighter jets therefore appear largely symbolic.

Aquino has also been pushing the United States to be a more active security partner. US President Barack Obama responded by increasing joint military and naval training between the United States, the Philippines and Japan as part of the US ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy. Aquino’s ‘hardline’ position on the territorial dispute made him popular, but, alarmingly, it also fostered a surge of anti-Chinese sentiment stoked by a nationalist literati.

Still Aquino is set to leave office looking more presidential than he initially appeared. Aquino is also likely to avoid the fate of his two immediate predecessors: jail time for corruption. But Aquino’s legacy could suffer if the electorate once again puts into office a corrupt, inept and unreliable successor.

The current list of aspirants suggests that this could be very well the case. The most competent potential successor, former Secretary of the Interior Manuel Roxas II, is associated with the Philippine oligarchy and has very little support from the lower classes. If Aquino cannot break this recurring presidential curse, he may see his diplomatic and domestic accomplishments go down the drain.

Patricio N Abinales is a professor at the Asian Studies Program, University of Hawaii, Manoa.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2015 in review and the year ahead.