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Just three years into his tenure as president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III has managed to transform the Philippines from the sick man of Asia into one of its most promising players. The country’s economy is one of the region’s fastest growing, corruption is decreasing, and, thanks to a new peace deal, a Muslim rebellion in the country’s south has died down. Aquino’s success follows more than a decade of hardball politics and sputtering growth under his controversial predecessors, Joseph Estrada, who held power from 1998 to 2001, and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who occupied the presidency from 2001 to 2010. Defying expectations, Noynoy began his term by parting with that legacy and instilling new public trust in state institutions.
In recent months, however, the president’s political fortunes have taken a dramatic turn. Lack of inclusive growth and excessive delays in big-ticket infrastructure projects have chipped away at his political capital, and his approval ratings have declined precipitously. Noynoy has also taken on the judiciary, threatening to upend the country’s existing system of checks and balances. Further, his flirtation with a second term in office, which would require a revision of the 1987 constitution, set off alarm bells among political elites and everyday voters alike. So, too, has his aggressive anticorruption campaign -- a centerpiece of his administration -- which many fear is simply a tool to serve his own political ends. Aquino, it seems, can no longer can take his popularity for granted.
THE WAY UP
Aquino’s supporters believed that his 2010 election represented a potential watershed in Philippine history. As the only son of the country’s leading democratic icons -- prominent anti-Marcos activist Benigno Aquino II and former president Corazon Aquino -- Noynoy, too, fervently believed that the country’s fate rested on his shoulders. Long considered rather unambitious, he decided to run for the presidency after his mother’s death -- an event that spurred calls for the outgoing Arroyo administration, which Corazon had publicly opposed, to face justice for abuses of power.
Once in office, Aquino won early praise for his efforts to establish a clean, accountable government and for his commitment to prosecute corrupt officials. Soon after assuming office, he launched high-profile impeachment trials against Arroyo’s allies, culminating in the dismissal of government Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Renato Corona. In hunting down his predecessor’s henchmen, Aquino laid the groundwork to prosecute Arroyo herself. She is now facing corruption charges in one of the country’s anti-graft courts.
In the eyes of his constituents, Aquino was waging moral crusade against all that was vile and despicable about Philippine politics: the systematic looting of public resources, the consolidation of executive power, and the proliferation of predatory political dynasties -- trends that had reduced a once-promising democracy into one of the most corrupt and unstable countries on the planet.
Supporters also saw him as doubling down on the positive elements of his predecessors’ policies -- things previous presidents had promised but not delivered -- having failed to translate their technocratic capabilities (Arroyo) or mass appeal (Estrada) into a stable political environment.
For example, during the early years of this century, Arroyo had started to streamline the national budget, combat inflation, and stabilize interest rates, but near-constant coup attempts and massive street protests eroded her authority, driving away foreign investors. After her controversial victory in the 2004 presidential election, which was marred by fraud and irregularities, Arroyo’s approval ratings plummeted to about 22 percent.
But after his decisive victory in the 2010 presidential election, Noynoy kept on some of Arroyo’s more competent appointees, such as Amando Tetangco, the head of the Philippine Central Bank. By embracing continuity in economic policy, Aquino injected more predictability into the country’s financial system. At the same time, his good governance initiatives restored a new level of trust in the state, which, in turn, encouraged businesses to invest in the domestic economy. Meanwhile, favorable external trends, such as the steady increases in remittances from millions of Filipinos overseas boosted domestic consumption and improved country’s balance of payments. After clocking in six and seven percent growth rates, Aquino’s popularity reached new heights, reflected in his 70 percent approval rating.
Aquino couldn’t rely on the failures of his predecessors to sustain his popularity forever. Eventually, Filipinos would have to evaluate his policies on their own merit.
That time has seemingly come. Since late 2013, Aquino has repeatedly fallen short of public expectations on a range of critical issues. He first came under fire for refusing to support the abolition of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), a legislative discretionary fund that was at the heart of a huge corruption scandal (local media dubbed it “mother of all scams”). According to a federal investigation, a number of leading legislators pocketed more than $200 million by setting up bogus organizations, which claimed to channel PDAF funds for development projects in mostly poor, rural areas.
Later, when super typhoon Yolanda ravaged much of the Philippines’ central islands in November 2013, the Aquino administration was heavily criticized for failing to prepare local governments or properly assist with reconstruction. Noynoy didn’t help his case by trying to place the blame on the local governments themselves.
On the economic front, too, ordinary citizens have grown frustrated. Despite years of above-average economic growth, poverty and unemployment rates remained stubbornly inelastic. The government has also struggled to sufficiently accelerate infrastructure spending and finalize big-ticket projects to overhaul the country’s decaying infrastructure. But what truly undermined Aquino’s popularity was the growing perception that he had used corruption probes to target opposition leaders, namely Senators “Bong” Revilla, “Jinggoy” Estrada, and Juan Ponce Enrile.
Meanwhile, Aquino has declined to go after members of his own administration and its allies. In September 2013, Senator Estrada accused the Aquino administration of using its own executive discretionary fund, the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), to bribe legislators to impeach Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2011. Then, this past July, the Supreme Court declared the DAP partially unconstitutional. Aquino responded by defending the DAP’s legality, arguing that it was an expedient, counter-cyclical fiscal tool aimed at sustaining economic growth and accelerating infrastructure spending. He refused to accept the resignation of Florencio “Butch” Abad, the budget secretary, who had been accused of mismanaging DAP money. And then the president upped the ante, suggesting that he was open to a second term in order to continue his reform program and clip the powers of the judiciary. The administration also threatened to investigate alleged misuse of the judiciary’s own discretionary funds.
By mid-2014, Aquino’s approval ratings had suffered a double-digit decline, reaching their lowest mark since his election in 2010, according to the country’s two leading polling agencies. In a survey conducted by the polling group Social Weather Stations this past June, Aquino’s approval rating had declined by 11 points in a matter of months. Meanwhile, a survey by Pulse Asia showed a 14-point decline.
But as much as the public has soured on Noynoy, there are also growing worries that the succeeding administration, which will be elected in 2016, will fail to build on the economic and political gains of recent years. Aquino’s preferred successor, Interior Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas, continues to struggle in 2016 opinion polls. Worse, Aquino and his allies reportedly fear they could face political reprisals once they lose power. The DAP scandal, for example, could come back to haunt them under a hostile successor, forming the basis for corruption charges. In many ways, such concerns may explain the increasingly erratic and pugnacious behavior of the once-admired Filipino leader.
As Aquino enters his lame duck years, then, nothing is a sure bet. In a country where there are no genuine political parties, and patronage politics determines day-to-day operations of the state, Aquino faced the Herculean task of building support for his reform agenda. In the process, he may have succumbed to Machiavellian logic: leveraging DAP funds to expedite his good governance initiatives. And in recent months, he has begun to pay a price; he has found it increasingly difficult to remain above the fray as his own administration responds to new scandals. At the very least, however, Aquino’s attempt at cleaning up the state has shown that it’s possible to fight patronage politics in the Philippines -- just not without the risk of dirtying one’s own hands.