Aquino’s legacy: His final SONA

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Editor's Note: Richard Heydarian, is an assistant professor at the Political Science Department of De La Salle University. He has written several pieces, along with some books, on East Asian geopolitics. The views expressed here are his own.

(CNN Philippines) — Genuine political reform is no easy feat, especially in a country like the Philippines, which has been dominated by a fairly coherent oligarchy for much recent history. Since many powerful forces have a stake in preserving the status quo, real change demands extraordinary leadership, an element of luck, popular support, and immeasurable time and energy.

In a nation where forgiveness and forgetfulness are often interchangeable, the political elite — despite its numerous mishaps and predatory behavior under various colonial masters in the past and, later, sovereign governments — has managed to constantly rehabilitate its reputation, avoid full accountability, and prevent the kind of political purges, which jolted revolutionary France and reshuffled the political order in many other European, Asian, and Latin American nations in the following centuries.

Despite the formal “democratic” outer layers of our political institutions, the Philippines is fundamentally a country ruled by a select few, who have reduced one of the most promising nations — blessed with an auspicious geography, among the most cosmopolitan cultures, and countless natural riches — into an emaciated nation, which has struggled to graduate out of the lower-middle-income trap for decades.

Yet, the Philippines is also a nation of hope, anchored by a boisterous intelligentsia, a feisty and vigilant media, and a resilient population, which has withstood both man-made and natural disasters since time immemorial. It is a country that stood up against dictatorship, cherishes and instinctively strives for freedom, and constantly seeks peace and dialogue over conflict and exclusion.

It is a nation that has welcomed the persecuted from across the world with utmost generosity of spirit. It is because of the virtues of our nation that Ninoy Aquino never had any second thoughts with proclaiming "The Filipino is worth dying for.” For “Filipino” and the “Philippines” stand for an idea — a welcoming, cosmopolitan nation of freedom in a world filled with so much hatred, pride, and conflict.

Soon, we will be hearing the final State of the Nation Address (SONA) of Ninoy’s son, who will be looking at defending his record as the commander-in-chief of more than 100 million souls, who have looked up to him for leadership, direction, and conscientious governance in the last half-decade.

The balance sheet

Over the past five years, throughout hundreds of articles and opinion pieces (many of them can be found on my Huffington Post column, and you may check a brief overview of Aquino’s struggles I penned for the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine), I have dissected the various dimensions of NoyNoy Aquino’s domestic and foreign policies. So I am not going to delve deeply into the many contentious aspects of Aquino’s policies.

I would dare to argue, however, that Aquino should be, above all, credited for introducing a moral dimension to Philippine politics.

Like no other Filipino leader in recent memory, he staked his political capital in a moral crusade against institutionalized corruption in the country. One can hardly find any comparable leader in recent memory, who has dedicated so much political capital to take on allegedly corrupt officials from all three branches of the government, the executive, the judiciary, and the legislative.

He mainstreamed the concept of “good governance”, constantly reiterating the importance of clean, accountable leadership. Almost singlehandedly, Aquino injected morality into the heart of our long-cynical politics.

In fact, he has done the same thing in the realm of foreign policy, describing the Philippines’ struggle against an expansionist China through the prism of "right vs. might."

No wonder, the Aquino administration has invested so much in the ongoing legal arbitration at The Hague against China, when other claimant countries have mainly focused on proactive diplomatic engagement, robust military buildup, and consolidation of claims on the ground.

Obviously, we can have a healthy debate on how successful and impartial Aquino’s anti-corruption initiatives have been in practice, but no one can deny how vigorously Aquino pursued powerful politicians, who were once seen as almost invincible not long ago.

In short, Aquino “moralized” our broken politics and reintroduced an ethical discourse on the state of our rotten institutions.

Another thing Aquino should be credited for is his correct decision to continue macro-prudential economic policies from the past, which have stabilized the foundations of our economy, introduced an element of predictability into our capital markets, and enhanced the country’s attractiveness to international investors.

Today, the Philippines is no longer seen as the "sick man of Asia."

Institutionalizing reform

But of course, the main problem with Aquino’s economic policy was one of omission rather than commission. In absence of more creative, heterodox policies, the government fell short of ensuring that the growing economic pie will become inclusive.

As a result, much of the newly-created wealth in the country has been swallowed by the elite, while poverty and hunger rates as well as un/under employment rates have virtually remained inelastic.

Without a major boost in our agricultural (land reform is crucial here) and manufacturing sectors (greenfield investments is key), I am doubtful we will be creating inclusive growth anytime soon. Not to mention, we are yet to see a major upgrade in our dilapidated infrastructure, which has discouraged foreign investors and burdened daily commuters.

From afar, it is easy to criticize the government. Some journalists and commentators have regrettably even resorted to ad hominem attacks against a leader, who was voted into power by millions of people and responsible voters. Aquino’s opponents — many belonging to the corrupt factions, which oppose “good governance” as an existential threat — have used all sorts of strategies to demean him and undermine his popularity.

But there is a reason why Aquino remains to be a popular leader, especially when compared to his predecessors in their twilight years in office. Many Filipinos, as credible surveys consistently suggest, do credit Aquino for his good intentions, despite his many shortcomings in practice.

You don’t have to be an expert to realize that with our weak state institutions, hobbled by entrenched networks of political patronage, and only a single six-year term in office, there is just so much a well-meaning leader can do to overhaul a broken political system.

This is why what I look forward to, perhaps more than anything else, in Aquino’s last SONA is how he intends to ensure his reforms will endure beyond his term in office. And what characteristics, if not specific candidate/s, is he going to endorse, if ever.

For sure, Aquino will try to defend his record by presenting a long list of his achievements — and all of these could be subjected to criticism — but everyone knows we are far away from achieving a mature democracy and an inclusive economy.

Genuine reform and lasting change comes on the back of institutions and “effective governance”, not personalities. Good governance will not be achieved unless Aquino’s reforms and best practices are carried forward by his successors.

This is Aquino’s last SONA, so he better use it for not only promoting his own record, but promoting a lasting vision for our country.