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 Aquino has task of cleaning up Philippines

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PostSubject: Aquino has task of cleaning up Philippines   Fri May 21, 2010 1:48 am

There is a timeless quality to Philippine politics. The names in any election are familiar, as are the issues.

Yet even in this amberlike world, the most recent presidential election seemed particularly populated by ghosts. In the top slot, Mr. Benigno Aquino III, son of the slain human rights icon and a sainted mother who served as president, squared off against, among others, Mr. Joseph Estrada, a faded film star and former president who was removed from power. In congressional races, the Marcos name was scattered across ballots, as was that of outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Mr. Aquino prevailed in the presidential vote and looks set to follow in his mother's footsteps as president. His struggle against the established order in Manila will be no less monumental than was hers. He has pledged to run a corruption-free administration, to end the insurgencies that have dominated Philippine national affairs for decades and end the poverty that cripples a nation whose fortunes once rivaled those of Japan. History suggests he too is likely to be frustrated in that endeavor.

Like his mother, Mr. Aquino is an unlikely president. She was propelled to state office in 1986 following the assassination of her husband, Benigno Aquino Jr. on the airport tarmac after his return to Manila from exile in 1983, riding the "people power" wave that forced Ferdinand Marcos from power. She brought democracy back to the Philippines, but her legislative achievements fell short of her ambitions: The country remained in the grip of large landed families — like her own — frustrating efforts to end endemic poverty, and facilitating the corruption that scars the country's economy and society.

Mr. Aquino entered the House of Representatives in 1998 and moved on to the Senate in 2007. He claimed to have no presidential ambitions until the death of his mother. The outpouring of grief upon her death last summer inspired him to run for the top office. It was likely her legacy, more so than his own meager legislative record, that carried him to victory.

In the nine-way election for president, Mr. Aquino claimed more than 40 percent of the votes, besting his closest rival, Mr. Estrada, by a substantial margin. Mr. Estrada has cried foul, but there is no hope that spoiled or miscounted ballots will make a dent in the 5 million-ballot deficit he faces.

Nonetheless, the former president has said he will only accept defeat when a joint session of Congress completes its tally of votes as required by law.

Mr. Aquino has said that once confirmed in office, his first priority will be to restore faith in government by running a clean Cabinet, investigating corruption and restarting peace talks with disaffected Muslim and Marxist groups. He has promised to investigate contracts awarded by his predecessor in her last six months in office.

The struggle between Mr. Aquino and Mrs. Arroyo is likely to define his presidency. Allegations swirl around the former president, and many in the Philippines believe she used her office to enrich her family and friends. One of her final acts was appointing Mr. Renato Corona, her former chief of staff, as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Most observers consider the appointment to be a way of blocking any future investigations into her conduct while in office. While the decision to appoint Mr. Corona was legal, it violated protocol, coming so soon before her term ended. Mr. Aquino has said he is inclined to take his oath of office from a justice of the peace in his hometown rather than before Mr. Corona.

But even if the appointment is overturned — and the odds are long — Mrs. Arroyo will have other means to block investigations into her behavior. She won her own seat in the legislature, and will join her son and brother-in-law. Her allies will nominate her to be speaker of the House of Representatives, the fourth most powerful position in the country. From that post, and aided by the fractious nature of Philippine politics — it takes just 30 legislators to launch an impeachment bid — she may be able to stymie any inquiries into her administration.

The prospect of bogging down his administration in such struggles may be enough to turn the new president's attention elsewhere. He has a full agenda. Over a third of the Philippines' 90 million inhabitants live on less than $1 a day. More than 8 million Filipinos have been forced to leave the country to find employment. Vast economic disparities have created two violent and enduring insurgencies — and the violence blocks development that might improve economic prospects. Corruption is a problem that may convince Mr. Aquino that looking forward is more productive than looking back.

Of course, if he is seen to be turning a blind eye to misdeeds, his administration has no chance of succeeding. Mr. Aquino's record is such that he is trading on a reputation. That is a shaky foundation for success, but it can suffice. We wish him luck. He will need it.
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