At Malacanang, the Philippine presidential palace, talk easily turns to ghosts. When President Benigno Aquino arrives for our interview, we're seated in the Music Room, right next to the old office of Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator Aquino's father was assassinated trying to unseat. A giant portrait of Aquino's mother, Corazon, who succeeded Marcos, hangs in a nearby ballroom. The same walls feature paintings of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Joseph Estrada, Aquino's two predecessors, who both ended up in jail and whose combined 12-year legacy of corruption and neglect haunts Filipinos still.
As the current president settles in for a 90-minute chat, the past hangs like a shadow over our conversation. Aquino's six-year term is all about exorcising the demons of his corrupt predecessors and scaring up a more prosperous path for an economy that had been left for dead. He's won investment-grade ratings and caught the attention of chief executives around the globe. But with just over two years left in office, Aquino's biggest challenge may be to prevent backsliding after he's gone. It's vital that he cement his reforms now, so that when he leaves the palace in 2016, his legacy stands taller and firmer than all the others.
"We are trying to move from personality-based politics to issue-based politics," Aquino explains.
That's a bolder statement in the Philippines than it might appear on the surface. Aquino's direct predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, was lifted into office by the celebrity of her father, Diosdado Macapagal, who was president from 1961 to 1965. She replaced a former film actor -- Estrada -- who was impeached in 2001 for plunder. In 2004, she almost lost to another actor without any governing experience, Fernando Poe. When he died suddenly months after that election, Poe's wife, a popular actress, took up her husband's presidential ambitions.
Given his parentage, of course, Aquino's rise was somewhat personality-based, too. The 1986-1992 presidency of his mother evokes powerful memories for Filipinos. Any shortcomings in Corazon Aquino's governing skills were made up for with heart and dogged perseverance. Nostalgia for that time inspired the masses to urge her son to run for president -- an office his advisers insist he never coveted. But Benigno Aquino is that rare dynastic leader who has confounded the skeptics.
The list of Aquino's accomplishments is well known: increasing tax revenues; going after graft; defying a powerful Catholic Church on population-control efforts; attracting more foreign capital; and investing in infrastructure and education to reduce poverty. But his biggest coup may be this: raising the collective expectations of a nation that had lost all faith in its leaders.
"We draw our strength from our people and our people will not allow backsliding," Aquino says, stressing that "the Filipino people are our bosses."
Now that Filipinos have tasted competent governance, will they settle for anything less? Sadly, history shows how a bad leader or two can set the Philippines back by years. Remember that the days of Fidel Ramos, who succeeded Corazon Aquino in 1992, were drenched in optimism. The reform-minded leader helped avoid the worst of the Asian crisis, even producing a budget surplus in 1997 as Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea were blowing up.
Aquino's predecessors left him with a much bigger mess to clean up, amid a less forgiving global environment. Still, in the remaining two-plus years in his term, he must focus on laying a foundation that those who follow him can build upon. The good-governance reforms he's championed have to be institutionalized. That means strengthening the judiciary, creating a more powerful and fully independent anti-corruption agency, and encouraging freer watchdog groups to police the government.
Doing more to clamp down on rampant smuggling at the Bureau of Customs would free up tens of billions of dollars to improve education, fund new airports and build better power grids to reduce the cost of doing business. Greater effort must also go into creating well-paying jobs to woo home more of the 10 million Filipinos currently forced to work overseas. At the same time, Aquino must be careful that an economy growing at a rate north of 7 percent doesn't overheat -- a risk he says he's monitoring carefully. “We are very proactive; we’re trying to control any speculative activity,” Aquino says.
Above all, the president would be wise to begin grooming a successor, someone who represents continuity to ensure that Aquinonomics isn't undone by whoever comes next. Leaving presidential succession to chance could imperil the virtuous cycle Aquino has unleashed.
The ghosts of past leaders aren't dead. Imelda Marcos, the shoe-loving widow of Ferdinand, still sits in Congress, while her son is a senator and her daughter is a provincial governor. Arroyo also has a congressional seat, while Estrada left prison only to be elected mayor of Manila. The room is heavy with understatement when Aquino stresses that "there’s so much to be done in this country.”
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @williampesek.)
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