Is Aquino Just A Popular Version of Arroyo?

In an excellent piece for the Guardian newspaper, Slavoj Žižek makes reference to the work of philosopher Jean-Claude Milner who he says

proposed the notion of the “stabilising class”: not the old ruling class, but all who are committed to the stability and continuity of the existing social, economic and political order – the class of those who, even when they call for a change, do so to ensure that nothing really will change (emphasis mine).

Žižek asserts that the key to electoral success in 2012 was in a party’s ability to win over this class, which is what President Obama did by pitting his stable leadership against the radical changes proposed by the “Republican market and religious fundamentalists”.  Even now, Mitt Romney proves just how disconnected he is when he characterised as providing “gifts” to minorities the policies that Obama took to the electorate.  As for President Obama’s first term, Žižek goes on to say that

(m)any disappointed by his presidency held against him precisely the fact that the core of his much-publicised “hope” proved to be that the system can survive with modest changes (emphasis mine).

The same can be said of President Noynoy Aquino’s election in 2010. As the “hope and change” candidate of that electoral cycle, the people that elected him were merely seeking to restore the Philippines to the state his mother had left it in back in 1992. The purpose of his candidacy was to pull the country back from the brink of destruction and restore dignity and faith in the political system.

The very thesis of Corazon Aquino’s presidency was to prove that the pre-Martial Law, landed gentry could govern with self-restraint. For as long as the ruling class could manage to do so, the system of governance that she put in place would be able to accommodate the demands of the masses. For as long as there remained some modicum of decency (what Filipinos call delicadeza) from elites, any radical overhaul of the system could be avoided.

This is perhaps why President Aquino has so far shied away from pursuing any structural change in his campaign against corruption. This could be why he put off proposing any new revenue measures like the indexation of sin taxes until now. It could also be why despite promising to support reproductive health reforms he initially backed away from supporting it once in office. And it could also be why he signed into law the anti-cybercrime bill that many have derided for restricting freedom of expression, and why he is against tinkering with the constitution.

Instead of introducing change through these measures, Mr Aquino’s administration cranked up the programs and policies pursued by his predecessor, namely the conditional cash transfers program, universal kindergarten education, PhilHealth expansion, the anti-tax cheat program called RATE, business process outsourcing and tourism promotion and the euphemistic “fiscal consolidation” program. These were all begun by Mrs Arroyo whose popularity never seemed to benefit from them.

So, to mimic Žižek who rhetorically asked whether Obama was just “Bush with a human face”, can we also pose the question, “Is PNoy simply a popular version of PGMA?”

In the case of Obama, Žižek gives us reason to disagree with the assertion that he is merely Bush with a human face in that

(a)lthough his healthcare reforms were mired in so many compromises they amounted to almost nothing, the debate triggered was of huge importance. A great art of politics is to insist on a particular demand that, while thoroughly realist, feasible and legitimate, disturbs the core of the hegemonic ideology. The healthcare reforms were a step in this direction – how else to explain the panic and fury they triggered in the Republican camp?

In a previous post on this topic, I likened the debate America was having on healthcare with the one the Philippines is currently engaged in with respect to the reproductive health reform measure in Congress. Both touch on a nerve that is fundamental to the psyche of each nation with respect to the choice being considered and challenge each country’s default position with regard to the role of the state in each case.

Unlike Obama however who chose the issue of healthcare as the transformative one that would define his first term in office, despite the fact that the budget and economy were looming large as potential roadblocks to his re-election, President Aquino hasn’t really staked his presidency on any signature issue, save for impeaching Mr Corona and jailing Mrs Arroyo.

In the case of Mr Aquino, the victories over the former chief justice and ex-president respectively start to ring hollow among his supporters who don’t necessarily see the anti-corruption campaign continuing in the future under Mr Aquino’s likely successors. For them, a set of insurance policies to mitigate against any potential backsliding is required but does not seem to be forthcoming from Mr Aquino’s current leadership (or lack thereof) when it comes to the Freedom of Information bill and other similar measures.

As they see the potential dominance of the Binays, Estradas and Pacquiaos in our national political landscape for years and years to come, many are also beginning to call for the fulfilment of the anti-dynasty provisions in the constitution. Again, it does not seem as though the president will be leading on this issue. For the “will of the people” to be fulfilled, no restriction ought to be placed on their choices, he would probably say.

That so called choice presupposes however that people are indeed free to decide on their own. The framers of our present constitution perhaps knew intuitively that for this to be so, people would need to have a certain level of economic freedom and independence. Until such was achieved, they must have felt certain restrictions needed to be in place. What Milner describes as the stabilising force is nothing but a healthy middle class.

Unlike President Obama who broke with economic orthodoxy by bailing out the auto-industry and giving subsidies to clean tech companies in the hope of saving and creating jobs with living wages, President Aquino and his team feel no need to intervene in the appreciation of the peso to support our manufacturing base which is needed to grow the middle class.

For Mr Aquino, the fact that he can demonstrate the ability of the ruling class to govern with a level of integrity ought to be enough to ensure that things never go back to the way they were under Mrs Arroyo. For his fellow dynasts who supported his candidacy and form part of his ruling coalition, however, the fact that Mr Aquino thinks this way guarantees that things will indeed go back to “business as usual” when they get their turn in the driver’s seat.

Doy Santos aka The Cusp

Doy Santos is an international development consultant who shuttles between Australia and the Philippines. He maintains a blog called The Cusp: A discussion of new thinking, new schools of thought and fresh ideas on public policy ( and tweets as @thecusponline. He holds a Master in Development Economics from the University of the Philippines and an MS in Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University.

  • UPnnGrd

    Side-topic : Apparently PersiNoyno learned a lesson from the Cybercrime thing. Brief history — Pinas legislators wink-wink inserted provisions into the final draft and then wink-wink PersiNoynoy signed the bill into law. So PersiNoy is aware that China can play the same trick. Sure enough, PersiNoy was able to stop Cambodia attempt to insert that ASEAN countries had reached consensus that there will not be internationalization of the West Philippine Seas/Spratlys-Scarborough disputes.

  • UPnnGrd

    Missing is the timeline. In case some have already forgotten it, GuLLOOO was for a periodof time…. ggguuuLLLOOOO was a popular president.

    So maybe Noynoy now is as popular a president as when gguuLLOO was a popular president.

    Food for thought —– gguuLLOOOO became an unpopular president in the tail years of her term. History has shown, though, that becoming unpopular is near-impossible for presidents who are children of former presidents, so life under Noynoy will always be supra-okay.

  • Doy is that bad? Would we rather that Noynoy is/be as unpopular as Arroyo? The Filipino people is a discerning people and not ignorant or dumb. They know what is happening around in spite of the hardship of making a living even in such a harsh environment. They knew and they saw the good and the bad about Gloria and the good and the bad about Noynoy and made the judgment accordingly. There were good and enough reasons why Gloria is so unpopular, and why Noynoy is not.

    • Roberto, I think the question here is about change and whether it is really occurring through changes in the architecture of the state, or whether it is simply a case of re-arranging the furniture but essentially retaining the basic structure. To use another analogy, have we just transferred old wine into a new, clean wine skin? As the biblical parable suggests, that won’t hold for long as the wine skin will burst.

      • UPnnGrd

        Noynoy has done constitution-challenging events and changes to the architecture of the state which then set the stage for future Pilipinas presidents to have more dictatorial powers. Two actions — the first being Malakanyang (via sec of justice) can ignore Supreme Court TRO’s.

        Second action — that Malakanyang will not need court approval when Malakanyang wants to listen to the opposition or to KKK’s or to students or priests as these citizens use devices that can do instant messaging or e-mail.

        I chose that word “dictatorial” with precision —- President Noynoy has made serious changes to Pilipinas that then provides future presidents with significantly more dictatorial.powers.

  • Cha

    Your last paragraph says it all, the President seems to think that leading a corruption free government himself is already a worthwhile goal to aspire to. And perhaps, if corruption has not become so endemic in Philippine society, that in itself would actually suffice.

    Unfortunately, like you say, the trapos and “fellow dynasts” as you call them are just lurking in the shadows waiting for the right time to pounce on the hapless Filipino’s coin purse all over again.

    The President is a good and decent man, no doubt. And he deserves to be commended for all that his government has achieved in its anti-corruption drive. But he needs to realise that this is not just about him. It’s about the future. It’s not just about catching the thief that stole Juan’s already meager earnings the other day. It’s about ensuring Juan does not get mugged ever again. It’s not just about today’s breakfast. It’s about never going hungry again.

    • UPnnGrd

      Just lurking in the shadows? Not all are just lurking in the shadows, one would bet. I would suspect that deLima, who was one of GMA’s solid sidekicks in a particular time and place and now is rock-solid sidekick to PersiNoy in this time and place. deLima would say that a few are not exactly lurking in the shadows. Such is how it goesl

      • Cha

        I don’t like Tiglao. I’d stick to the likes of Doy Santos here.

  • manuelbuencamino

    Doy, I agree with most of what you said but “President Obama who broke with economic orthodoxy by bailing out the auto-industry and giving subsidies to clean tech companies in the hope of saving and creating jobs with living wages” ?

    Obama did not break with economic orthodoxy. American economic orthodoxy has always been to subsidize big business, to bail them out when they are in trouble, to give them tax breaks through times of plenty and famine etc. because orthodoxy says they are the job creators. Obama buys into that, he is really one of the boys. He is conversant in their way of thinking and doing. So he favored this industry over that industry but at the end of the day it was still bail-out this and subsidize that.

    Obama’s economic circumstances puts him near the top of the American pyramid. The system has been good to him. Why will he want to change it? Obama wants to put some heart in the system because he understands that heartless capitalism will destroy itself in the end.

    Noynoy, like Obama, is not trying to change things. He is not out to destroy the system that has been good to him. All he wants is to bring back a sense of decency in our society. A sense of decency is the starting point, the foundation. Laws, charter amendments, FOI and all that are mere words in the hands of skillful lawyers. They will find loopholes. So it’s not the letter but the spirit that needs changing.

    When I was doing a lot of work with Capitol Hill many years ago, the line that was always thrown at me was “The Philippines has the most wonderful laws and you would be living in Paradise if only you followed through.” I guess they meant that the problem is not with the system, it is with the soul of society. The constitution speaks of freedom of information, it speaks of dynasty. If we had any sense of decency those constitutional provisions would be followed without any need for legislation. Restoring a sense of decency, or as Noynoy calls it daan matuwid, speaks to the soul.

    You can have all those restructuring laws that you want but they don’t mean anything to bastards. The 1935 constitution did not prevent or survive martial law. As a matter of fact it was used to justify martial law. Only a sense of decency will make beautiful words on paper come alive.

    • UPnnGrd

      Pinoys of Pilipinas has sense of decency, to a point. What Pilipinas does not have that England or USA or Norway has —- a much stronger middle class, enough citizens with enough for them and their children to retire on that they can hold more firmly onto their sense of decency and do battle against Hacenderos-and-their-kind. Again, witness Grace Padaca, whose financials apparently is so bad that P70K and a few hocus-pocus boladas, and ( to a few Pinoys in Pinas and outside Pilipinas ) Grace compromised the professionalism of the office she was invited into.

    • Take the case of the SALN Law, MB, which is another enabling law which the constitution called for. Now those who say that laws don’t matter if the culture doesn’t support it, such as you, have to acknowledge that without the SALN law which mandated all government employees to sign a waiver over their rights to bank secrecy, CJ Corona would not have been convicted successfully.

      The purpose of the law is for society to impose costs on those whom decency fails to motivate to act according to collective social norms. Without such structural pillars in place, the architecture of our governance crumbles. The same goes for the FOI, RH, and yes, the anti-dynasty bill.

      • “The purpose of the law is for society to impose costs on those whom decency fails to motivate to act according to collective social norms. ”

        Very well put. It ought to be mailed to every congressman and the President.

    • GabbyD

      uhm, how do you change the spirit of the law?

  • Yes, well said. I would say the one additional thing Mr. Aquino has brought to office is the hiring/appointing of people who are honest and well intended. It is a good theme.

    But you are right. He rode in on a “big picture” of the Philippines as honest and productive, but he appears not to have a vision bigger than whatever issue is on the table today. And he misses the point entirely that the freedom to speak and HAVE INFORMATION is big picture Philippines. Freedom energizes creativity and problem solving and productivity. Information provides the way to guide progress; if it is hidden behind closed doors, the ship will just float in place. And this ship is corrupt and inefficient. It will stay that way as long as information remains hidden. The President appears to have “gone small” in carping about the media, and promoting libel provisions and right of reply. All elements of authoritarian rule, which, of course, was Arroyo’s main mein.

  • UPnnGrd

    Maybe a reason why Noynoy’s economic programs are in the image of GuLLOO is that Noynoy’s economics lessons stopped with gguuLLOO. ( Contrast to Mar Roxas or BongBong who had gone to overseas B-schools to learn beyond the economics lesson of their college teachers, NoyNoy was happy, and he remained in physical closeness to his Mother Cory. ) I still remember during the campaign months when asked about economics, candidate noynoy’s answer was that he will review his notes from college classes under GuLLOO.