Some legacy of Corazon Aquino

Woman Who Ousted Dictator Offers Economy Lessons: William Pesek

Commentary by William Pesek

Aug. 5 (Bloomberg) — “We have to look for new heroes.”

Comments like that sum up why Philippines President Gloria Arroyo may have mixed feelings about the death of Corazon Aquino, who held power from 1986 to 1992.

On the one hand, Arroyo heads a nation in mourning. Aquino was in many ways the moral compass for 104 million people with a highly developed skepticism of anyone occupying the presidential palace. The above statement by Gerardo Ablaza, an executive at Ayala Corp., is no exaggeration. Aquino was a bona fide hero for helping to topple dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

On the other, Arroyo now has less to worry about. Even after being diagnosed with cancer, Aquino was an outspoken Arroyo critic and a rallying point for opposition forces trying to oust the president. The anti-Arroyo movement has just lost a vital voice and, perhaps, its potency.

There are many things Arroyo should learn from Aquino’s life — things that would make Asia’s 13th-biggest economy a more attractive place to invest. Here are three.

One, lead by example. Aquino, who was 76 when she died Aug. 1, never had misgivings about her abilities. She was an accidental president, urged to step up after the 1983 assassination of her opposition-leader husband Benigno Aquino. Her non-violent 1986 uprising against Marcos undid a corrupt leader in power for two decades and inspired street protests around the globe.

Mixed Reviews

Aquino was never shy about questioning her fitness to head a nation in need of able leadership. The tenure of Asia’s first female president gets mixed reviews. Her land-reform programs, aimed at reducing the power of the elite, fell short. Aquino faced a series of military uprisings. Through it all, this smiling and bespectacled woman held the affection of Filipinos.

What Aquino lacked in governing skills she made up for with heart and dogged perseverance. In her glow, Arroyo’s tenure looks more diminished than ever. Arroyo was in Washington when Aquino died, meeting with President Barack Obama and hoping to make a global splash and boost her plunging popularity. The outpouring over Aquino’s death eclipsed Arroyo’s U.S. trip.

Starting in 2005, Aquino called for Arroyo to step down on vote-rigging and corruption allegations. Arroyo’s husband has faced graft allegations that helped fuel massive street protests demanding her ouster.

Leader’s Limitations

Two, know your limitations. Among Aquino’s best decisions was choosing Fidel Ramos to succeed her in 1992. Ramos was as reform-minded a leader as the Philippines has had in decades, and he helped avoid the worst of the Asian crisis. On Ramos’s watch, the Philippines in 1997 enjoyed its last budget surplus.

Ramos set the stage for the economic stability for which Arroyo likes to take credit. The 1998-2001 presidency of actor Joseph Estrada was a setback, one that Arroyo, his vice president, pledged to correct. Estrada was impeached in 2001 and Arroyo took over. Many voters are suspicious that her election in 2004 was fraudulent.

Now, Manila is abuzz with speculation about Arroyo staying in power after her term ends in 2010. Many say she wants to change the constitution to stay in the job so she can fend off legal action over alleged vote-rigging, corruption and human- rights abuses. Opposition lawmakers have failed in three attempts to impeach Arroyo. She denies all the allegations.

Institutions Matter

Aquino knew the limits of her ability to reduce poverty, raise economic growth and reduce corruption. She stepped away gracefully and entrusted the nation to more-skilled policy makers. Arroyo should do the same.

Three, institutions are key. In the absence of a more independent judiciary, regulatory system and freer watchdog groups, the Philippines often seems in the hands of two entities: the Catholic Church and the central bank.

The church wields remarkable power in the Philippines. It also, unfortunately, muzzles any serious discussion of how family planning and population control might reduce poverty in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation. Arroyo has long relied on the support of bishops to stay in power.

Central-bank Governor Amando Tetangco and his predecessor, Rafael Buenaventura, deserve considerable credit for the stability the Philippines is enjoying. Rather than spread the benefits of growth, politicians encourage ever more Filipinos to leave families and venture overseas to work higher-paying jobs. The remittances they send home accounts for 10 percent of gross domestic product.

Aquino’s Lessons

The absence of strong institutions made Aquino one of sorts. With her megaphone and celebrity, she was always there to speak truth to power. And her wake in Manila this week was a who’s who of Filipino luminaries. Even two children of Marcos, the nemesis who had Aquino’s husband imprisoned, had the gall to show up.

Having an Aquino isn’t enough, though. Strong checks on power always hold democracies together better than national leaders do. Their absence perpetuates the risk of “people power” protests that can inhibit democracy as much as they can sometimes safeguard it.

The world has lost an extraordinary leader in Aquino. We can all learn from her accomplishments and ideals. Arroyo would be especially wise to do just that.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: William Pesek in Tokyo at wpesek@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: August 4, 2009 15:00 EDT

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