Populism and the Revival of Reform: Competing Political Narratives in the Philippines
- Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs
- ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute
- Volume 32, Number 1, April 2010
- pp. 1-28
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The strong showing in opinion polls by Senator Benigno Simeon "Noynoy" Cojuangco-Aquino III since he entered the Philippine presidential election campaign in the autumn of 2009 suggests that the long dominant "richversus-poor" political narrative has been challenged by renewed appeals for "good governance". While reformism was the major narrative in the opposition struggle against the Marcos dictatorship, it was eroded by clientelism and anemic social reforms after the restoration of democracy. Populism emerged as the most effective electoral discourse in the early post-Marcos period, with Joseph Ejercito Estrada coming to dominate Philippine politics by the late 1990s. His friend and fellow actor-politician Fernando Poe Jr. then launched a major campaign for the presidency in 2004 after Estrada had been deposed by an elitist uprising. The incumbent President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, ruthlesslessly broke this actor-politician-based populist electoral connection. Yet she reaped no upper class praise for this neo-traditionalist "success". On the contrary, the widespread corruption and human rights violations (including the notorious Maguindanao massacre) that inevitably results from such a strategy unintendedly set the stage for the revival of reformism. In the face of Arroyo's assault on it, the populist narrative had to be reconstituted. Instead of relying on "movie star populism" with few "command votes", Manuel "Manny" Bamba Villar Jr. has built perhaps the strongest political machinery in the current presidential campaign using his own wealth while employing an innovative form of "applied" populism involving generous gifts to poor contestants on widely viewed television shows. But despite the metamorphosis of populism and the revival of reformism, deep-seated structural problems in the Philippines remain. Without major economic redistribution, the plight of the poor is likely to undermine the success of either a new "reformist" or "populist" president.