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The Philippines' first automated elections in May 2010 were generally honest and orderly, surprising pessimistic Filipino and foreigner observers alike. "Noynoy" Aquino easily won the presidential race by focusing on his "reformist" credentials, a strategy that his mother (her death in August 2009 led him to launch his candidacy) had adopted against Marcos in 1986. Reformism involves direct media appeals and the claim "I will not steal from you." Two other leading presidential candidates took a more "populist" stance, which also relies more on the media than on clientelism but with the message "I will help you." Interestingly, Aquino's running mate was defeated in the (separate) vice-presidential race by a "populist" candidate, showing this narrative also remains strong. Regardless of whether government grows substantially cleaner under Aquino, most Filipinos will long remain impoverished. This may lead to a pattern of electoral cycling in which greater efficiency and greater equality alternate as the major promises in elections.

On 10 May 2010, Philippine voters went to the polls to elect not only a new president but also a vice-president, members of the national legislature, and numerous local officials—in all about 85,000 candidates competed for some 17,000 offices. Senator Benigno Simeon "Noynoy" Cojuangco Aquino III of the Liberal Party emerged as the winner of the presidential race with slightly more than 42 percent in a nine-candidate field, the largest plurality since the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. But perhaps the biggest story coming out of the voting was the electoral process itself. Despite worries about a fumbled or even a "failed" election, the Philippines' first-ever automated polls were conducted in a generally honest and orderly manner, surprising pessimistic Filipino and foreigner observers alike. Fears of election-related violence—stoked by a horrific November 2009 incident in which 57 people (including several relatives of a gubernatorial candidate plus 32 journalists) were murdered on the southern island of Mindanao—proved exaggerated. On the whole, the 2010 campaign and balloting period proved significantly more peaceful than had its predecessor in 2004.1

In a major upset, Jejomar "Jojo" Cabatauanan Binay narrowly defeated Aquino's running mate Manuel "Mar" Araneta Roxas II for the vicepresidency (long elected separately in the Philippines). Of the twelve of 24 senators up for election, only three of the victors came from Aquino's Liberal Party (with one independent linked to their camp). Other winning senatorial bets included prominent action-movie star Ramon "Bong" Revilla, Jr., and the sons of two former presidents, Ferdinand [End Page 154] "Bongbong" Romualdez Marcos, Jr., and Jose "Jinggoy" Ejercito Estrada. All 268 seats in the House of Representatives were up for election, with somewhat less than a fifth (52 seats) allocated to party-list, sectoral representatives. Leftist parties did well in this arena, as did several "parties" linked to prominent old-style politicians. In the constituency races, Liberal Party candidates won just over 25 percent of the seats in the House while President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's former ruling party won nearly half. But given the presidential power of the purse, Aquino's camp was still able eventually to win control of the House. At the local level, elected officials ranging from provincial governors to town mayors are likely to cooperate with the new administration, since despite recent decentralization efforts they remain dependent on fiscal transfers from Manila.

The Republic of the Philippines has a checkered electoral history that stretches back to the first national polls in 1907 and the days of "colonial democracy" under U.S. tutelage. President Ferdinand Marcos, who first gained election in 1965, began manipulating votes in 1972 as part of a slide toward increasingly authoritarian rule. His theft of the 1986 presidential election brought on his overthrow when the forces of the "people power" revolution rallied against him in the streets of Manila.2 More recently, President Arroyo was accused of rigging the 2004 presidential vote. As citizens of a country that is often described as having the world's slowest elections, Filipinos found themselves "shell-shocked" to hear a spokesman for the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) reporting results from 57 percent of precincts before midnight on 10 May 2010, giving powerful politicians little chance to "influence" the count as had been common in the past.3

Most important, it became clear that Noynoy Aquino held a commanding lead in the presidential race. During the campaign he had consistently led in the opinion polls (which proved highly accurate despite harsh criticism from those lagging in the surveys). This overcame worries that Aquino, an avowed opponent of incumbent president Arroyo (who could not seek reelection but who critics suspected was scheming to retain as much power as possible), might be cheated of victory. The gracious concession speech delivered the next day by Senator Manuel "Manny" Bamba Villar, Jr., one of Aquino's chief rivals, set the tone for an election where very few losers could cry fraud with much credibility.

But the larger significance of this election is that it took place at all. A little less than a decade ago, the Philippines appeared to be on much the same disastrous trajectory as Thailand. There, extraparliamentary protests had set the stage for a 2006 military coup that ousted populist premier Thaksin Shinawatra, poisoning the political climate and leading to violent insurrections by both pro- and anti-Thaksin groups. The Philippines too had seen a bitter split between self-proclaimed "populists" [End Page 155] and "reformists." In early 2001, corruption charges against former film star and populist president Joseph Estrada sparked a middle class–led and military-backed "people-power coup," later granted dubious constitutional legitimacy by the Supreme Court. Estrada's arrest in April 2001 prompted his lower-class supporters to storm the presidential palace in an uprising dubbed "poor people's people power," the Manila equivalent of Bangkok's "redshirt" protests. Estrada's friend and fellow actor Fernando Poe, Jr., ran against Arroyo in 2004, making appeals to the disadvantaged so effective that Arroyo's win was shadowed by suspicions of fraud—allegations which, in many eyes, gained decisive substance when in 2005 an audiotape surfaced on which Arroyo could be heard discussing electoral manipulation with a COMELEC official.

For the next several years, mass protests and bungled coup attempts beset the Arroyo presidency.4 Despite a growing legitimacy crisis aggravated by a series of corruption scandals, Arroyo consolidated power by coopting key players, including Roman Catholic bishops, top military officers, and major business interests. At the same time, reformist civil society groups began to reconsider the wisdom of an insurrectionary approach that had replaced one problematic and widely disliked president with another. Instead of the "outside" game of street protests, Arroyo's foes began to focus on "inside" efforts to stop constitutional changes that they feared would keep her in power. In a conciliatory gesture, COMELEC ruled that former president Estrada's "truncated" term meant that he could run in 2010 despite a constitutional ban on second terms. (It is hard to imagine Thaksin being permitted to run again in Thailand.) By returning to the electoral path, the Philippines avoided the Thai road toward civil war.

Competing Narratives

The crucial moment in the 2010 Philippine presidential campaign was a "black swan": former president Corazon "Cory" Aquino's death of cancer on 1 August 2009.5 Millions of mourners poured into Manila's streets to honor a former president widely considered a saint.6 The groundswell of grief over his mother's death proved a political boon to Noynoy, who announced his presidential candidacy on September 9. As one columnist had observed a few weeks before, "there is something about the Aquino franchise that evokes magic"—a surprising but true observation in a country whose citizens both criticize political dynasties and affirm the possibility of positive familial "legacies."7 As another journalist explained, Noynoy was able to draw support "from the public service record of his mother and his father, the martyred former Sen. Benigno S. Aquino, Jr., whose honesty and transparency appear to have been accepted by the Filipino public."8

Whatever the reality of his father's rough-and-tumble political career [End Page 156] and the embarrassing corruption scandals that marred his mother's administration, Noynoy understood and sought the full advantage of his surname. He involved his sisters closely in his campaign along with his girlfriend, city councilor Shalani Soledad, whose low-key modesty stands in stark contrast to memories of Imelda Marcos and her vast extravagances.

Several leading NGOs affiliated themselves with Aquino's campaign under the auspices of the noncommunist left. The moderate socialist Akbayan party, with its program of social reform, even formed an official alliance with Aquino's Liberal Party. But rather than run as a social progressive, Aquino focused on his "reformist" credentials, a strategy that his mother also had adopted when running against Marcos in 1986. Reformism is a "bourgeois" political narrative that involves direct media appeals—in Noynoy's most successful campaign commercial, he solemnly vowed "I will not steal from you" while standing in front of pictures of his parents.

Like progressive movements in the early twentieth-century United States, Philippine reformism avoids direct class-based appeals and claims instead to act in the interest of the nation as a whole. In the Philippines, this narrative can be said to have originated with the writings of national hero and polymath Jose Rizal, whose 1887 novel Noli Me Tangere attacked the previously "untouchable" issue of Spanish-colonial corruption with bitter sarcasm and reformist intentions. The "Great Dissenter," Juan Sumulong (Noynoy's maternal great-grandfather), criticized President Manuel Quezon's abuses of power during the era of U.S. colonialism in the years leading up to the Second World War. Another famous reformist was Ramon Magsaysay, who ran successfully for president (with secret CIA backing) against a corrupt incumbent in the early 1950s. Reformism peaked during the anti-Marcos struggle and Cory's campaign. Yet it remains an influential line of discourse, and several presidential candidates in the post-Marcos era have used it. Reformers' sincerity has been "tested" by their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the nation: The Spanish executed Rizal in 1896; the Marcos regime murdered Benigno Aquino, Jr., ninety years later; and Cory was willing to carry on her husband's struggle despite her constant claim to be but a "simple housewife."

Although reformism purports to transcend class, polls consistently show that its strongest base of support lies among upper- and middle-income voters (known as the "ABC" classes in the Philippines), with significant but lesser support among the poor "D" class. The very poor (the "E" class, in local parlance) are least likely to be counted among reformism's supporters. The Catholic Church, and particularly the many bishops who have long backed campaigns seeking to promote "good governance," form an important source of reformist support. So does big business, which maintains close ties to the Church through the Bishop-Businessmen's [End Page 157] Conference for Human Development, and which sees clean public administration as key to rapid economic development.

The problem facing would-be reformers is that once political "outs" gain power and become the new "ins," patronage can take on a corrosive attractiveness. But reformism has gained more lasting political influence through what can be termed "developmental reformism," carried out by technocrats. Marcos took pioneering steps toward such "technocracy" during the early years of martial-law rule in the 1970s, until growing cronyism undermined the whole effort. Fidel V. Ramos revived technocratic reformism during his presidency in the 1990s, but it lapsed under Estrada and compiled an ambiguous record under Arroyo (whose administration featured both capable technocrats and major corruption scandals). Another factor contributing to the durability of the reformist narrative is that it is now more clearly defined in opposition to another, competing discourse, namely populism.9

In 2010, two leading presidential candidates—former president Estrada and Senator Villar—took a "populist" stance (with Estrada literally accusing Villar of stealing his colors by copying Estrada supporters' trademark orange clothing). In the Philippines, this narrative is of more recent lineage than reformism, going back to movie star Rogelio de la Rosa's successful 1957 Senate race and his abortive presidential bid four years later. It then became the basis of Imelda Marcos's "star power," prestige projects, and welfare programs. In the post-Marcos era, it was exemplified by Estrada's "long" populist decade in which he bucked pro-Cory sentiment in 1987 to capture a Senate seat, defied presidential victor Ramos to take the vice-presidency in 1992, outpolled his traditional political opponents to win the presidency by a landslide in 1998, and demonstrated that even after being jailed for corruption he still could win the votes of about a quarter of the electorate in 2010.

The Outsiders

Far from imitating reformism's call for inclusive drives toward good governance, populism is explicitly anti-elitist. Even though its proponents themselves often belong to elites, they tend to have the air of outsiders. They emphasize popular sovereignty and, like reformists, rely on media-based appeals more than clientelist ties. But the message is different, with populists claiming "I am like you" and "I will help you."

Populists customarily accuse self-proclaimed reformers of relying on privilege. Manuel Villar, a wealthy homebuilder, liked to contrast his own "rags-to-riches" story with Noynoy Aquino's dynastic origins. Reformists return the favor by accusing populists of cynically vowing solidarity with the poor while enriching themselves (both Villar and Estrada faced steady streams of corruption accusations).

The populist "rich-versus-poor" theme is kept intentionally vague by [End Page 158] leaders who mobilize the masses without an extensive leftist organization. The decline of the Philippine left after the fall of Marcos meant that would-be populist politicians enjoyed a large political space in which to launch bids to woo the "unorganized masses." Estrada and Poe relied on the large informal sector of the urban poor and marginalized rural populations.

Estrada won over the masa (masses) with a persona forged during his years as a star of action movies in which he often played a downtrodden hero struggling for his rights against corrupt elites. He effortlessly transferred this celluloid image as a fighter for the poor to the political stage.10 His nickname "Erap," the 1960s slang inversion of pare (friend), was the basis of his 1998 campaign slogan, Erap para sa mahirap ("Erap for the poor"), as he claimed to be a friend to the friendless poor. All the patron-client networks, bosses' bailiwicks, and oligarchs' wealth were not enough to stop the Estrada juggernaut in the 1998 presidential elections. His leading opponent, a classic "clientelist" politician, was soundly defeated.

Villar was the richest presidential contender in 2010, and was widely believed to have spent a significant share of his fortune on his campaign. Appearing in popular noontime television shows (which many poor Filipinos watch during their lunch breaks), he gave away free houses to grateful contestants—thereby advertising his business as well as vying for voters' sympathies. The donated homes amounted to a kind of promissory note to the country's poor majority, meant to show that he intended to help them if elected.

In the final tally, Estrada finished second to Aquino with 26.3 percent, Villar came in third with 15.4 percent, and pro-Arroyo candidate Gilberto Teodoro was fourth with 11.3 percent. Exit polls showed that voting varied according to class background. Although Aquino won support from rich and poor alike, his backing was strongest among the upper and middle classes (51 percent) and weakest among the very poor (35.1 percent). Estrada, by contrast, won many fewer ABC votes than votes from the poorer D and E classes.

Given Estrada's mass appeal in 1998 and Poe's popularity in 2004 (he finished just a few percentage points behind Arroyo), how did Noynoy find it so easy to fend off the populist challenge in 2010? It was not due to changes in socioeconomic conditions, for these remained favorable to populism. Populism cannot be "read off" the social map of a country, but without favorable terrain populists have little chance of electoral success. Despite a decade of relatively high growth under Arroyo, by some accounts socioeconomic inequality actually become sharper between the beginning of Estrada's time in office and the end of Arroyo's mandate (with hunger among the impoverished on the increase).11

Writing a year before the election, columnist Amando Doronila argued that "masa politics, or the rich-versus-poor theme, is not the game [End Page 159] in 2010 . … the dynamics of the 2010 election are vastly different from those of 1998." He suggested that the "politics of transparency" would predominate instead.12 This shift of focus caused the populists to suffer image problems, given the corruption that had marked Estrada's administration plus the scandals surrounding Villar's supposed manipulation of legislation to benefit his housing business (the stock of his construction company fell sharply after his failure to win the presidency).

Arroyo had inadvertently set the stage for Aquino's revival of the reformist narrative by presiding over yet another administration dogged by charges of fraud and corruption. Accused of fixing the 2004 presidential elections, Arroyo had to face down three impeachment efforts (which she crushed with her majority in Congress) and several feeble coup attempts (the most serious of which came in February 2006). Matters worsened as she found herself beset by a series of scandals, including a particularly embarrassing one that tied her husband, son, and brother-in-law to illegal gambling—the same offense that Estrada's foes had used to justify his ouster.

Yet Arroyo's enemies seemed powerless against her. Some observers suggested that Filipinos suffered from "people power fatigue."13 But protests abounded during the Arroyo years. The catch is that in the Philippines, protests alone have never been enough to make "people power" succeed. Successful protests have also required the moral approval of the Catholic hierarchy, the backing of big business, and last but not least, some form of military intervention. Arroyo not only generously rewarded her loyal generals, but allowed them to hunt down legal leftists (including journalists). One report states that more than nine-hundred leftists died in extrajudicial killings during her time in power.14 With the Catholic Church on the defensive in the wake of sex scandals plus the 2005 death of its leading prelate, Manila archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, and with business interests generally feeling satisfied amid robust economic growth, the allies that an opposition revolt would need were missing.

With the insurrectionist path closed, opposition to Arroyo began to focus on the 2010 elections. The problem, as had been the case in all post-Marcos polls, was the plethora of candidates. There was no clear frontrunner and no candidate who could harness anti-Arroyo, reformist sentiment—until, that is, Corazon Aquino's death led to her son's anointing. Journalist Conrado de Quiros captured this Arroyo-as-foilfor-Aquino sentiment well: "But the 'Noynoy phenomenon' is not just about euphoria. It is also about tyrannyphobia . … Why has Noynoy become phenomenal? Simple: Because he is the opposite of Gloria."15

The strong support for Noynoy that showed up in the first opinion survey taken after he declared his candidacy stayed nearly steady right through election day eight months later. What political scientist Alexander Magno called a "revivalist frenzy" had taken hold of the Philippine [End Page 160] body politic, and this frenzy centered on the desire for honest governance.

Interestingly, the vice-presidential race, which saw the defeat of Aquino's running mate, yielded a result that was in a sense the inverse of this "reformist" victory at the presidential level. "Mar" Roxas had stepped aside for Aquino after seeing support for the latter snowball. An accomplished technocrat and equally famous dynast, Roxas also has strong reformist credentials. Personally close to Aquino, he played a crucial role in managing the presidential campaign when organizational difficulties arose. Comfortably ahead in the polls for much of the race, Roxas seems to have underestimated the threat posed by the "stealth candidacy" of Estrada's vice-presidential running mate, Jejomar Binay.

Binay, a former human-rights lawyer who was mayor of Makati, the wealthy business district of Metro Manila, developed strong "populist" credentials with innovative welfare programs for the poor in his city. He cultivated ties with other mayors around the country, as well as with members of the Aquino family who may have been nursing old grudges against the Roxas clan (three generations of ostensible political cooperation between these prominent families were also marked by hidden rivalries).

But the key to Binay's success was the collapse of Loren Legarda's vice-presidential campaign. Legarda's credibility was undermined by her apparent opportunism in becoming Villar's vice-presidential candidate although she had not too long before been bitterly attacking him for corruption. While at the presidential level the populist vote had been divided between Estrada and Villar, in the vice-presidential race, Binay squeaked to victory when his rival for the populist narrative fell precipitously in the polls. That the "populist" Binay edged out the "reformist" Roxas for the vice-presidency demonstrates these narratives to be of similar electoral strength.

Does Clientelism Explain All?

This analysis of the 2010 presidential election in terms of competing "narratives" does not fit easily into the prevailing paradigm of Philippine politics. Clientelism has been the dominant conceptual framework for half a century. It claims that particularistic ties between patrons (often landlords) and clients (usually peasants) are the key to understanding the country's politics. This approach has been subject to much criticism. One critique emphasizes the impact of modernization as gentry politicians have given way to urban machines. Another points to the prevalence of coercion ("bossism") rather than consent in such relations.16 But both of these modifications accept an underlying portrait of Philippine politics as a largely transactional, nonideological affair in which control over resources (material or coercive) is the key to "harvesting" the votes [End Page 161] of peasants or the urban poor. Clientelism can be extremely divisive, with a (narrowing) ruling circle facing increasingly harsh criticism from a growing opposition.

Such a model seems to capture well the survival tactics employed by the Arroyo administration. Although by 2007 Arroyo's popularity had plunged, her clientelist networks, warlord allies, and electoral manipulators were strong enough for her to win a majority of seats in the lower house of Congress. But explanations that focus on clientelism cannot tell us why, in the years since Marcos was forced to step down, presidential candidates considered to have the best "political machinery" (such as Villar in 2010) nonetheless have failed if they suffered credibility problems (as did Villar when corruption scandals began to break around him). Although Arroyo used all the dark arts of clientelism in the 2004 presidential election, she still apparently felt compelled to cheat, even though her opponent had limited funds and organization. In this she somewhat resembled Marcos himself, who despite an overwhelming edge in resources had to steal the 1986 election from Corazon Aquino. What clearer illustration could there be of the limits to the politics of patronage and muscle even in the Philippines?

Cleavages are generally understood to be social divisions—often having to do with differences of class, religion, ethnicity, or region—that social movements and political parties actively politicize in order to win supporters and voters. Doubts about whether such cleavages shape politics in the Philippines begin with the country's weak party system, riven by factionalism and held together by clientelist ties.17 Supporters of Noynoy Aquino's Liberal Party claim that it has a long tradition as a progressive, reformist force. But it has also been home to plenty of old-school clientelist politicians. A similar but even less plausible case has been made for the ideological integrity of the Nacionalistas, the country's oldest surviving political party (founded in 1907) and one that Villar had helped to revive for his populist campaign.

Despite clientelism's persistence within parties, Filipinos claim that what they see and hear via the media—meaning especially television—affects their voting decisions more heavily than do the material threats or promises that politicians make. In a February 2010 survey, for example, 68 percent of respondents said that a candidate's media image was the biggest single influence on their decision whether to vote for that candidate or not; only 1 percent said the same about the influence of local politicians.18 Although clientelism clearly weighs more heavily as a factor in local races, here too nontraditional "reformist" candidates have recently met with unexpected success.19 Boxing hero Manny Pacquiao won a kind of "populist" victory in a Mindanao congressional contest. Facing an entrenched family machine in 2007, he had lost his first outing. Promises of social programs for the poor and a fine-tuning of his media appeals brought him a landslide win three years later, however. [End Page 162]

The post-Marcos rise of the populist and reformist campaign narratives means that voters can no longer be simply divided into incumbent "ins" and opposition "outs." Instead, they must also be seen as tending to fall into either a camp that stresses paternalistic promises to end corruption or one that favors (elite resistance notwithstanding) policies meant to help the poor. Opinion polls reveal strong support for both populist and reformist appeals. In a December 2009 Pulse Asia survey, a 27 percent plurality of all respondents (including 33 percent of all E-class respondents) listed "cares for poor" (a well-known populist code phrase) as their numberone reason for supporting a presidential candidate. Only 21 percent overall (and 17 percent of the E class) cited "not corrupt/clean record" as their main criterion for choosing whom to back. Yet another 12 percent (including 13 percent and 10 percent of the D and E classes) said that they would vote for a "good person." The words "clean" and "good" attached to candidates are reformist catchwords; their drawing power shows that there exists a strong basis for appealing to voters with claims of moral uprightness.

The reformist-versus-populist split in the Philippines may be compared to the yellowshirt-versus-redshirt cleavage that divides Thailand. Thai redshirts decry the double standards that they see being applied in their society. They note, for instance, that the yellowshirts who led the occupation of Bangkok's airport in late 2008 have never been convicted, while pro-Thaksin protest leaders were jailed after the government violently repressed demonstrations in Bangkok in May 2010. Yellowshirts, for their part, charge that Thaksin is a corrupt politician who cynically manipulates the poor. In the Philippines, the competition between the populist and reformist narratives has been less polarizing because of 1) shared anger at the Arroyo administration and its abuses; 2) a greater degree of introspection among elites; and 3) Philippine populism's organizational weaknesses.

Aquino and Estrada offered differing diagnoses of the evils of the Arroyo administration, with the former blasting its corruption and the latter its tolerance of inequality. But deep dislike for Arroyo was a common thread: She had had Estrada tried and imprisoned on corruption charges, and had humiliated Corazon Aquino after the latter turned critic.20 Pro-administration candidate Gilberto Teodoro, who tried to run as a reformist in 2010 but was unable to distance himself clearly from Arroyo, could gain little traction despite his impressive technocratic credentials, distinguished record of government service, and support from [End Page 163] the "ruling" party. Villar, Estrada's rival for "ownership" of the populist narrative, also was hurt by his perceived closeness to the outgoing president—critics took to calling him "Villarroyo." The shared antipathy to Arroyo took some of the heat out of the race to replace her and bred a certain mutual tolerance among rival candidates.

Then too, the frequency of coup attempts since 1986 (there have been at least a dozen major military uprisings over that time) made elite civil society groups increasingly wary of anything that smacked of insurrectionism. Even in the case of a president whom they saw as illegitimate, waiting for the next election seemed the best choice.

Finally, although Estrada can still claim the loyalty of a hard core of supporters who make up about a quarter of the electorate, he has never come near to matching the programmatic appeal or political organization of Thaksin (who also happens to be one of Thailand's richest men). Estrada's fans were his voters, but his appeal was based on little more than an "image trap."21 Thaksin, by contrast, provided concrete benefits to the poor (most notably cheap health care, low-cost loans to farmers, and grants to villages) that his supporters have not forgotten, as can be seen from their willingness to rally repeatedly on behalf of his cause.22

Great Expectations

Arroyo made it clear that she had no intention of "going quietly" once she left the presidency. Rather than retire from public life, as unofficial protocol demands, she insisted on running for a congressional seat in her native province of Pampanga on the large northern island of Luzon. Rumors quickly circulated that she meant to become speaker of the House of Representatives, a body in which her party currently holds slightly more than 100 of 268 seats, making it the largest single group. Another rumor had her planning to force through a constitutional shift to parliamentarism so that she could become prime minister. Just before leaving the presidency, she had made a series of "midnight" appointments not seen since 1961, when outgoing president Carlos Garcia's administration had burdened his successor Diosdado Macapagal (Arroyo's father) with a plethora of unwanted officeholders. Critics claim that Arroyo circumvented an early-1960s court ruling against last-minute designations by backdating appointments to a time before election day, and by persuading the Supreme Court (whose fourteen justices are all her appointees) to hold itself exempt from the effects of these earlier rulings, much to the consternation of the country's legal community.

As of this writing in early August 2010, it looks as if Aquino will be able to avoid most of these political landmines left behind by an ex-president trying to exert influence in Congress and through her last-minute appointees. As has been common in the Philippines, many "opposition" legislators defected to the president's side to support his successful candidate [End Page 164] for House speaker, Feliciano R. Belmonte, Jr., because of the executive's extensive patronage and appointment powers. But Aquino is likely to have to pay for his control of the lower house by stooping to old-school patronage politics—something that he has promised to change. Controlling the 24-member Senate has proved trickier, as presidential sway is not so great there. Although a compromise on the leadership question has been reached with the reelection of Juan Ponce Enrile as Senate president, several of Aquino's political opponents (including Villar and Legarda) remain influential senators. Some key officials, including the military chief of staff, have seen fit to resign rather than risk a conflict with Aquino. Others show little inclination to back down. These include the new chief justice, whom Arroyo promoted from associate justice just days after the election. (A highly displeased Aquino refused to take the oath of office from him, and asked an associate justice to administer it instead at the June 30 inauguration.)

Polls show that Filipinos are expecting a lot from their new president in terms of both better governance and poverty alleviation—two items that the reformist narrative links by arguing that achieving the former will automatically bring about the latter. But what are the chances that Benigno Aquino's administration will bring real reform to the Philippines? Not even Corazon Aquino's presidency was free of corruption. There is little reason to believe that her son's will be much different, given the influence that several of his relatives will try to exert, plus the need to build and keep political alliances in order to govern. But even if his administration turns out to be "cleaner" than usual, it is unclear whether this will lead to substantially higher economic growth, much less enough socioeconomic redistribution to make a serious impact in a country where around a third of the populace lives below the poverty line.

Arroyo's presidency was a success from a macroeconomic standpoint, even if few of her opponents care to acknowledge it.23 However corrupt her administration may have been, its misdealings apparently failed to do much economic damage. Arroyo's real failing was her inability to reduce income inequality. Given Noynoy's doubtful commitment to social reform—not to mention the opposition that he would face within his own sugar-hacienda–owning family if he strongly pursued it24—there is reason to doubt that his presidency will bring much improvement on this front. His first State of the Nation address, given on 26 July 2010, focused on the naming of a truth commission to investigate corruption charges against the Arroyo administration. Aquino did promise targeted assistance for the poorest households, as well as extended health-care coverage, but conspicuously failed to mention labor rights, development projects for badly depressed areas, or population growth (which remains high in this predominantly Catholic country).

Short of a major industrialization drive on the scale of the East [End Page 165] Asian "tigers," there seems little prospect of rapidly expanding the middle class. Richard Doner's analysis of the economic troubles besetting Thailand—a country about twice as rich as the Philippines in per capita terms—is revealing.25 Like Thailand, the Philippine Republic has been diversified economically and hence no longer relies primarily on agriculture, but the Philippine economy has yet to be deepened through systematic industrialization. In the Philippines, one can point to past success in electronics assembly and the current boom in call centers as examples of diversification. Yet the Philippines' most important "export" remains its "overseas foreign workers"—Filipinos who labor abroad and send money home. The country remains weak in the production of major capital goods, however, with no "world-beating" companies that use local inputs and technical capacities. This weakness points in turn to a "human-capital" deficit that is due in large part to the disastrous state of education.

Thus, however clean government may become, most Filipinos will remain impoverished. Only about 10 percent of Filipinos can be considered upper or middle class, leaving about 90 percent of the country economically disadvantaged. The impoverished third of the populace suffers chronic problems in the areas of nutrition, housing, employment, healthcare, and education.

Electoral manipulations, corruption scandals, human-rights abuses, and the undermining of institutions discredited the Arroyo administration and led Freedom House to downgrade the Philippines from Free to Partly Free in its annual rankings for 2006. Arroyo was also accused of cynically sacrificing the peace process in Muslim Mindanao to political expediency. The perpetrators of the November 2009 massacre on that island were her close allies, showing the potential for harm that lay in her ties to warlords.

That said, the abandonment of the insurrection strategy and the replacement of Arroyo via the ballot in what was probably the freest and fairest presidential contest since 1965 (when Marcos was first elected) have together set the stage for fresh contentions between a reformist president and future populist challengers. While corruption charges are inevitable in a patronage-driven system, even a successful reformist president can be succeeded by a populist, as happened when Estrada took office following Fidel Ramos (1992–98), whose time in office is generally thought to mark the golden age of political reform in the post-Marcos Philippines. Estrada's strong support among the masses of poor voters who swept him into the presidency in 1998 was a product of Ramos's failure, despite his reforms, to do much about inequality.

Going forward, it seems that major sections of the Philippine elite are now prepared to tolerate populist challenges for power. If that remains the case, and if politicians who step forward to take a stand on behalf of [End Page 166] impoverished Filipinos begin to place more emphasis on actually creating programs to help them, we may see a pattern of electoral cycling emerge in which greater efficiency and greater equality alternate as the main goals of public policy. In a country that faces challenges regarding both economic development and social inequality, a debate over the relative merits and drawbacks of pursuing these two goals seems like a sensible one to put before the electorate.

Mark R. Thompson

Mark R. Thompson is professor of political science at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany and teaches Asian and international studies at the City University of Hong Kong. He is the author of The Anti-Marcos Struggle (1995) and Democratic Revolutions (2004) and writes about Southeast Asian politics and comparative democratization.


The author wishes to thank Eric Batalla, Siegfried Herzog, Paul Hutchcroft, Yuko Kasuya, Masataka Kimura, Howard Loewen, Francisco Magno, Felipe Miranda, Michael Montesano, Alfred McCoy, Manuel Quezon, Nathan Quimpio, Temario Rivera, Susan Russell, Julio Teehankee, and Charles du Vinage for comments on earlier versions of this essay.

1. Cecille Suerte Felipe, "Ten Killed in Poll-Related Incidents," Philippine Star (Manila), 10 May 2010.

2. On how authoritarian cheating can spark popular uprisings, see Philipp Kuntz and Mark R. Thompson, "More than the Final Straw: Stolen Elections as Revolutionary Triggers," Comparative Politics 41 (April 2009): 253–72.

3. Kristine L. Alave, Cathy C. Yamsuan, and Tarra Quismundo, "Fast Count Stuns Nation: Faster than You Can Say 'Garci,'" Philippine Daily Inquirer (Manila), 10 May 2010.

4. Paul Hutchcroft, "The Arroyo Imbroglio in the Philippines," Journal of Democracy 19 (January 2008): 141–55.

5. A "black swan" is an event that is both significant and hard to predict. See Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York: Random House, 2007). I thank Siegfried Herzog for bringing this concept to my attention.

6. Yolanda Sotelo, "Cory Sainthood? Wait 3 Years, Says Bishop," Philippine Daily Inquirer, 8 August 2009.

7. Alexander Magno, "Game Changer," Philippine Star, 20 August 2009.

8. Amando Doronila, "Transparency Now a Defining Issue in Campaign," Philippine Daily Inquirer, 16 September 2009.

9. I would like to thank Julio Teehankee for suggesting that "reformism" and "populism" in the Philippines can be understood as competing discourses. I explored this theme in more detail in an earlier analysis of the 2010 presidential campaign in "Populism and the Revival of Reform: Competing Political Narratives in the Philippines," Contemporary Southeast Asia 32 (April 2010): 1–28.

10. Eva-Lotta Hedman, "The Spectre of Populism in Philippine Politics and Society: Artista, Masa, Eraption!" South East Asia Research 9 (February 2001): 5–44.

11. Fernando del Mundo, "How to Get the Poor out of Dante's Inferno," Philippine Daily Inquirer, 9 March 2010; and Mahar Mangahas, "Study Poverty More than GNP," Philippine Daily Inquirer, 22 August 2009.

12. Amando Doronila, "Damaged Goods," Philippine Daily Inquirer, 3 December 2009. [End Page 167]

13. Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amorosa, "The Withering of Philippine Democracy," Current History, September 2006, 290–95.

14. Agence France-Presse, "EU to Help RP Tackle Extra-judicial Killings," Philippine Daily Inquirer, 8 October 2009.

15. Conrado de Quiros, "The 'Noynoy' Phenomenon," Philippine Daily Inquirer, 1 October 2009.

16. See Carl Landé, Leaders, Factions, and Parties: The Structure of Philippine Politics (New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asia Monographs, 1965); Kit G. Machado, "Changing Patterns of Leadership Recruitment and the Emergence of the Professional Politician in Philippine Local Politics," in Benedict Kerkvliet, ed., Political Change in the Philippines: Studies in Local Politics Preceding Martial Law (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1974); and John Sidel, Capital, Coercion, and Crime: Bossism in the Philippines (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).

17. Rodelio Cruz Manacsa and Alexander C. Tan, "Manufacturing Parties: Re-examining the Transient Nature of Philippine Political Parties," Party Politics 11 (November 2005): 748–65.

18. Pulse Asia survey of 14–21 February 2010, cited by Manuel Quezon in a presentation made to the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung roundtable on "'Elections and the Rule of Law," Berlin, May 2010. See also Carmen N. Pedrosa, "Grim Scenario After Elections," Philippine Star, 28 March 2010.

19. Jennifer Conroy Franco, Elections and Democratization in the Philippines (London: Routledge, 2001).

20. Mark R. Thompson, "Presidentas and People Power in Comparative Asian Perspective," Philippine Political Science Journal 28 (2007): 1–32.

21. This phrase comes from a book about an Indian film star whom critics say did little for the poor when he switched to politics, preferring to rely instead upon his screen popularity to win votes. M.S. Pandian, The Image Trap: M.G. Ramachandran in Film and Politics (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1992).

22. Kannika Damrongplasit and Glenn A. Melnick, "Early Results from Thailand's 30 Baht Health Reform: Something to Smile About," Health Affairs 28 (March 2009): 457–66. Similar studies have shown positive results from Thaksin's "million-baht-pervillage" program.

23. For a convincing case that Arroyo's economic record is one of success, see BizNews-Asia, "GMA's Legacy: Economy, Infra, Integration," no. 19 (2009).

24. To demonstrate his commitment to social change, Aquino pledged to convince his family to subject their Hacienda Luisita, one of the largest in the Philippines, to land reform. Embarrassingly, his cousin, Fernando Cojuangco, the chief operating officer of the holding company that runs the plantation, contradicted him saying such reform plans would be "irresponsible": Normitsu Onishi, "For Philippine Family in Politics, Land Issue Hits Home," New York Times, 14 March 2010. As the present essay was being completed in August 2010, Aquino offered a plan to redistribute some of his family's hacienda, though details of its implementation remained unclear.

25. Richard Doner, The Politics of Uneven Development: Thailand's Economic Growth in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). [End Page 168]

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