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Aquino's mixed presidential legacy

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A handout picture dated and released on 10 November 2015 by the Malacanang Photo Bureau shows Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi shaking hands with President Benigno Aquino III inside the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, 10 November 2015. (Photo: APP).

In Brief

President Benigno Aquino III completes his six-year term much less popular than when he began it. His approval rating has dropped from a high of 79 per cent at the beginning of his term to 54 per cent as of September 2015. So what explains his falling popularity?


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Under Aquino, the Philippines maintained its remarkable 6 per cent growth rate, second only to China in Asia. But job-generation has not caught up. Unemployment continues to hover between 6 and 6.6 per cent. The Philippine poverty rate remains one of the highest in Asia at 16.6 per cent, while income inequality has worsened in the last three years, though the remittances of overseas Filipino workers — which rose to a high of US$28.4 billion in 2014 — mitigate this sad portrait.

Aquino continues to score well on his promise to stem corruption. His predecessor is still in jail on corruption-related charges. The president also ousted a Supreme Court Chief Justice, who was a close ally of former president Gloria Arroyo.

Yet the president also took some hits.

Aquino’s lackadaisical response to the massacre of 51 policemen after an operation to catch a Malaysian terrorist went awry portrayed him as an insensitive leader who cared very little for the welfare of those defending the Philippines.

The activities of some of Aquino’s relatives and family friends have also reflected badly on the president. His cousin, who heads Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport, has been accused of turning a blind eye to a scam by airport police where policemen inserted bullets into passengers’ luggage, ‘discovered’ the weapons and then demanded bribes from the hapless traveller. The former military aide-de-camp of Aquino’s mother, Corazon Aquino, has also been subject to popular derision for his failure to repair the ageing Manila Metro Rail Transit System that has been showing signs of strain, including a derailment on 13 August 2014 that injured 38 people.

A peace agreement between the government and the armed separatist Muslim group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, failed to pass the legislature. Parliamentarians exploited widespread anti-Muslim sentiments among Filipinos for personal political gain. This forced Aquino to give up the fight for a renewed peace deal and pass on the burden of renegotiation to his successor.

But international relations successes have offset these political setbacks.

Aquino has demanded that China stop its reclamation activities in the islands along the West Philippine Sea (also known as the South China Sea) and recognise Philippine sovereignty over that area. On 29 October a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Tribunal admitted the Philippines–China case for arbitration. A final ruling will be made in 2016.

Aquino is quite aware of how puny the Philippine military’s fighting capacities are when compared to China. His efforts to bolster the navy with the purchase of old US coast guard cutters and a squadron of South Korean fighter jets therefore appear largely symbolic.

Aquino has also been pushing the United States to be a more active security partner. US President Barack Obama responded by increasing joint military and naval training between the United States, the Philippines and Japan as part of the US ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy. Aquino’s ‘hardline’ position on the territorial dispute made him popular, but, alarmingly, it also fostered a surge of anti-Chinese sentiment stoked by a nationalist literati.

Still Aquino is set to leave office looking more presidential than he initially appeared. Aquino is also likely to avoid the fate of his two immediate predecessors: jail time for corruption. But Aquino’s legacy could suffer if the electorate once again puts into office a corrupt, inept and unreliable successor.

The current list of aspirants suggests that this could be very well the case. The most competent potential successor, former Secretary of the Interior Manuel Roxas II, is associated with the Philippine oligarchy and has very little support from the lower classes. If Aquino cannot break this recurring presidential curse, he may see his diplomatic and domestic accomplishments go down the drain.

Patricio N Abinales is a professor at the Asian Studies Program, University of Hawaii, Manoa.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2015 in review and the year ahead.

One response to “Aquino’s mixed presidential legacy”

  1. Yes, President Benigno Aquino III’s term is a bundle of contradictions

    A reader has taken this section to task for allegedly committing one egregious error after another in regards to its assessment of Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s regime for 2015. The reader has since then removed his comments from the site, for reasons unexplained, but I found it expedient to try to answer his criticisms point by point as much as I can.

    The reader claims that the country’s “current unemployment rate stands at 5.6per cent, not 6-6.6per cent, then proceeds to ask “where the heck is your source.” The source is a June 9, 2015, news item “Unemployment rate falls to 6.4per cent,” by Louis Bacani of the Philippine Star ( The rate represented a decline in the unemployment rate from a high 7 percent during the same month in 2014.

    Ramon G. Albert and Arturo Martinez Jr., of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) and Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Children and Families, wrote that the Family Income and Expenditures Survey (FIES), which is released every three years, showed that the “level of inequality has been unchanged” ( (Admittedly these statistics are a bit dated, but until a new set is made available, these were the only numbers available.)

    There is no direct evidence of the growth of the Filipino middle class and the Aquino government’s implementation of a conditional cash transfer program (CCTP) for the poor, as the reader alleges. The only evidence that the CCTP has benefitted the poor is, according to the World Bank, keeping children healthy and in school. This progress is laudable, but these are insufficient evidence to the reader’s argument (

    That said has the Filipino middle class expanded, as the reader claims? Three other PIDS researchers wrote this observation: “Examining the 2006 and 2009 (Family Income and Expenditure Statistics), we find that the relative size of the middle class to all households slightly declined in 2009 to 15.8 percent (from 16.2 percent in 2006), and increased to 16.7 percent as of 2012. We find marginal changes in the relative sizes of the other income groups across the period 2006, 2009, and 2012.” These were, accordingly, “not statistically significant.” (

    The reader is correct in claiming that President Aquino III has scored a 54 percent approval rate in the last months of 2015, but his lead over past presidents also needs to be qualified. President Joseph Estrada’s popularity had risen to 53per cent from a low 49per cent ( This leaves one to wonder whether Estrada could maintain if not increase his popularity had he not been overthrown by the combination of a business class-led public protest and a coup threat by senior military officers. After his had bungled the police operations that led to the massacre of 44 policemen, Aquino’s rate plummeted to 38 percent (, a number much lower than Estrada’s.

    The Philippine average GDP growth rate from 2011 to 2014, according to the World Bank, is 5.9 percent, not 6.3 percent as the reader alleges (

    The author noted correctly that only 44 policemen were killed in the village of Tujanalipan, Mamapasano District, Maguindanao province (my mistake). However, my point was that Aquino was seen as “an insensitive leader who cared very little for the welfare of those defending the Philippines.” Let me qualify this further. On the day the bodies of 42 policemen were flown back to Manila – some with no coffins because the local funeral home ran out of them – Aquino was not in the airport to receive them. He decided to “follow his original schedule” by going to the inauguration of a Mitsubishi plant” in a province near Manila (

    The reader exudes confidence that the Bangsamoro Basic Law would pass the legislature. Alas, I do not share his optimism. Moreover, Filipinos also do not merely oppose the BBL; a good percentage are anti-Muslim. The 2005 United Nations-commissioned survey of the poll group Pulse Asia showed that 55 per cent of Filipinos still “think Muslims are prone to run amok”; 47 percent “think Muslims are terrorists or extremists”; and 44 percent are of the opinion that Muslims “harbor hatred toward non-Muslims.” This survey was challenged by the rival Social Weather Station (SWS) which showed that 63 percent of respondents have a “favorable view of Islam,” which increased from 52 percent in 2004 ( I tend to believe the former.

    A quick comparison with the Chinese coast guard will show that even if the Armed Forces of the Philippines upgrade its weaponry to include new jets, attack helicopters, and patrol boats, it has no chance of defeating the Chinese in a war over the West Philippine Sea. The country’s two old Vietnam War cutters are unlikely to survive the onslaught of 2 similar new cutters backed by over a hundred patrol boats with the People’s Liberation Army as the possible back-up force. The commentator conveniently fails to mention that most of the equipment purchased in this $22.9 billion modernization program consists are used and virtually abandoned American military assets.

    At no point did I state that the presidential aspirants are not competent and corruption-free. The reader has misread the essay’s last part. And he is mistaken in claiming that Mar Roxas – the president’s favored successor – is in second place. The poll mentioned above once again produce conflicting ranking: the SWS has Roxas in second place, but Pulse Asia puts Vice President Jejomar Binay as second to Senator Grace Poe. The second one has greater credibility for me since the SWS’s survey data library director admitted that “the results from the second report (Pulse Asia’s) ‘will have to be the one closer to that scenario.’” (

    The reader says my essay fails to mention some of the Aquino government’s achievements like the Reproductive Health Bill. But this was won in 2012 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2014. These are political gains that are not germane to a 2015 evaluation of Aquino’s presidency. The Philippine government had indeed also doubled the national budget as the reader argues. What has been more interesting is how part of this budget was turned into presidential largesse handed to allies in the legislature and the provincial and city governments.

    The Philippine government does report its pursuit of tax evaders, but up to now not a single “rich” tax evader has been sent to jail. As of June 2015, the Philippine external debt only “declined slightly” during the first quarter of the year, but this was not because the government has now the capacity to pay it. The “net repayments” were made mostly by banks ( The only positive sign is the decline in the budget deficit and on this, the reader is quite correct.

    The additional expenses associated with the new K-12 education program is now in operation, and already there are indications that over 800,000 underprivileged high school seniors (a half of the graduating class) will not be able to continue with their studies. Government officials have already admitted this possibility. Equally more dangerous is the move by private universities to increase tuition fees to cover the deficit incurred by the total absence of incoming freshmen. The reader may also want to rein in his optimism in this area.

    Finally, the reader may be right about public trust towards state institutions, but the September 2015 Pulse Asia survey of “trust ratings” of “Key Government Institutions” reported that the Senate, House of Representatives and the Supreme Court “all fail to register a majority approval rating” and that public assessment of these three institutions was “basically unchanged between June and September 2015.”

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