x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Noynoy Aquino: the son also rises

Borne on the shoulders of giants, the Philippines president-elect faces serious challenges as his people's new leader.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National
Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National

Shorn of his famous surname, it is hard to imagine Benigno Simeon "Noynoy" Cojuangco Aquino III plunging into turbulent waters of Philippine politics, let alone poised to become the country's next president. Middle-aged and unmarried (though there is a girlfriend) and with thinning hair and unfashionable steel-rimmed glasses, he looks more like the manager of an IT department on his day off than the new leader of 92 million people.

Except for the name. His mother, Cory Aquino, liked to refer to herself as "just a housewife" before her election in 1986 as the country's first democratically elected leader. So great was the general outpouring of grief after her death from cancer last year, that the funeral cortège of a woman known as "the Saint of Democracy" took eight hours to reach its final destination. His father, of course, was Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, implacable opponent of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, imprisoned and tortured for his defiance, then forced into exile and murdered by an assassin at Manila Airport at the moment of his return.

Carried on the shoulders of these two political giants, it was almost inevitable for "Noynoy" - the childhood nickname derived from his first name - that high office was his almost for the asking. Yet serious questions are already being asked about his ability to tackle the country's systemic economic and political problems, that include rampant corruption and a record budget deficit of US$6.6bn (Dh24.24bn). Despite serving 12 years in public office, first as a member of the House of Representatives and latterly as a senator, until now he has made little impact as a politician.

In an attempt to inject a little glitz into his presidential campaign, his little sister Kris, a glamorous actress and TV host once named by a magazine as the second most powerful celebrity in the Philippines, was a regular on the hustings. Another sister, Maria Elena "Ballsy" Aquino, has been advising him on his wardrobe (although he is reported to have turned down one suggestion of Botox injections). He has also rejected the idea of hair treatments, even if his thinning locks and general appearance have already prompted some local wags to compare him with the TV cartoon character Homer Simpson.

Indeed, Aquino appeared content to live in the shadows of his more famous parents until his mother's death last August. Then, just 40 days after she was laid to rest beside her husband in the suburbs of Manila, he formally announced his intention to run for the presidency. "They made automatic in me the preference to take up cudgels for those who have less in life, for the powerless," he told Time magazine last month. "Why should I veer away from their footprints?"

But then, as a witness to the unfolding drama of postwar Philippines politics, Aquino has spent his entire life with a season ticket for the front row. He was born on February 8, 1960, and his father was at the time a rising political star in the Liberal Party and governor of Tarlac Province. By the time little Noynoy was six, Benigno was the youngest senator in the country's history but increasingly at odds with Ferdinand Marcos, whose two terms of office were underpinned by a cult of personality and which ended with the declaration of martial law in 1972 and the establishment of a dictatorship.

Aquino senior was one of the first to be arrested by the new regime and spent the next nine years in prison. Tried on charges of subversion, he was sentenced to death by firing squad in 1977, but eventually allowed to go into exile in the US two years later after suffering severe heart problems. Noynoy, a student at Ateneo de Manila University, graduated with a degree in economics in 1981 and joined his family in Boston.

Two years later, with Marcos rumoured to be in ill health and the political situation deteriorating, Benigno Aquino made the decision to return home. Travelling alone - the family were to follow on a later flight - he was murdered just moments after leaving the aircraft. The motives of the gunman, who was shot dead by security officials, were never established, but many believed that Marcos or his sympathisers were responsible.

Fatherless, the only son, now 23, watched as his mother became the architect of the People Power Revolution that was to force Marcos from power in 1986 and see her become president under a new constitution. Despite her popularity among the masses, Cory Aquino's record of achievements was mixed and her hold on power at times fragile, with several attempts on her life and unsuccessful coups d'état. On August 28, 1987, rebel soldiers attacked the Malacañang Palace, the presidential residence. In the ensuing firefight, four of his bodyguards were killed, while Noynoy was wounded several times. A fragment of one bullet remains lodged in his neck to this day, though he says he has forgiven his attackers: "That's past now."

These incidents have clearly left their mark on the president elect. Hanging on the wall of his campaign office is a photograph of his father lying in a pool of blood, taken seconds after the assassination. He describes that moment as "my Rubicon", adding: "I cannot accept that he would die for nothing." In the election campaign, Noynoy's surest tactic has been to remind voters of his mother. Like her, he spent time in retreat in a convent before deciding to run. According to his official blog, "he still lives in the same room at his mother's house". On the campaign trail he flashed the "L" hand sign for "laban", or fight, first used by his mother in her fight against President Marcos. The official campaign colour is her signature canary yellow, accompanied, inevitably, by the song Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.

At one rally, a letter was read out from father to son, written more than 30 years ago when Benigno Aquino was still in prison: "Son, the ball is now in your hands." Depressingly, the issues of the 2010 election are much the same as 1986. The outgoing president, Gloria Arroyo, has faced accusations of corruption - including awarding government contacts to companies associated with her husband - and rigging votes to secure her second presidential term. There was even an aborted military coup, only four years ago, attributed to right-wing elements in the armed forces, which prompted a state of emergency.

Equally familiar (and depressing) are some of the faces the elections have thrown up. Arroyo, ineligible for the presidency, has won a seat in congress and has her eyes on the post of speaker, which she may use as a power base to challenge the president. Worse, the world's most notorious shoe collector, Imelda Marcos has won a senate seat at the age of 80. Whether the new Aquino on the block can break this cycle is another matter. The country was once one of the richest in Asia. Now it is one of the poorest. Violence is still part of the political fabric. On election day, 12 died - although this a better record than previous polls - and the nation is still reeling from the slaughter of a least 46 people, including a dozen journalists, by a local warlord on the southern island of Mindanao last November.

Many Filipinos have fled to other lands in an attempt to make a living. By best estimates there at least 11 million of them, of which are around 150,000 live in the UAE, some since the 1970s. While the outgoing president Arroyo has made political capital out of the working conditions of some, it is telling that most do not plan to return any time soon. As is the number of recorded votes cast in the UAE - less than 8,000, of which 4,295 went to Aquino.

Opponents have criticised Aquino's lack of substance beyond his famous last name. He has pledged to create more jobs, improve education and, inevitably, fight corruption. Can he pull it off, when so many have failed? As the final votes are counted, the president-apparent has already given some indication of what is in store. It is clear that Aquino is already defining himself by what he is not. Not his predecessor, for example, with her fondness for private jets and the lifestyle Filipino politicians like to associate with high office. "My main point is to generate savings by doing things the cheaper way," he says. "Our deficit is so big we really have to save."

And maybe not his parents, either. Still, by the age of 50, Noynoy Aquino must have realised that even the most devoted son eventually needs to become his own man. @Email:jlangton@thenational.ae