x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Former president Aquino's son lines up a thriller in Manila

Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III explains why he was reluctant to run for president - then changed his mind.

MANILA // Seven months ago, Benigno Simeon "Noynoy" Cojuangco Aquino III was trying to figure out how he could turn down Manuel "Mar" Roxas's offer to be his vice-presidential running mate in the May 10 Philippine elections. His mother, Corazon Aquino, the president who had restored democracy to the Philippines, had died on August 1 and her only son was starting to reassess his life in politics after nine years as a congressman and three years in the Senate.

"I really couldn't see anything changing. I was caught up in a game - of musical chairs," he said at his family home in Quezon City. At the time, the thought of running for president was the furthest thing from Mr Aquino's mind. "In fact, I was trying to think how I could say no, in a graceful manner, to Senator Mar's offer," he said, sitting behind a highly polished wooden table and nursing a glass of Coca-Cola.

For a man the polls say could be the next president, Mr Aquino lives a modest lifestyle, preferring to maintain the family home rather than move to one of Manila's more luxurious and secure addresses. "My father bought this house, my three sisters and I grew up here and my mother lived here during the early days of her presidency. I would like to do the same - assuming the neighbours don't mind," he said with a smile.

"The palace [Malacanang] has had a negative effect on presidents who have lived there," he added, pointing out that the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the incumbent president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, both chose to live at the palace in Manila rather than live outside. Mrs Aquino and her successors, Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada, who enjoyed greater popularity, chose not to take up residence at the palace.

There are no protective gates or barriers at either end of Mr Aquino's nondescript street and traffic freely flows past the high green front gates that shield his home from the road. The front entrance is cluttered with boxes and bags of election material and the living room is painted yellow - the colour his mother wore during the heady days of people power in 1986 that eventually saw Marcos forced from office and into exile after 20 years of rule.

"Besides, if you are living in your own home you can walk around in your grungy old shorts and no one will notice," he said. Dressed in a black shirt and slacks, Mr Aquino is relaxed and confident with less than 60 days left to go in the campaign. This week he will campaign in northern Luzon and in particular Ilocos Norte - the home province of Ferdinand Marcos. It was on August 21, 1983, in the dying years of the Marcos regime, that Mr Aquino's father, the opposition leader Benigno Servillano "Ninoy" Aquino was assassinated. The murder catapulted Mr Aquino's mother into the spotlight as a standard bearer for democracy and reconciliation.

The living room is dominated by paintings by his mother and religious statues. On one wall hangs a coloured portrait of Cory Aquino and opposite are sketches of his parents. Chinese wooden furniture and oriental rugs fill the room. So what made Mr Aquino, who turned 50 on February 8, change his mind and run, forcing the Liberal Party to swap him with his friend, Senator Roxas, the party's original candidate?

"At my mother's funeral a guy said to me: 'Will you run, Senator?' I didn't know him - he was just an ordinary guy. At first I said no. He said: 'What if I can get one million signatures?' I said no. He came back a few minutes later said: 'What about two million'?" A devout Catholic, Mr Aquino sought divine guidance and advice from friends and family. Then, 40 days after his mother's death, he announced he would run, exciting what would have been a dull campaign.

Many Filipinos see Mr Aquino as an honest man not tainted by corruption and scandal like so many other politicians in the country. A bachelor, Mr Aquino says he is his own man. "Yes, I do have a panel of advisers, but what comes out of my mouth is what I believe in, not just a sound bite." Mr Aquino said he has had no media training for this election and resents people telling him what to do and how to react. Some critics say that while in Congress and the Senate he achieved very little, but Mr Aquino counters by saying, "as a politician I have never been a self-promoter - I just did my job."

Others have said he is living in the shadow of his parents, to which Mr Aquino says: "I'm perfectly OK with that. My father shed blood for democracy in this country and my mother was unending in her fight to do the right thing for the people." @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae