The Next Aquino: Can Noynoy Save The Philippines?

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Erik De Castro / Reuters

Aquino flashes the L sign first invoked by Cory during People Power in 1986

It's past midnight in Zamboanga and Benigno (Noynoy) Aquino III slouches in his chair, a glass of Coke in one hand and a cigarette in another. He's tired and bleary-eyed and wracked by a cold. A grueling day of audiences, processions and interviews in three different provinces across the southern Philippine island of Mindanao is drawing to a close in the hotel lobby. While aides and well-wishers murmur around him, Aquino stands and holds out his arms as if awaiting handcuffs. They are lined with scratches and bruises — the toll of ceaseless hours of plunging into throngs of supporters and pressing the flesh. He grins: "It's another demonstration of people power."

For the Philippines, Aquino is an unlikely man of the moment. At a rally earlier in the day, tens of thousands had crammed into a stadium to hear the presidential candidate speak. Kris Aquino, his youngest sister and a celebrity talk-show host, revved up the crowd alongside her husband, an equally telegenic basketball star. High-school dance troupes garbed in yellow — the Aquino colors — spun cartwheels on stage. Yet when 50-year-old Noynoy emerged, hunched and bespectacled, amid blaring music and streams of confetti, he cut an awkward figure. Shirt loose, pants baggy and hair thinning, he looked more an abashed computer nerd than the sort of brash, swaggering politician that has become the stock-in-trade in the Philippines.

The movement that has swelled around Aquino in the past year, launching him as chief contender for the Philippine presidency ahead of the May 10 general elections, hinges on a legacy far larger than his own. His charismatic father, Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino Jr., was the country's greatest champion of democracy before being gunned down in 1983, presumably by agents of the ruling dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Then his mother, Corazon (Cory) Aquino, a once meek housewife, became the figurehead of a popular rebellion in 1986 that toppled Marcos and gifted to the global lexicon the now immortal phrase of democratic revolution — people power. Not for nothing is Nelson Mandela said to have praised Noynoy Aquino when they once met, quipping, "You chose your parents well."

By his own admission, Aquino would not be running at all had it not been for the massive outpouring of public grief and affection that followed his mother's death from cancer last August. He says he now walks the same path first trod by his revered parents. "They made automatic in me the preference to take up the cudgels for those who have less in life, for the powerless," he says. "Why should I veer away from their footprints?"

This moral mandate has proven especially poignant ahead of the elections — winning Aquino a lead in opinion polls despite a relatively undistinguished political career (he's currently a member of the Philippine Senate). Popular opinion turned long ago against the current President, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has been in power for nearly a decade. Her administration is mired in sundry allegations of graft and electoral fraud. The law bars Arroyo from seeking re-election, but many critics see in her reign traces of the nation's authoritarian past. Analysts point to a decline in the independence of institutions like the judiciary and an increasing gap between the wealthy few and the 30% of the population living below the poverty line. Says Aquino: "It's as if we've backslid to the days of Marcos."

Aquino's campaign has styled itself as the panacea for an afflicted country. If you listen to his supporters, he is the righteous change candidate, destined to overhaul a stagnant status quo and redeem democracy, which has had a long and torturous history in the Philippines. While his opponents — including a wealthy billionaire — draw their funds from a coterie of vested interests, Aquino claims to be operating on a shoestring budget. Perhaps overstating the point, Aquino staffers in Manila display dozens of piggy banks filled with coins pooled together by schoolchildren. Chris Tio, a Cebu businessman who has left his work and family behind to volunteer for the campaign, shakes with emotion when recounting the virtues of the Aquino cause. "The Senator is a humble man at an extraordinary moment," he says. "We're in a fight for the soul of this nation."

Frozen in Time
Yet, for all the zeal he inspires, aquino himself is also a product of the status quo. Both his parents, Ninoy and Cory, came from pedigreed stock — landed, aristocratic families that have long been part of the ruling establishment. Similarly, Aquino's vice-presidential running mate, Mar Roxas, is the grandson of Manuel Roxas, the country's first President. Arroyo, their erstwhile foe, is the daughter of Diosdado Macapagal, another President from the early days of the republic. And though they eventually faced each other as enemies, Ninoy and Marcos were members of the same fraternity at an elite Philippine university. Like a pantomime of ancient Rome, Manila's political landscape has been shaped for generations by the intimacies and vendettas of an entrenched rank of patricians.

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