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

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Observers say the presidential race has become a contest between Villar's populism (and deep pockets) and the Aquino family legacy. The battle bears the echo of an earlier rivalry: like Marcos, Villar is running at the head of the Nacionalista Party, which vied in the past with the Aquinos' Liberal Party. (He is also backed by Marcos' son, Bongbong.) Marcos' refusal to accept an electoral loss to Cory triggered the People Power movement and catapulted her into the presidency in 1986. Her administration is credited with doing much to pull the Philippines away from the dark years of Marcos' martial law, bringing back foreign investors and rewriting the country's constitution. But, unlike her husband Ninoy, Cory was never a natural politician and was seen by critics at times to be weak and indecisive. She was also beset by the conspiracies of pro-Marcos forces and victim to three failed coup attempts. Shrapnel from a 1987 attack by rebellious troops is still lodged in her son's neck.

Noynoy Aquino says he has forgiven the soldiers who once sought to kill him — some are now in politics as well — and is not concerned about the threat of an interfering military. (Mutinous officers in 2006 also sought to oust Arroyo.) He talks with ease and intelligence about his plans to expand the country's middle class with microcredit programs, to boost industry, universalize health care, fix education and shake up the judiciary. But there are doubts about how savvy an operator he will be when thrown deep into the murky world of Philippine politics — one, by his own admission, that he has considered forsaking in the past "so not to be compromised anymore." Winnie Monsod, a prominent TV pundit who once served in Cory's administration, says Aquino "doesn't have his father's charisma, but he has his mother's sincerity. Whether that's enough, I don't know."

Keeping Hope Alive
There's a cautious optimism that it just might be. "People sometimes don't see it," says Maria Elena, Aquino's eldest sister, widely known by her nickname "Ballsy." "But Noynoy's very stubborn. He knows what's right and what's wrong." Executive power in the Philippines is far-reaching — by some counts, Arroyo made thousands of government appointments — and experts hope the next administration will build up the stability and independence of the country's frail political institutions. Aquino is seen to be surrounding himself with a team of largely honest, well-intentioned politicos. "He may not be the ultimate architect of change, but he could push open the door for real reform," says the commentator Casiple.

Vitug, the magazine editor, says Aquino's promise lies in his incorruptible image. "Our trust in politics has been so eroded that people just want a new leader who will do the very basic — who will not be corrupt, who will be good," she says. But this is also tethered to a far deeper affection. "The people remember his parents," says Monsod. "For them it's like going back to Camelot."

Aquino is more humble about his role, fitting for a person who has lived quietly for much of his life in the shadow of his parents' legend. "We are just instruments put in the right position to execute God's will," he says with the sort of religious solemnity his mother became famous for. After leaving office, Cory had turned to painting. The walls of her old Manila home are lined with watercolors of flowers, rosaries and scenes of sylvan idyll far from the tumult and violence that often filled her political life. Aquino's rise follows his mother's retreat from the maelstrom and there's a palpable steeliness beneath his unimposing demeanor. "I crossed my Rubicon in 1983," says Aquino, referring to the year his father was assassinated. "I cannot accept that he would die for nothing."

Neither can countless Filipinos. As Aquino's convoy heads to the rally in Zamboanga, the city nearly empties out entirely onto the streets to greet him. Yellow banners and ribbons — first popularized by Ninoy's love for the 1970s pop song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around the Ole Oak Tree" — festoon almost every rickety fence and street light in a town governed by politicians aligned against the Aquinos. The roads teem with Zamboangans of all walks of life, barefoot street kids and housewives holding parasols, all clad in their own makeshift yellow Aquino gear (the campaign didn't at the time have a budget to mass-produce T-shirts). The procession teeters to a snail's pace for over three hours, as thousands swarm around, their hands held up forming Cory's famed L sign — meaning laban, or "fight." So much confetti and shredded paper billows out of office buildings that, over the wail of sirens and the ceaseless chanting of "Noynoy!," tropical Zamboanga looks like it's covered in a layer of snow.

Romy Mercado, a friend of Aquino's since high school and a close aide, says they have been received in such fashion nearly everywhere. The campaign, according to Aquino himself, is quickening something "dormant" in the Filipino people. "I haven't seen anything like it since the days of Cory and People Power," Mercado shouts over the din, sitting one vehicle behind Aquino's. But when asked to talk more about his experience of that now faraway time, Mercado is unable to respond. Head in his hands, he's too busy wiping away the tears.

with reporting by Sunshine De Leon / Manila

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