Cory Aquino - A Problematic Legacy

SIX years ago, Corazon Aquino emerged from obscurity to become one of the most popular leaders in the history of the Philippines.

Her tenure, however, ended June 30 in disappointment and frustration when her elected successor, Fidel Ramos, was sworn in as president. For many Filipinos, Mrs. Aquino's legacy, at best, is mixed.

President Aquino's administration draws praise for good intentions, yet scorn for a feeble and indecisive style of government.

Despite overwhelming popular support at times, Aquino managed to pass only a few key pieces of legislation during her six years in office. Major policy initiatives were often blocked by elite members of Congress or impeded by political infighting within her own Cabinet.

When Aquino was not wrangling with Congress, she was battling - both figuratively and literally - her own military. In the best of times, she managed only a tenuous peace with rebel soldiers and key members of the armed forces.

But peace came at a cost. Scarce resources were diverted to defense. Soldiers were given hefty pay increases, while key military officers received a stronger voice in government. Despite these concessions, Aquino had to endure seven coup attempts during her six years in office.

Under siege from both left and right, Aquino's presidency sometimes failed to provide even the most basic services, including garbage collection and electricity in Manila. Even more unfortunate, her administration failed to stamp out some of the hallmarks of the hated Marcos regime.

Corruption and cronyism, for instance, continue as time-honored traditions in the Philippines. And although there was less political wheeling and dealing in May's national elections, the old-style system of political patronage and favoritism remained in place.

Poverty, meanwhile, remains widespread. About half the population lives in absolute poverty. This marks an improvement from 1985, when nearly 60 percent of the population lived below the official poverty threshold.

Yet the level of poverty and income inequity are among the worst in Asia. Reflecting the Philippines' highly skewed pattern of land distribution, roughly 20 percent of the population owns 80 percent of the land, and nearly two-thirds of the 10 million people employed in agriculture don't own the land they till. Many make their living either as tenant farmers or hired laborers.

Aquino pledged a sweeping land reform program early in her term, though her "comprehensive agrarian reform program" was finally gutted by the House of Representatives, whose members, like Aquino, are large landowners.

The failure to introduce comprehensive land reform, which would have raised rural incomes and undercut the appeal of communism in the countryside, was one of two strategic blunders of the Aquino administration. An inability to attract foreign investment in the midst of Asia's investment boom was the other.

AN unprecedented wave of foreign investment swept over Southeast Asia in the second half of the 1980s, yet the Philippines received only a fraction of the funds. Asia's largest investor, Japan, pumped roughly $15 billion into the region between 1987 and 1991. The Philippines, however, received only 5 percent of the total.

Other investors from Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong followed Japan's lead, investing billions in new plants and manufacturing facilities in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

A dramatic surge in trade and growth followed in the recipient nations. Thailand's economy, for instance, expanded by more than 10 percent annually over the 1988-90 period; exports soared and, more important, broadened to include manufactured goods like computer parts and electronic consumer goods.

For its part, the Philippines languished while the rest of the region boomed. The nation was largely bypassed by the investment surge - due in part to lingering political uncertainty, and in part to restrictive investment regulations.

As a consequence, the country missed a golden opportunity to upgrade its industrial base, deepen its export base, and enhance its long-term economic future.

While President Aquino's tenure was marked more by problems than progress, her accomplishments should not be underestimated. Above all, Aquino made good on her promise to restore democratic institutions that had atrophied under the 20-year rule of President Ferdinand Marcos.

The press was freed and the judiciary and legislature were made independent. In February 1987, a national plebiscite overwhelmingly approved a new constitution. Congress was restored in July of the same year, after the nation's first truly free elections since 1971. This was followed by local elections.

On the economic front, Aquino made some progress in deregulating the coconut and sugar monopolies. Prices were decontrolled, while a deal with the International Monetary Fund was struck.

Moreover, to blame all of the nation's ills on Aquino, as many of her critics do, is unfair. Many of the problems Aquino confronted - widespread poverty, income inequalities, a communist insurgency, a politicized military - were inherited. Tackling these issues was made more difficult by a myopic and self-serving Congress.

President Aquino's accomplishments notwithstanding, her legacy is not likely to be judged kindly. Many Filipinos had hoped Aquino's people's power revolution would mark an end to government corruption and cronyism, and begin an era of economic prosperity. They have been disappointed.

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