Basket-case countries rarely get unambiguous opportunities for real reform. That’s what the Philippines has now with the presidency of Benigno Aquino III, who was sworn in on June 30. The stakes are high for Asia’s oldest democracy, which long has been mired in civil war, debt, poverty and corruption.
Mr. Aquino, known by his nickname, Noynoy, is the son of two legends of Philippine democracy: the late President Corazon Aquino, who reinstituted representative government after 20 years of strong-arm rule under Ferdinand Marcos, and Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., an opponent of Marcos martial law who was assassinated in 1983 while trying to re-enter the country from exile. This family pedigree helps make the new president a legitimate symbol for change, but with his ascension to office comes a palpable fear that if this scion of popular sovereignty can’t turn the country around, no one can.
The problems faced by the Philippine republic and its new leader are as numerous as they are deep-seated. Of the nation’s 100 million souls, 33 percent live below the poverty line, with many barely eking by on a small bowl of rice a day. The economy grew an anemic 1 percent in 2009, half the national budget goes to debt service, and there are few sources for new revenue. Unlike its export-driven neighbors, the Philippines’ most valuable export commodity is its own population, which flees in droves to seek opportunity abroad. Remittances sent home from overseas Filipino workers make up more than 10 percent of the entire Philippine economy. All this is to say nothing of Islamic insurrection in the southern islands and communist marauding in the mountains.
The most dangerous obstacle to progress, however, is the small oligarchy of families who have maintained a stranglehold on the archipelago’s wealth and power for generations. These dynasties enjoy a monopolistic lack of competition, which means any alteration to the status quo presents a threat to their privileged position. Mr. Aquino, who comes from one of the country’s richest clans, will have to convince his fellow elites of the imperative of sacrifice to summon the growth needed to alleviate poverty among the masses. Without an elite buy-in for his anti-corruption reform agenda, Mr. Aquino will face the perennial perils to sitting Philippine presidents: impeachment drives in Congress and brewing coups d’etat in military barracks.
There are some positives. Compared to much of Southeast Asia, Filipinos have a high literacy rate, speak English as an official language, are extremely industrious and maintain strong century-old ties to the largest economy in the world, America, its former colonial protector. Perhaps most important of all, Filipinos are desperate for a better life and elected a man who gives them hope. Keeping that link to the people and managing their expectations will be a tough job. Godspeed to Mr. Aquino in his important undertaking.