The death of former president, Corazon Aquino on 1 August 2009 after prolonged struggle against colon cancer stirred mass mourning in the Philippines. Aquino was a woman who had achieved iconic status for her resilience in the political arena and lifelong dedication towards entrenching democratic institutions in her homeland. This was most notably demonstrated by the 1987 adoption of the Constitution which won 80 per cent of the popular vote. Aquino had spearheaded the drafting of this document which imbibed many democratic principles such as free speech, freedom of religion and due process found in the American Constitution. Aquino laboured to safeguard this Constitution during her presidency and perhaps even after. As word of constitutional reform by incumbent president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her allies spread in July 2009, Aquino motivated protests against these purported measures.
The primary reason for the unpopularity of these constitutional reforms was the proposal to remove term limits on elective office which would allow President Arroyo to stay in power beyond the end of her scheduled term in June 2010. Other unpopular proposals in the reforms include a transition to a federal parliamentary form of government, basing elections to the Senate or Upper House on provincial districts rather than the national level and reduction of ceilings on foreign investments and property ownership.
On 27 July 2009, President Arroyo countered mounting dissent spearheaded by the opposition, with an address to the nation that defended the policies and functioning of her administration. While she briefly touched upon the issue of constitutional reforms, she mostly took on accusations of misgovernance and negligence towards the economy. She stated in her speech that, “In 2008 up to the first quarter of 2009 we stood among only a few economies in Asia-Pacific that did not shrink. Compare this in 2001, when some of my current critics were driven out by people power, Asia was then surging but our country was on the brink of bankruptcy.” In the course of her speech, Arroyo emphasised that she had not taken office to be popular but to steer the nation and its people towards a better future. She called the vision of her critics weak and repeatedly thanked Congress for approving some of her tougher policies. These included the Cheaper Medicine law and the Securitization law which monitored new financial schemes of banks and insurance companies to prevent the kind of recklessness that has dealt a blow to western economies. In another refutation of the critic’s accusations, Arroyo stated that, “In technical education and skills training, we have invested three times that of three previous administrations combined.”
Like Corazon Aquino, Arroyo too has survived coup attempts by seditious factions of the military. Addressing allegations of dictatorial rule, Arroyo defended her management of the coup crisis as strong governance and further stated that she was prepared to defend democracy with arms when it was threatened with violence. She also clarified that she had no designs of extending her time in office beyond the allotted term and encouraged the nation to partake in the best exercise of democracy, i.e. voting. She mentioned the upcoming meeting with President Obama and Philippines being the first Southeast Asian nation invited by the new US administration to the White House.
Despite these firm dismissals of criticisms against her government, disparaging accounts of the unscrupulous conduct of her administration abound. The recent plummeting of Arroyo’s approval ratings lends some credibility to these charges of corruption, mismanagement of government funds and the economy. Critics point out that despite Arroyo’s self appraisals, the growth of the economy had indeed slowed and that most foreign direct investments have been aimed at the business process outsourcing industry. Moreover they allege that it is remittances from nearly 10 million workers abroad, who have gone overseas due to lack of opportunities at home, that have truly sustained the economy. Additionally, a joint statement issued by a consortium of businesses condemned the recent resolution regarding voting procedures on constitutional reforms. The group stated, “ We are appalled at the indecency and blatant disregard of the Filipino people’s will displayed by the House of Representatives in its adoption of House Resolution No. 1109 that allows itself to convene as a constituent assembly to amend the Constitution, without the necessary participation of the Senate.”
While both Aquino and Arroyo came to power after reign by incompetent administrations and as a result of popular people’s uprisings, there are vast differences in their attitudes to democracy. Arroyo may seem like the easier candidate to malign in this regard, but there just as many in Philippine citizenry that appreciate what she has done for the economy, particularly in wake of the world economic crisis. There is undisputed reverence for the late Corazon Aquino and her contribution to democracy building in the Philippines, nevertheless the strong rhetoric of the incumbent president is also likely to influence the evolution of democratic discourse in Philippines.