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Nov 27

The Explainer: Cory as president

As every era passes, and the towering personalities of those eras pass from living memory, we need to find ways to re-remember and recapture what those people and their lives and times were about. Today, to mark the 77th birth anniversary of the late President Aquino, let’s focus on her presidency: what she set out to do, and how she did it.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.

 

I.

 

It’s been 77 years since Cory Aquino was born eighteen years since she left the presidency, five months since she died.

At the time she died, the writer Eric Gamalinda had reminded us,

“She was, as so many predicted during the heyday of the people power revolution, our Joan of Arc. We knew we would burn her for allowing us to corrupt the vision we wanted her to sustain. We forgot so soon that she had achieved what no man in our supremely machismo-obsessed country had done – to get rid of the Marcoses.”

But if people reached adulthood never having known Cory as President, then they, too, may find it difficult to understand why the veteran journalist Malou Mangahas wrote the following:

“The Cory years launched a whole new regime of good programs that by quality and quantity surpass the combined achievements of her three successors.

“The three post-EDSA presidents after Cory – Fidel V. Ramos, Joseph E. Estrada, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo – practically just had to breeze through the presidency all because Cory had done most of the work for them.”

Cory Aquino herself had summarized the political program of her presidency before the Rotary Clubs on January 23, 1986 as follows:

“(1) we must break up the concentration of power in the hands of the Executive; (2) we must set up effective safeguards against abuse and misuse of power; (3) we must make the executive and all who follow his directives answerable for their misdeeds.” As it turned out, this would be a program she remained committed to, even after she left office.

Before Edsa, there was only one important and powerful figure in our government: the President.

After Edsa, power would be dispersed, and uneasily shared, among individuals and institutions. And something was born, that was notably absent during the Marcos years: power opinion as judge and jury of our officials and institutions.

The rise of fall of administrations in the eyes of the people, more often than not depends on their stewardship of the economy. But the economy can be affected not just by a president’s act, but those of others.

Ironically, the non-politician Cory Aquino, set out to foster professionalism and accountability in the judiciary and the military, and to restore checks and balances by means of the oversight that is a built-in function of an independent legislature. All made possible by our institutions being under the ambit of a Constitution democratic and not authoritarian in orientation.

This Philippines Free Press cartoon from 1987 shows all the problems and groups that complicated achieving these objectives. There were rebels from the Left and the Right, inherited debts, mass poverty, and so on.

If Marcos had been pushing the country to the point of civil war because of his misrule, the Aquino administration wanted to bring rebels back to the fold and achieve peace.

But this depended not just on rebels deciding to come down from the hills, but on those who’d fought them in the hills being able to adjust to living side-by-side with former enemies.

At the same time the institutions that had been corrupted now had to do their jobs while being increasingly deprived of their perks.

And the geopolitical situation the country had been used to for generations changed.

So imagine the complications of fighting old enemies still unreconciled to democracy on one hand,

And wrestling with the problems of an environmental nature on the other. The tendency to settle any one of these problems by force, was always there. It was how Marcos had settled things in his time, adopting dictum of this man, Benito Mussolini.

He’d said, the consent of the governed is changeable like the seashore; what endures, he said, and helps the state endure, is force.

That’s the attitude of the Right; as for the Left, Lenin had always insisted, that there can be no compromise with liberal democracy.

Take a look at what he wrote.

And Mao Zedong had added that cooperation of any sort, was impossible, too.

Here’s what he said.

And so you had after 1986, a situation Teodoro M. Locsin had identified as far back as 1967:

Freedom, which was restored after Edsa, is hateful to the affluent as much as to their victims.

This is a necessary introduction if we’re to answer the question of what, exactly, Cory Aquino set out to do, as someone who never wanted the job, with the presidency. In 1992, the Presidential Management Staff issued a report on how she handled her office.

Within her official family, for one, she faced the problems of a broad coalition that was eager to exercise its freedoms. There were so many views in her cabinet, because there were so many different sectors represented in her government. And unlike the Marcos years, their differences got magnified by public scrutiny in the media and by institutions that also now enjoyed great measures of independence: Congress and the Courts could spread their wings, without fear of a dictator’s getting even.

Teamwork, in the absence of a dictator’s ability to impose his will by force, in many ways took a backseat to each sector clamoring to be heard and to have things done its way. In the PMS report you can see that the cabinet itself had to go through five separate workshops to try to foster teamwork and engage in problem-solving.

In the current campaign, candidate Gilbert Teodoro Jr., for example, has advocated finding institutional ways to encourage consensus, without which cooperation is impossible.

His proposal is nothing new, and in fact, attempts to flesh out one measure Cory Aquino put in place to do precisely this.

In 1987 she revived the Council of State as a means to get all sides to sit around the same table. His current proposal acknowledges one of the lessons and aspirations of the Aquino presidency.

But it is more difficult to achieve cooperation and consensus when the default approach to the presidency, by a president, is self-control: to let people exercise their freedoms rather than to limit them; to acknowledge public opinion rather than dismiss it.

And yet, to return to Malou Mangahas’ estimation of Aquino’s years as Presidents, the long list of achievements Cory Aquino could point to as President, were impressive indeed. As Mangahas wrote, “Apart from a new Constitution, Cory gave the nation groundbreaking policies and reforms, notably the Presidential Commission on Good Government, the Commission on Human Rights, the Local Government Code, the Family Code, the Administrative Code, the Expanded Value-Added Tax, the Generics Act, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, the National Youth Commission, and a bounty of laws for mothers, children, rebel-returnees, and indigenous communities.”

 

Think of of it. In the generation since Edsa, all these institutions and laws provide the landscape we navigate as citizens, every day. They are the central topics of debate in government and media; they provide the limits on the ambitions of our officials.

When we return, we’re going to zero in on how Cory Aquino handled the responsibilities and challenges of her office. How did she wield power? Our guest’s insights, when we return.

 

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