AS PRESIDENT CORAZON C. AQUINO entered the final year of her six-year term in 1991, she presided over a demoralized nation reeling from the effects of natural calamities and economic malaise. The country had slid into dictatorship and gross economic mismanagement during Ferdinand E. Marcos's twenty-year presidency. When Aquino was elevated to the presidency in an inspiring People's Power Revolution in 1986, Filipinos' hopes rose. Inevitably, the stark realities of the nation's economic and political predicaments tarnished Aquino's image.
Aquino's achievements, however, were significant. She helped topple a dictator who had unlimited reserves of wealth, force, and cunning. She replaced a disjointed constitution that was little more than a fig leaf for Marcos's personalistic rule with a democratic, progressive document that won overwhelming popular approval in a nationwide plebiscite. She renounced the dictatorial powers she inherited from Marcos and returned the Philippines to the rule of law; she lived with the checks on her own power inherent in three-branch government; and she scheduled national elections to create a two-chamber legislature and local elections to complete the country's redemocratization.
The 1987 constitution returned the Philippines to a presidential system. The national government is in theory highly centralized, with few powers devolving to provincial and municipal governments. In fact, local potentates often reserve powers to themselves that the national government is not even aware of. The national government consists of three branches: the executive, headed by the president; two houses of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives; and the Supreme Court, which heads an independent judiciary. A bill of rights guarantees political freedoms, and the constitution provides for regular elections.
The performance of these institutions was, of course, conditioned by Philippine history and culture, and by poverty. For example, the twenty-four members of the Senate, elected by nationwide ballot, in the 1980s were drawn almost entirely from old, prominent families. Senators staked out liberal, nationalist positions on symbolic issues, such as military base rights for the United States, but were exceedingly cautious about any structural changes, such as land reform, that could jeopardize their families' economic positions.
Political parties grew in profusion after the Marcos martiallaw regime (1972-81) was ended. There were 105 political parties registered in 1988. As in the pre-Marcos era, most legal political parties were coalitions, built around prominent individuals, which focused entirely on winning elections, not on what to do with the power achieved. There was little to distinguish one party from another ideologically, which was why many Filipinos regarded the political system as irrelevant.
President Aquino's early years in office were punctuated by a series of coup attempts. Her greatest frustration, and a most serious impediment to economic development, was a fractious, politicized army. Some officers wanted to regain the privileges they enjoyed under Marcos; others dreamed of saving the nation. Although all coup attempts failed, they frightened away foreign investors, forced Aquino to fire cabinet members of whom the army did not approve, pushed her policies rightward, and lent an air of impermanence to her achievements.
Criticism of the Aquino administration came from all parts of the political spectrum. Filipino communists refused to participate in a government they saw as a thin cover for oligarchy. The democratic left criticized Aquino for abandoning sweeping reform and for her probusiness and pro-American policies. Her own vice president, Salvador H. Laurel, castigated her mercilessly from the beginning and even encouraged the army to overthrow her. The far right (sugar barons, military malcontents, and ex-Marcos cronies) characterized her as naive and ineffective and ridiculed her for being what she always said she was, a "simple housewife." In reality she was far more than that. Amidst this cacophony, Aquino seemed to have calmly accepted that she would not be able to resolve the Philippines' deeply rooted structural problems and that it would be enough to have restored political democracy. She prepared the ground for her successor.
The Roman Catholic Church also was a major political factor. It had reverted to a less visible (but no less influential) role than in the declining years of Marcos's rule, when its relative invulnerability to harassment spurred priests and nuns to become political activists. Most church leaders criticized human rights abuses by military units or vigilantes, but they supported constitutional government. Cardinal Jaime Sin, who played such a pivotal role in Aquino's triumph over Marcos, recognized her personal virtue but denounced the corruption that stained her administration. Some parish priests, disgusted by the country's extreme polarization of wealth and power, cooperated with the New People's Army.
The communist insurgency had not been eradicated, although guerrillas posed less of a threat than they did before 1986. They conducted murderous internal purges. Still, if a guerrilla army wins by not losing, the New People's Army was a real alternative to the elected government. It fought for more than twenty years, and the class inequities it condemned continued to grow in the early 1990s. The fight against Filipino Muslim separatists in Mindanao likewise continued, also at a diminished level.
Philippine foreign relations in the late 1980s and early 1990s were colored by the contradiction between subjective nationalism and objective dependency. After nearly fifty years of independence, Filipinos still viewed their national identity as undefined and saw international respect as elusive. They chafed at perceived constraints on their sovereign prerogatives and resented the power of foreign business owners and military advisers. Yet, as a poor nation deeply in debt to private banks, multilateral lending institutions, and foreign governments, the Philippines had to meet conditions imposed by its creditors. This situation was galling to nationalists, especially because the previous regime had squandered its borrowed money. Filipinos also sought to achieve a more balanced foreign policy to replace the uncomfortably close economic, cultural, military, and personal ties that bound them to the United States, but this was unlikely to happen soon.
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