Aquino, new president, vows to fight corruption 

The New York Times
Published: June 9, 2010

MANILA — Benigno S. Aquino III was officially proclaimed the next president of the Philippines on Wednesday, vowing to fulfill his campaign promise to fight corruption and to immediately determine the “true state of the country.”

According to analysts, Mr. Aquino, who will become the 15th president of the republic on June 30, has to meet the expectations of Filipinos as early as he can, and can start by ensuring that fighting corruption remains on his agenda.

Those expectations spring almost entirely from his campaign promise to eradicate corruption, a pledge that was bolstered by his invocation of the almost saintly legacy of his parents, former President Corazon C. Aquino and the opposition politician Benigno Aquino Jr.

“If he is to fulfill his promise, obviously the first thing he should do is make sure that his cabinet is not only competent — it should not be corrupt,” said Solita Monsod, a professor of economics at the University of the Philippines. “If he puts in place people who don’t know what they’re doing, then he is in trouble.”

Corruption and Mr. Aquino’s promise to eradicate it were crucial to his victory. According to Pulse Asia, a pollster based in Manila, most voters wanted him to deal with corruption and the high price of basic goods, in that order.

At a news conference a few minutes after both houses of the Philippine Congress had proclaimed him the winner of the election held May 10, Mr. Aquino reiterated his vow against corruption, saying that going after smugglers in the Bureau of Customs was one of his priorities. He said he had already identified people who would carry out that campaign.

No one disputes Mr. Aquino’s sincerity about fulfilling his promise to fight corruption. But he is facing not just a gargantuan problem — it is estimated by various anticorruption groups and agencies that 30 percent of the national budget goes to corruption — but the disillusionment of many Filipinos about such promises by politicians in the past.

“Every president comes with glowing pronouncements on ending corruption, poverty and so on, but all these promises wither on the vine over time,” said Belinda Aquino, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and author of the book “Politics of Plunder: The Philippines Under Marcos.” The people, she said in an e-mail message, “are tired of the same old rationalizations and excuses.”

Ms. Aquino, who is not related to the president-elect, said that “fighting corruption is always an uphill battle” and that Mr. Aquino would have to contend with the same entrenched political elite, like the family of the dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos.

“The new president should not just concentrate on the Arroyo-related corrupt activities, but revisit the hundreds of cases way back against the Marcos cronies and estate, which have been dragging for well over a quarter of a century,” the professor said, referring to the departing president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

During his news conference Wednesday, Mr. Aquino said that he was still assembling members of his cabinet.

“Their first marching order would be to know your respective departments and find out exactly the state of the nation,” Mr. Aquino said, adding that “there has to be an inventory of the problems.”

As a senator from the political opposition, he was a critic of Mrs. Arroyo and had promised during the campaign to be the opposite of her.

In her nearly 10 years in office, Mrs. Arroyo, her family and her officials have been hounded by accusations of corruption and electoral fraud. The political opposition to which Mr. Aquino belonged tried several times to impeach her.

One of the areas Mr. Aquino will be forced to confront in his first months in office is the country’s budget deficit of 293.2 billion pesos, or $6.3 billion, equivalent to 3.6 percent of gross domestic product, and the high cost of basic commodities, which affects mostly the poor.

Ms. Monsod, the economist, said that Mr. Aquino must institute policies that promote “growth that is inclusive,” referring to agricultural productivity as an immediate target. “He has to have pro-poor policies to make sure that growth will benefit the poor,” she said.

Renato Reyes, secretary general of Bayan, a nationalist group that has led many anti-Arroyo protests, said that it expected Mr. Aquino to act swiftly. “The arduous task of reversing and undoing the many failed policies of the Arroyo regime must begin as soon as possible,” he said. “Many positive steps can be taken within the first 100 days of the next administration.”

Mr. Aquino also faces the challenge of achieving the so-called Millennium Development Goals, a set of time-specific objectives that 189 countries, among them the Philippines, committed to during a United Nations summit meeting in 2000. “While there has been progress in some areas, the country remains off track in more than 40 percent” of the 21 goals, the United Nations said Tuesday. These are in the areas of poverty and hunger, deaths from pregnancy-related illnesses, and an increase in the incidence of H.I.V. infection among the young.

Mr. Aquino will also face a communist insurgency, an Islamist separatist movement, terrorism and a human rights situation that rights groups have compared to the abuses of the Marcos years.

“I’m a little anxious, a little eager to start solving the problems that our countrymen are facing,” he said Wednesday.