Benigno Aquino steps down as Philippine president with mostly positive legacy

Outgoing Philippine President Benigno Aquino (right) and his successor Rodrigo Duterte at the departure ceremony for Aquino on June 30.
Outgoing Philippine President Benigno Aquino (right) and his successor Rodrigo Duterte at the departure ceremony for Aquino on June 30.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - Benigno Aquino stepped down as Philippine president on Thursday (June 30) after a six-year term that was highly regarded overseas, but partly condemned by voters at home.

After his preferred successor was soundly defeated in last month's elections, here are what political and economic analysts interviewed by AFP say were his key legacies:

Aquino delivered average annual economic growth of just over 6.0 per cent, the highest since the 1970s. The government gained investment-grade status as its finances stabilised. However voters appeared to give him a red card for failing to ease widespread poverty.

Aquino said his top priority during his six years was to tackle corruption that infested all sectors of society, and he had some wins. Government budgeting became more transparent. He took some high-profile scalps, including having his predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, arrested for corruption and the then-Supreme Court chief justice impeached.

Aquino also was himself seen to have avoided the temptation of plundering from the state, unlike many of his predecessors. But overall graft in society remained a major problem.

Aquino put the Philippines' long-running dispute with China over competing claims to the South China Sea at the top of his foreign policy agenda. He launched a landmark case with a UN-backed tribunal to challenge China's claims to most of the sea. That tribunal is expected to issue a verdict on July 12, and a favourable ruling would place pressure on China to temper its recent expansionist policies in the sea.

Aquino also dramatically increased military spending, mainly due to the perceived China threat.

The high-risk China confrontation required closer ties with military ally and former colonial ruler the United States. The US and Philippines signed a new defence agreement in 2014. This allowed the US to station troops, aircraft and equipment in the Philippines, angering China.

Defeating years of opposition by the dominant Catholic Church, Aquino pushed through a landmark law mandating the state provide free contraceptives to poor couples and teach sex education in schools. This was widely seen as essential to slowing the Philippines' rapid population growth.

Aquino expanded a Brazilian-style conditional cash-transfer programme for the Filipino poor, giving monthly payments to about 20 million people - roughly one fifth of the population - ensuring children stayed in school and received basic medical care. Critics said economic growth under Aquino did nothing to ease deep poverty, but his aides argued the cash-transfer programme had "slow-burn" effects that would help in years to come.

Aquino put in place a K-12 programme, adding universal kindergarten coverage and two years of senior high school, aligning basic education with the rest of the world. Local mother tongues were introduced as teaching languages for some subjects in place of English.