Former Senator Benigno 'Ninoy' Aquino once predicted: “Anyone who succeeded Marcos would smell like horse manure six months after taking power.”
He meant that anyone foolhardy enough to take on the enormous task of cleaning house after the catastrophe of the Marcos dictatorship was bound to disappoint people soon enough, because the expectations would be too high.
Dramatic change, such as a revolution that would end a 14-year one-man rule, brings with it the presumption that the ills and shortcomings of the earlier despised dispensation would be dealt with just as swiftly.
Unfortunately, democracy doesn’t work as fast or as cleanly; forging consensus takes time, the requirements of transparent governance necessitate process and procedure, and change by increment—and more often by compromise, or what is called politics—is how parties of diverse interests manage to work together, as a counterweight to bare-knuckle, authoritarian rule.
Ninoy never foresaw that his own wife, Cory, would end up succeeding Marcos—and, to the surprise of many, would survive not just six months but a full six years in Malacañang, effecting the first peaceful transfer of power in post-Edsa Philippines at the end of her term.
She retained a considerable amount of goodwill well into her retirement, as evidenced by the mammoth crowds that came to pay their respects when she died in 2009 and to accompany her funeral cortege—a massive demonstration of affection second only to the historic, almost-daylong funeral march for Ninoy after his assassination in 1983.
But did Cory Aquino meet the expectations of her accidental —some say transitional—presidency?
She did set about reestablishing the basic institutions of republican government, from assembling a commission to write a new constitution with strong safeguards against a relapse into dictatorship, to reopening Congress and restoring an independent judiciary.
But the systemic infirmities that bedeviled Philippine society long before her, and even Marcos, continued to prevail despite the democratic space: widespread poverty, social inequality brought about by the economic and political stranglehold of the elites, warlordism and dynastic rule, lack of jobs that would drive millions of Filipinos to seek work abroad, deteriorating education and public health, etc.
The succeeding presidents, from Fidel Ramos to Joseph Estrada to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and to the outgoing Benigno Aquino III, all publicly took cognisance of these longstanding problems and vowed to apply themselves to battling them.
It is a testament to how intractable the problems are, and perhaps how ineffective the response to them has been so far, that the man assuming the presidency today, Rodrigo Duterte, won an unlikely victory in the polls: by riding a wave of simmering discontent over what many believe is the fraying character of the nation, from dangerously malfunctioning MRT trains to horrendous daily traffic to criminals and drug syndicates on the loose—on top of the (by now expected but no less outrageous) corruption and incompetence in government.
To be fair, the dawn of the Duterte era cannot be seen entirely as a protest victory; P-Noy remains a popular president, and the incoming administration itself has said it would build on his successful economic policies.
Duterte is not, by any means, inheriting a basket case.
But the slashing rhetoric of Duterte’s campaign also drew very clear lines on the sand: that his presidency would be a clear break with the past; that the old ways, whatever they are, are at an end; and that the mayor who had ruled Davao City—brash, iron-fisted, brutal if need be, impatient with niceties such as the human rights of so-called criminals, insistent on fast and clean government—would be in full charge.
He will break “Imperial Manila” if he needed to, he said, to get it functioning the way he thinks it should.
Rodrigo Duterte takes his oath of office as president today carrying with him the great expectations of millions of Filipinos galvanised by his words—not only those who voted for him but also those who’ve come around to the idea of giving him a chance and backing him as the country’s duly elected leader.
The uncompromising tone and the time frames he has set will be the benchmarks against which he will be measured in the next six years.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 21 newspapers.