Philippines' Aquino struggles with legacy as clout fades

Philippine President Benigno Aquino addresses parliament for the last time on Monday.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino addresses parliament for the last time on Monday. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA (AFP) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino addresses parliament for the last time on Monday, racing to secure fragile legacies of peace in the war-torn south and a stronger economy.

Aquino will make his final "State of the Nation Address" with his political clout fading and struggling to choose a successor for next year's elections that would continue with his agendas, analysts told AFP.

A peace treaty with the country's largest Muslim rebel group, aimed at ending decades of fighting that has claimed 120,000 lives, is in peril as a draft law granting self-rule to the Muslim minority is stalled in parliament.

Meanwhile, economic growth slowed to a three-year low of 5.2 per cent in the first quarter.

"He is entering his lameduck phase and he's losing influence by the day," said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.

"He should use his remaining political capital and tell Congress to pass the BBL," Casiple said, referring to the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law that would create the autonomous Muslim region in the south and is the centrepiece of the peace plan.

The measure has languished in parliament due to outrage over the deaths of 44 police commandos in an encounter with Islamic rebels, including from the main Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in January.

Aquino is indeed expected to urge parliament on Monday to quickly pass the law, the main barrier to implementing the peace pact, according to his advisers.

If Aquino does succeed in finalising peace with the MILF, it would be one of the most important legacies of his presidency, according to Casiple and other analysts.

A stronger economy is the potential major legacy for Aquino, although it is more tenuous as it will be dependent on whether his successor will continue with his reforms.

In the Philippines, presidents can only serve a single six-year term, so Aquino is banking on anointing a successor who can entrench and expand on his administration's work.

Much of his economic reforms have centred on tackling massive corruption that has for decades held back the economy.

Aquino has had notable successes, with the Philippines earning investor grade credit ratings for the first time and overseeing some of the strongest economic growth rates in Asia before this year's slowdown.

"But it's a fragile legacy, in the sense that it takes longer than a six-year term for anti-corruption measures to stick," said Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist at BDO Unibank.

One of the big themes of Aquino's address to parliament is expected to be a call to the nation to choose the right successor to press on with his anti-graft campaign.

"In less than a year, the Filipino will again be at a crossroads," Aquino said in a speech last week, while inspecting a new dam project, that he is expected to echo on Monday.

"My only advice: pick a leader who will be true to his promise, not someone with empty promises, not someone who will take advantage of you or steal from you."

- Succession woes -

The problem is, with 10 months before the election, Aquino can not yet even choose himself.

Aquino's preferred choice has long been seen as Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, his longtime ally, family friend, Liberal Party stalwart and reliable economic administrator.

But Roxas is languishing in surveys and there is a strong chance he would be easily beaten by the opposition's charismatic leader, Jejomar Binay.

At the 2010 elections, Binay crushed Roxas in their contest for the vice presidency.

Aquino's other choice is first-term senator Grace Poe, who owes her immense popularity to being the daughter of famed, deceased movie star Fernando Poe.

Her father lost the 2004 presidential elections in controversial circumstances, with his camp insisting Gloria Arroyo stole one million votes that cost him victory.

But while popular and widely regarded for her personal honesty, Poe has relatively little political experience and is not even a member of Aquino's Liberal party.

"If I had my way, I (would have) announced my choice yesterday," an exasperated Aquino said last week when asked about who he wanted to succeed him.

Capitalising on the uncertainty is Binay, a former Aquino ally who has in recent years faced a barrage of corruption allegations that have raised concerns about the nation's path under his helm.

Either way, Aquino faces a gamble, according to Ateneo de Manila University political science professor Benito Lim.

"If Aquino endorses a loser, everything he worked for will go to waste," Lim said.