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June 25, 2021

Asia

PHILIPPINES: With Aquino’s death, Duterte’s populism loses a target

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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In 2009, the death of democracy icon and former president Corazon Aquino generated a surge of nostalgia that catapulted her son, Benigno Aquino III (“Noynoy”), then a largely nondescript senator with a thin legislative record, to the presidency in 2010. Mr. Aquino’s death yesterday, 24 June, from a lingering illness is unlikely to have as profound an effect on Philippine politics. Nonetheless, his death will eventually deprive President Rodrigo Duterte’s supporters of a common target for their populist attacks; they often portray the Aquino family and its closest allies as part of the elites that have politically and economically exploited the country, at least until Duterte came along.

Mr. Aquino presided over an economic resurgence marked by fiscal discipline and was personally untainted by corruption (and by most accounts was well- intentioned), but his 2010-2016 administration’s high-profile missteps — a mishandled hostage crisis involving Hong Kong tourists, an unconstitutional budget reallocation process and the death of 44 policemen during a terrorist hunt — severely undermined perceptions of his leadership by the end of his term. Furthermore, public underinvestment in infrastructure during his six years in office, the most popular manifestation of which was gridlock in the capital’s streets, became an increasingly unpopular issue. As a result, Aquino’s chosen successor, then Local and Interior Government Secretary Mar Roxas, lost to Duterte, even though the broader economy was expanding strongly.

Eventually, Duterte’s supporters portrayed the 2016 elections results not only as a public repudiation of Roxas and of the problems that lingered from the Aquino presidency, but of the Aquino family itself, tagging them as representing the oligarchy that has controlled much of the country’s wealth and power. Duterte avoided directly attacking the Aquinos, but his administration exploited this division and found it to be an effective way to rally his base. In 2016, he said the “yellows,” referring to the color used by the Aquino family in electoral campaigns, wanted to bring him down and replace him with Vice-President Leonor Robredo. That narrative has persisted the past five years, and it is one of the key means by which Duterte’s supporters consistently attempt to differentiate the president from other politicians. Last year, he shuttered ABS-CBN, the country’s largest television network, which is owned by the Lopez family, also an Aquino ally from the 1980s.

Aquino’s death will likely eventually lead to a shift in tactics for the administration. None of Aquino’s four siblings is in politics, while Roxas is also unlikely to run for office in 2022. Increasingly, therefore, Duterte and his allies will have to portray potential contenders such as boxer Manny Pacquiao and Manila Mayor Isko Moreno as the threats to his plans for a succession, but they do not have political baggage — real or otherwise — that have been cast on Mr. Aquino since 2016. Duterte will likewise also increase his attacks on the left, both those who are legitimately participating in politics and the communist New People’s Army. But with Mr. Aquino gone, so is at least one target for Duterte’s populism.