Although I have been ferociously critical of President B.S. Aquino 3rd since before he could even legitimately add that word “President” to his calling cards I had a small epiphany the other night: He may be the greatest president this country has ever had.
In his most recent State of the Noynoy, or rather Nation Address a couple of months ago, Aquino went off-script to spend some time musing in worried tones about what would become of his legacy after he’s gone, whether that inevitability arrives in mid-2016, mid-2022, or at some other point in the hazy future (he seems to have not quite decided when that will be yet).
And while he was scored by some observers for making his report on the current status and prospects of the nation too personal, he was right to raise the question. We should all worry about whether or not his successor will properly follow the path he has laid out for this country.
The value of some presidents throughout history, whether in this country or elsewhere, has only really revealed itself after the passage of time. South African reformer Nelson Mandela, for instance, was considered a basically inept, one-note head of government when he finally got his chance, but in his twilight years and since his death, it is generally recognized that he did, in fact, build a system with a certain amount of stability that has allowed South Africa to progress in tangible ways. Jimmy Carter was considered a bad joke for most of his one uncomfortable term in office in the United States, but since then has come to be regarded as one of America’s greatest statesmen; for one thing, his signature on a particular national security memo was—probably—the ‘small tap in just the right place’ that eventually brought down the Soviet Union. In the Philippines, the economic foundation laid by Aquino’s predecessor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has been widely acknowledged to have contributed to the country’s current growth potential, even though she was just as widely unpopular while in office.
And B.S. Aquino’s own mother Cory, the first post-Marcos era president—okay, so there are some exceptions to the rule. Her heir, however, is not one of them, and the truly inspiring thing about him is he has managed to show his worth and the path the country should follow so early.
B.S. Aquino’s gift to the Philippines is the raising of the level of political discourse and the standards against which candidates for public office, in particular the man or woman who will replace him, will be judged. Gone is the era in which campaigns are built around personalities and vapid motherhood statements like “uplifting the poor,” and “strengthening institutions,” and “not engaging in a level of plunder that the average Viking would consider excessive.”
Instead, B.S. Aquino has introduced a new kind of politics, one in which personalities and platitudes can be completely ignored, and the candidates for the upcoming elections—the campaign for which has apparently already begun—can be assessed against a set of simple, objective standards. Instead of being reassured that the candidate “will continue the fight against corruption,” voters will now want to know if the candidate will rebuild the electricity sector so the lights stay on at a cost that is significantly less than the highest on the entire continent. Voters will now want to know if the candidate will be able to keep the cost of rice from nearly doubling in three years, instead of how committed he or she is to “transparency.” Voters will now want to hear a detailed plan for how the candidate intends to organize and carry out disaster response and recovery, rather than how deeply the candidate believes in “good governance.” Voters will want to be reassured that the candidate’s specific plan for infrastructure development will result in their no longer having to spend half a shift just getting to their place of employment. Some will want to know what the prospective president intends to do to develop a sensible paradigm for the safe and profitable harvesting of the country’s mineral resources, others will withhold investing their votes and their hard-earned money until they hear an effective plan to stop the real estate sector from running amok and putting the entire economy at considerable risk.
B.S. Aquino’s gift to the Philippines is his monumental failure to effectively oversee the most basic responsibilities of the national government, to break down the needs of the country under the next administration to a simple level: Basic peace and security, the reliable supply and reasonable cost of essential food and utilities, a transportation infrastructure that poses less of a risk of bodily harm and which allows people and goods to move from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time, business registration processes that take something less than several months to complete and involve something less than several dozen steps, and the reasonable assurance that one’s family will not be consigned to a lean-to made out of plywood and discarded vinyl advertising banners for a year or more after a natural or man-made disaster while a “czar” leads a committee in writing a book about it first.
B.S. Aquino’s gift to the Philippines is to show the country, in terms so simple that even the most uninformed or disaffected voter could understand, that what the country really needs is a president who can simply do the job—actually identify needs and objectives, choose managers with obvious competence in their areas of responsibility, give them a practical and results-oriented strategy to follow, and hold them to acceptable standards of performance.
As we get deeper into the “campaign season,” we should remember this gift, and not waste it.