Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, the former Philippine president and son of two of the country’s greatest democracy icons, died from kidney disease on June 24 at the age of 61.
Aquino’s cremated remains were interred on the following Saturday alongside his parents at Manila Memorial Park. The funeral convoy was greeted by supporters waiting by the roadside, some wearing the Aquinos’ trademark yellow. Aquino’s urn had been brought to the Ateneo de Manila University, his alma mater, for a public viewing on Friday and for the funeral mass on early Saturday.
Aquino’s passing comes as the political landscape shifts in a country dominated by dynasties. In recent years, President Rodrigo Duterte’s clan based in the south of the Philippines has been dominant. With Duterte’s patronage, the family of former president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos — the nemesis of the Aquinos — has seen its fortunes revive.
Aquino’s sudden death prompted much reflection on his six-year term, which ended in 2016 and saw the economic revival of the so-called “sick man of Asia”.
President Duterte declared 10 days of national mourning and called Aquino’s death “an opportunity to unite in prayer and set aside our differences”.
Aquino, the country’s 15th president, was inaugurated in June 2010 following a landslide election win delivered on the back a strong anti-graft campaign. The former senator had not been his party’s first choice, but calls for him to run mounted after the death in August 2009 of his mother, Corazon Aquino, a former president. For supporters, an Aquino was the answer to the huge corruption plaguing the country.
“I accept the plea of the nation. I also accept the instructions of my parents. I accept the responsibility to continue the fight for our country,” Aquino said when he declared his candidacy. That was just 40 days after his mother’s death, and he was speaking in the same venue where she took her oath of office in 1986.
Many regarded it as a moment of history repeating itself.
Aquino’s father, Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr, was assassinated in 1983 on the tarmac of Manila International Airport — subsequently renamed in his honour — as he returned from exile in the US. The opposition leader’s callous murder was the catalyst for People Power, the revolutionary movement that brought down the Marcos dictatorship and catapulted Corazon Aquino, a housewife, into the presidency.
Although he arrived in office on the coat-tails of his parents, Aquino went on to create a significant legacy in his own right. His sound economic management and image of incorruptibility inspired confidence from investors long spooked by crooked politics, coup attempts and corruption scandals.
On Aquino’s watch, growth in gross domestic product mushroomed to an average 6 per cent annually, the largest in 40 years. Annual foreign direct investment rose to $8.3bn in 2016 from just $2bn before he entered office. The country’s credit ratings all went up.
Aquino also strengthened the old defence alliance with the US. In 2013, he challenged China’s expansion claims in the disputed South China Sea. The country’s most powerful neighbour lost international arbitration at The Hague in a ruling handed down a week after Aquino left office. China never recognised the court’s jurisdiction.
“President Aquino’s steadfast commitment to advancing peace, upholding the rule of law, and driving economic growth for all Filipinos, while taking bold steps to promote the rules-based international order, leaves a remarkable legacy at home and abroad that will endure for the years to come,” US president Joe Biden said in a statement.
But for all his international prestige, reducing domestic poverty and social inequality remained stubborn challenges for Aquino. That created an opening for Duterte — an outsider who advocated strong-arm tactics against national problems.
A week before the 2016 elections, Aquino warned voters off Duterte, implying that he had the makings of a dictator. Still, the mayor of Davao City in the southern province of Mindanao broke the Manila hold on politics and won by a landslide with 6m votes more than his closest rival Mar Roxas, Aquino’s anointed successor.
Duterte’s presidency has been markedly different on all scores. He embraced China and distanced himself from the US. He launched a brutal drug war that has killed thousands of alleged offenders — a bloody campaign that while popular at home was heavily condemned abroad. Duterte also cracked down on business elites associated with Aquino to rally support.
Some regarded Aquino as elitist, and Duterte’s ordinary man image appealed to many Filipinos. The president’s popularity has not waned despite a surge in hunger and unemployment amid the pandemic, and his brash politics have eclipsed the Aquino brand.
In the 2019 midterm elections, Duterte-allied candidates, including his former aide Bong Go and police chief Ronald dela Rosa, won most of the 12 seats on the table. Aquino’s cousin, Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV, meanwhile, failed to get re-elected.
Although Duterte enjoys overwhelming support, Aquino’s death could have some impact on the political scene, analysts believe. It has come less than a year ahead of the May 2022 presidential elections. The early frontrunner is Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter and mayor of Davao.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr, a former senator and the son of the late president, has also emerged as a strong contender in opinion polls. Marcos lost by a slim margin to Aquino-backed Leni Robredo in the 2016 race for vice-president.
Duterte loyalists have meanwhile been urging the still hugely popular president to run as vice-president. This would enable him to continue wielding power by skirting a six-year term limit put in place during the presidency of Corazon Aquino. The 1986 constitution included a single-term provision to try to prevent a repeat of the Marcos dictatorship.
Peter Mumford, an analyst at Eurasia Group, thinks the passing of Aquino could boost support for his Liberal party, which has been flagging in the polls.
“However, comparisons with Aquino III’s political rise following the deaths of his parents and the current situation need to be made with caution,” Mumford told Nikkei Asia. “Aquino’s parents were even more popular and revered. Plus, in 2010 there was not a highly popular outgoing president able to whip up mass support for their chosen successor — as is the case with Duterte now.”
Bob Herrera-Lim, an analyst at Teneo, an advisory company, said Aquino’s death “will eventually deprive supporters of Duterte a common target for their populist attacks” and likely “lead to a shift in tactics for the administration”.
The former president’s passing “will signal an introspection” ahead of the 2022 presidential elections, said Edna Co, a public administration professor at the University of the Philippines.
“It’s not whether we are a fan of PNoy or not,” Co said, using the former president’s popular moniker. “It’s an introspection of what kind of leadership we had and we would like to have in 2022.”
While the dynastic shifts will be closely followed, Co said it would be better if next year’s elections focused more on governance than political clans.
“The Philippines has been trapped in dynastic politics, but this is already the 21st century,” Co said. “The next election should be about democratic governance, regardless of who brings it — I don’t care whether it is a Marcos, Aquino or Duterte.”
A version of this article was first published by Nikkei Asia on June 26 2021. ©2021 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved