Noynoy Aquino, out of the shadows

Posted at 09/11/09 12:30 AM

Before the August 5, 2009 funeral of his mother, there was no public clamor for Senator Noynoy Aquino to run for president in 2010. Neither was there any reason for his youngest sister, popular television personality Kris Aquino, to discuss his love life on national television after its details leaked out in different broadsheets and gossip rags.

He had been living a quiet life, or at least as quiet a life as someone named ‘Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III’ could live. A cursory check of headlines over the years reveals how the spotlight seemingly shone on Noynoy only incidentally; his name was mentioned mostly in stories about the political crusades of his mother, former President Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino, against Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada in 2000 and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2005, or in items about the twists and turns of Kris’s love life and how these affected the Aquino family.

Then Cory Aquino passed away last August 1. A few days later, her funeral triggered an outpouring of sympathy from millions of Filipinos, who soon turned their gaze on her grieving 49-year-old son as the only candidate who could supposedly summon the so-called ‘Cory magic.’

Support for Noynoy’s run for president has since grown steadily, highlighted by the withdrawal from the race of early presidential aspirant and Liberal Party colleague Sen. Mar Roxas, as well as other potential candidates such as Pampanga Gov. Ed Panlilio and Isabela Gov. Grace Padaca. Yet the truth is that the public remains in the dark about the not-so-apparent heir to the Aquino political legacy. Between now and May 2010, the country will be trying to figure out who Noynoy Aquino is, apart from being the son of Cory and Ninoy, the brother of Kris, and the uncle of Josh and Baby James.

It can be argued that Noynoy, a fifth-generation politician and a scion of two political clans, already has politics in his DNA. But Noynoy did not show the political precociousness of his father, the so-called “Wonder Boy of Philippine politics.” Noynoy won his first political race in 1998, a seat in the House of Representatives from the 2nd District of Tarlac, at age 38. This was in stark contrast to the political career of his father, Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr., who was the country’s youngest mayor at 22, the youngest governor at 29, and the youngest senator at 34. And unlike his father, who was a captivating speaker even outside the halls of Congress, Noynoy is seen as less eloquent, albeit with his own folksy speaking style.

Veteran PR man and close family friend Reli German himself says he has heard about Noynoy’s “quiet sipag (hard work)” but cannot recall any major law that the younger Aquino has passed as Tarlac congressman for nine years and senator for three years.

He swears this much about Noynoy: “He is sincere, ‘di siya peke, ‘di siya plastic, straight shooter, simple living, hindi mahilig gumimik.” Dining at restaurants and occasional visits to a gun-firing range are the “worst” indulgences of Noynoy, says German.

Noynoy did not dive head-first into politics, to be sure. After earning his degree in Economics from the Ateneo de Manila University in 1981, he joined his family in Boston in exile. In 1983, shortly after the murder of his father, Noynoy had a short tenure as a member of the Philippine Business for Social Progress. He followed that up with stints in Nike Philippines and Mondragon, working in sales. In 1986, he joined two family-owned corporations, Intra-Strata Assurance Corp. and Best Security Agency Corp., serving as vice-president for both companies.

In 1987, he almost lost his life during a military coup d’etat, after encountering rebel soldiers at the gates of Malacanang. To this day, a bullet remains lodged in his neck.

He went to work for the Central Azucarera de Tarlac in 1993, the sugar refinery owned by the Cojuangco clan. He started out as an executive assistant for administration, before becoming field services manager in 1996.

By 1998, Noynoy decided to run for representative in the 2nd district of Tarlac. It was perhaps inevitable; two relatives, cousin Gilbert C. Teodoro Jr. and uncle Jesli Lapus, also ran and won congressional positions in Tarlac’s two other districts.

By the time he got to the House of Representatives, Noynoy had hitched his political wagon to the Liberal Party, along with other young politicians such as Mar Roxas, Florencio ‘Butch’ Abad, and Michael ‘Mike’ Defensor. The party was part of the administration in 1998, but they withdrew support from Joseph Estrada when allegations exploded against the president. Cory Aquino also joined those calling for Estrada’s resignation, and in late 2000, Noynoy signed the impeachment complaint against Estrada.

In a 2002 interview with the Philippine Star, a year after Estrada was ousted from power, Noynoy revealed his friendship with the former president. “Erap up to the end was very good to me,” he said. “Even up to today, after I had withdrawn support for him, I still consider Erap on a personal basis as a good friend. Unfortunately on the public side, on his politics, I felt that his policies were leading our country towards a civil war arising from hunger,” Noynoy said.

By 2004, the Liberal Party membership in the House had grown substantially, and the group threatened to bolt Jose de Venecia’s administration coalition and install Noynoy as House Speaker. De Venecia was able to placate the LP, with Noynoy being designated Deputy Speaker for Luzon.

But the Liberal Party soon had a falling out with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo after the ‘Hello Garci’ controversy. Noynoy was stripped of his Deputy Speakership in 2006.

Noynoy was elected to the Senate in 2007, after running a campaign that featured an ad with his mother promising “lagot siya sa nanay niya (he will get it from his mother)!” if he was ever to do anything wrong as a public servant. In the last three years, he has quietly made his mark as an active and independent-minded legislator. He led the call for the renegotiation of the Japan Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA), and was one of four senators who voted against its ratification. Roxas was one of the co-sponsors of the treaty.

He currently chairs the Senate Committee on Local Government, which is in charge of, among other things, taking in proposals for the creation of new legislative districts. One such controversial measure aims to create a new legislative district in Camarines Sur, supposedly so that presidential son and incumbent Rep. Diosdado ‘Dato’ Arroyo and Department of Budget and Management Secretary Rolando Andaya, an Arroyo ally, would not have to run against each other in next year’s election. Noynoy’s opposition to the measure has put him at loggerheads with its proponent, Sen. Joker Arroyo, Cory Aquino’s former executive secretary who was also one of her most loyal advisers.

Noynoy has authored a total of nine bills. This pales in comparison with the 738 bills filed by Miriam Defensor Santiago over the same period, but not with the eight bills filed by fellow freshman Senator Alan Peter Cayetano.

Two bills authored by Noynoy have passed Senate and are pending before the House of Representatives:

· Senate Bill No. 2978 would amend Republic Act No. 6875, or the Local Government Act, to put in place parameters for the selection of PNP Provincial Directors and City/Municipal Chief of Police for local government units.
· Senate Bill No. 1710 would ban the re-appointment of a regular member of the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) who has already served the full term.

A look at other bills he authored pending before various Senate committees tell us his apparent advocacies and priorities:

  • Government Procurement and Corruption
    • Senate Bill No. 2160 would introduce an amendment to Republic Act No. 9864, or the Government Procurement Reform Act, which seeks to remove ambiguity so that the act would cover projects such as the National Broadband Network (NBN) project, the Cyber Education (CyberEd) project, and other projects of the scale.
    • Senate Bill No. 2035 would require contractors to handle the regular maintenance and preservation for public infrastructure after the end of the project
    • Senate Bill No. 3121 would add Congressional oversight to budget decisions undertaken by the President, including budget rescission, reservation, and deferral
  • Human rights
    • Senate Bill No. 2159, or the Superior Responsibility Act of 2008, would adopt the doctrine of ‘Superior Responsibility’ for all military and police personnel, in response to extra-judicial killings, particularly human rights activists and media practitioners
  • Workers’ rights and benefits
    • Senate Bill No. 1370 or the Workers Productivity Incentives Act of 2007 would grant annual productivity incentive bonuses to all workers in the private sector amounting to no less than 10% of the company’s net profits before taxes
    • Senate Bill No. 2036 would amend Republic Act No. 6727, otherwise known as the ‘Wage Rationalization Act’, to increase the penalties for non-compliance of the prescribed increases and adjustments in the wage rates of workers
  • Presidential appointees
    • Senate Bill No. 1719, or the Appointee Eligibility Act of 2007, would limit the reappointment of presidential appointees by-passed by the Commission on Appointment, in response to the alleged presidential abuse of appointments

He has shown diligence in his chairmanship of the Committee on Local Government. He has sponsored six Senate bills, two of which have been passed into law: Republic Act No. 9679, which amended the Charter of General Santos City, and Republic Act No. 9640, which lowered amusement taxes from 30 percent to 10 percent. The rest are pending in the House of Representatives.

His sponsorship of House bills has also resulted in the creation of two new legislative districts, in Malolos City and in Agusan del Sur, with sponsorships for bills for reapportionments in four other districts (Lapu-Lapu City, Cavite, Camarines Norte, Iligan City) still pending. He also sponsors House bills concerned with special city and municipal holidays, such as the Cagayan de Oro City Day and the Getage (Bohol) Foundation Day.

Last Wednesday, in the question-and-answer session that followed his announcement of his candidacy in the 2010 presidential race, Noynoy gave his take on various issues in broad strokes.

Asked a question about his peace plan in Mindanao, he talked about his consultations with people from Davao and Zamboanga discussing the Memorandum of Agreement on ancestral domain, and cited the need for more dialogue, the setup of baselines for the talks, and perhaps the need to find better intermediaries for the process.

“I want to make democracy work, not just for the rich and well-connected, but for everybody,” he answered when asked about his governance platform. He segued into a discussion of a couple of his pet peeves: the proliferation of erroneous text books come school opening each year, which he described as a tragedy that he would aim to correct if elected; and, the slow delivery of justice in the country, citing the hidden wealth of the Marcoses as an example. He added that solving these issues require strong political will.

He also detailed his plan to battle corruption, and revealed that he is already working with his people on methodologies and timeframes for catching, investigating, and prosecuting erring public officials. He reiterated the need to strengthen the judiciary to ensure swift and effective delivery of justice.

He also addressed the issue of funding for his campaign, saying that he could not afford to run a traditional campaign given the lack of time and resources because of his sudden entry into the race. Instead, he said that the people would have to run a non-traditional campaign alongside him.

When asked about how he would want to be remembered at the end of his term if he became president, Noynoy answered: “I hope that I will be a president that will be missed when I step down.”

It was a rather ironic remark from someone who used to be barely noticed or was often overshadowed by a more prominent relative (usually female, and often either his mother or his loquacious sister Kris). But during the biggest moment so far in his political career, Noynoy managed to be a mild success, displaying wit, humor, and even a little charm – all traits that his father had in abundance.

In all probability, Noynoy has been compared constantly to his parents in the past. It’s a situation that he will have to endure all the more as a presidential candidate, and it’s inevitable that even not-so-pleasant points during Ninoy and especially Cory’s respective political lives would be brought up.

In the case of Cory, Hacienda Luisita was a sore spot in her legacy, a symbol of the failure to bring equity to the nation’s poor. At the time of the 2004 Hacienda Luisita killings, Noynoy himself drew flak from various groups after he said that leftists had goaded the workers in the Hacienda to go on strike. Noynoy drew further criticism from human rights groups following a spate of killings of Hacienda’s union leaders, even as he issued statements condemning them.

Of course, Cory’s mission as president, as she understood it, had always been to restore democracy. Noynoy would no longer have that excuse, and it is perhaps the biggest question he will have to answer as he tries to duplicate his mother’s feat. – with additional reporting by Malou C. Mangahas, PCIJ, September 2009