Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The accidental president –Part 2

After coming to Toronto sometime in 1987, I read a story published in one of the city’s major daily newspapers endorsing General Fidel Ramos as the most likely successor to President Cory Aquino, one who could continue the country’s arduous path toward a full-pledged democracy and stability. The story credited Cory Aquino for restoring democracy in the Philippines after almost 20 years of dictatorship.

Fresh from our experience with the sporadic coups against the Aquino government at that time, and struggling through the repressive Marcos regime, I wrote to the newspaper to demystify the belief that Cory Aquino saved the Philippines from the throes of a dictatorship and delivered a new era of democracy. My main argument was that Cory Aquino was a reluctant leader, who ascended to the presidency by accident, that it was the Filipino people’s sentiment and debt of gratitude to her husband Ninoy for his martyrdom that gave her their vote.

Now, history is repeating itself. Noynoy Aquino, the son, also rises on the strength of his parents’ legacy. An inconsequential and do-nothing member of Congress, both as a congressman and senator, Noynoy is at the cusp of becoming the country’s next president. Early results of last Monday’s election gave Noynoy an insurmountable lead over his opponents.

The present political reality in the Philippines is not a rarity. When Rajiv Gandhi, the prime minister of India, was assassinated, party members loyal to him wooed his wife Sonia to succeed him. Sonia refused, perhaps for fear for her life and family. Her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, suffered the same fate that befell her husband Rajiv. Sonia Gandhi later became the president of the Indian National Congress and currently serves as chair of India's ruling United Progressive Alliance.

Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike was the world’s first female head of government, ahead of British PM Margaret Thatcher. Bandaranaike was the widow of a previous Sri Lankan prime minister, and the mother of Sri Lanka’s third president, Chandrika Kumaratunga.

When Kim Sung-il passed away, his son Kim Jong-il ascended to the leadership of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Everyone in North Korea now considers Kim Jong-il as their “Supreme Leader.”

Even former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yee of Singapore did not leave his post quietly. He ensured that his eldest son Lee Hsien Loong would become the country’s third prime minister when he stepped down from power.

This is the same narrative of politics in the Philippines. It runs in and around the family. Almost every congressman or senator is a member of a political dynasty. Noynoy Aquino happens to be the most recent of scions of a political family to assume the reins of government. He will be succeeding another president who came to power on the coat tails of her father’s name and tenure in Malacanang.

But what is so different in the case of Noynoy Aquino?

Prominent among Noynoy’s serious shortcomings is his continuous self-denial of the right of the thousands of farm workers to own their piece of land at Hacienda Luisita. Because of the Cojuangco family’s intransigence, Hacienda Luisita has earned an infamous place in the history of agrarian reform in the Philippines.

The Cojuangco family took ownership of Hacienda Luisita from Tabacalera y Compania in 1958 through a loan from the Government Service Insurance System and a private loan from the Manufacturers Trust Company of New York under a guarantee by the Central Bank of the Philippines. It was President Ramon Magsaysay who offered the sale of the hacienda to the Cojuangcos through his protégé, Ninoy Aquino, a Cojuangco son-in-law. The sale was consummated during the term of President Carlos P. Garcia.

One of the terms of the loan agreement between the Cojuangcos and their creditors was the transfer of the hacienda to the hands of the farmers by 1967. This never happened.

When Cory Aquino ran for president, she promised to redistribute the hacienda’s land to its farmers under a comprehensive land reform program. After assuming the presidency, Cory Aquino changed her heart and the Cojuangcos continued to hold ownership under a stock distribution option, which meant that the farmers would be considered co-owners through stock ownership and the hacienda would be exempt from land reform because it was now a corporation. Stock options were never distributed and the farmers were never considered co-owners.

Noynoy Aquino insists that there are no tenants or farmers in Hacienda Luisita based on the stock option plan, hence there is no need to redistribute the land. If there were any land, according to Noynoy, it would be too inefficiently small to distribute among more than 5,000 farmers. Thus, it was unrealistic to give every farmer one hectare of land to till. But Noynoy Aquino doesn’t understand that the farmers can still own the land as members of a farmer’s co-operative, which is in existence and operates in Hacienda Luisita.

To insist and to deny that there are no tenants or farmers in Hacienda Luisita reveal something is definitely awry in Noynoy’s frame of mind. Some of his opponents voiced their concerns about reports that Noynoy was seeing a psychiatrist and raised the issue of competence. There is nothing wrong about consulting a psychiatrist, and even if this were true, would not prove Noynoy’s incompetence for the highest position in the land.

What could be more damning evidence of incompetence than Noynoy’s continuing resolute defence of his family’s stake in Hacienda Luisita? The father of one of the victims of the massacre during the farm workers’ picket at Hacienda Luisita on November 16, 2006, aptly summed up Noynoy Aquino's incompetence when he said: “How can Noynoy lead the country when he cannot manage to solve our problem here at Hacienda Luisita? This is a small piece of land, a very small problem compared to running the country. Yet, he can’t do anything about it.”

For the farmers who have been tilling the hectares of land at Hacienda Luisita, the continuing ownership of the Cojuangco family mirrors the oligarchic control of the country by its powerful few. To them, the agrarian dispute at Hacienda Luisita stands out as an issue of competence for Noynoy Aquino.

But the presidential election would soon be over in a few days, and when all the votes have been counted, Noynoy Aquino will be proclaimed the country’s new president. Just as reluctant as his mother Cory to lead the country, expect Noynoy and his accidental presidency to yield nothing more than a mandate of false hopes and empty rhetoric to Filipinos.

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