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Aquino's Moment of Truth: The Philippines at the Crossroads

Three years into office, Aquino managed to pull off quite the unimaginable. In a country beset by intrigue, infighting, and critical media scrutiny, he maintained one of the highest approval ratings for any elected leader in any fledgling democracy.

His opponents, embittered by his staunch reformist agenda and befuddled by his moralistic brand of politics, have raised the specter of a "biased" media and/or "unreliable" surveys, apparently conducted by leading polling institutions, to discredit Aquino's perceived popularity. But there were more objective basis for Aquino's fairly broad appeal.

Long seen as the "sick man of Asia", the Philippines, in recent years, has risen to global prominence, moving up the ladder of emerging markets (EM) and increasingly roaring like a tiger cub. Moreover, Aquino's rise to power has been characterized by a clean, fair electoral campaign, followed by an uncontested victory that saw a measure of national reconciliation, and, over succeeding years, complimented by an obstinate top-down push for good governance reforms. To the south of the country, where a decades-long insurgency has reduced the potentially prosperous island of Mindanao into a land of chaos, identity politics, and economic disenfranchisement, Aquino made a quantum leap in the government's negotiating strategy, even personally reaching out to the top leadership of the Philippines' leading rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), to steer a new path to peace.

Put together, Aquino was able to assemble a package of policy reforms, which raised public confidence and instituted a semblance of stability into markets. But many still remained unconvinced, downplaying Aquino's achievements, accusing him of political naiveté, and emphasizing how a serendipitous combination of historical and exogenous factors has contributed to the Philippines' economic revival. Others underlined the paucity of the recent economic uptick, dismissing it as a jobless growth, which has failed to reduce poverty, inequality, and industrial decline. Not to mention, the whole host of infrastructural projects falling into regulatory abyss.

Nevertheless, it was clear that a majority of the electorate learned to better appreciate their country's improving state of affairs, and, by extension, support the leadership overseeing a new era of growing prosperity and stability. It has not been so much about the Filipino people dropping their skeptical bent in terms of their political outlook. Suffering decades of poverty and political instability, optimism is a luxury few people can afford. But a fairly large proportion of the electorate has been giving Aquino the benefit of the doubt. And the sentiment lurking in the back of the mind of many people was this: maybe he is different.

Recent months, however, have seen the extent to which Aquino's anti-corruption campaign is a double-edge sword. Confronting a wave of criticism over his alleged association with using public funds for "bribery", amid a national outcry against a string of corruption scandals, the Filipino leader has seen an unprecedented fluctuation in his approval ratings, signaling growing unease among certain quarters in the society, and even among his supporters as well as coalition partners.

By and large, not only the Aquino administration, but actually the whole country is facing a moment of truth -- it could see the demise of a reformist leader, and a renewed period of chaotic politics, or serve as a catalyst for building a mature democracy.

Erdogan or Lula?

Aquino is by no means the only popular leader to have overseen an economic revival in the Global South. If anything, he has been overshadowed by the likes of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ("Lula"), the former president of Brazil, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Prime Minister of Turkey. Both Lula and Erdogan have been credited for transforming the fortunes of their respective countries, overseeing the rise of economic giants in Latin America and the Middle East, while consolidating democratic gains after a long history of military interference in politics. Combining charisma and decades of grassroots activism against dictatorships, the two leaders stood as self-made men with a populist touch, organic intellectuals, and a source of inspiration for neighboring countries and beyond.

But there were crucial differences too. Lula, a former labor union leader, was a genuinely center-left figure, who tried to strike a balance between economic growth and the exigencies of capitalism, on one hand, and accountability, social development, and working class interests, on the other. He was shaped by a political milieu that emphasized bargaining, consultation, and participative democracy. Erdogan, in contrast, is a very much center-right figure, who has sought to strike a balance between market-oriented democracy, on one hand, and religious freedom and pluralism, on the other. His overbearing personality, strong sense of ambition, and tough aura was largely the force behind the emergence of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), its rise to power, and the Turkish government's astonishing ability to push back the "deep state."

But while Lula has retired from his position to become one of Brazil's (and the world's) most popular leaders in history, Erdogan's machismo and hubris has undercut his domestic and international standing. After a decade of impressive economic expansion, democratic consolidation, and international prominence, a growing number of people have come to criticize Erdogan for his alleged autocratic style of leadership, contempt for the secular, liberal sections of the society, and foreign policy misadventures. The economy has not been doing well, either. The upshot was the Taksim Square protests earlier this year, which saw thousands of leftist and liberal citizens demanding for a more participatory form of governance and criticizing Erdogan's flirtation with a Putin-style grip on power. He has so far retained his hold on the AKP and the Turkish state, lashing out at critics, but Erdogan is unlikely to enjoy the kind of prestige he managed to amass in previous years; his long-term plans for presidency has taken a large setback.

The question now is whether Aquino -- although hailing from a privileged background, with little ideological bent, but similarly enjoying a great measure of popular support -- will go down in history as Philippines' version of Lula or Erdogan.

At the Crossroads

Recent months have seen large-scale protests in the Philippines, where the public has been galvanized by a string of corruption scandals implicating leading legislators and public officials. Initially, the main target of protests were high-profile opposition leaders, including senators harboring presidential plans in the future, as well as the whole range of discretionary funds serving as a haven of corruption and embezzlement for elected officials.

Identifying corruption as the chief mischief of Philippines' political landscape, Aquino initially saw a perfect opportunity to recruit greater public support to push the boundaries of his good governance initiatives. But just as his administration began to crackdown on suspected plunderers, his opponents struck back, accusing Aquino and his associates of misusing executive discretionary funds, i.e., Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), to "bribe" certain senators during the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012.

Since then, the public discourse has shifted from outrage against corruption, to impeachment complaints against Aquino and the question of whether he is a leader of utmost integrity he claims to be. In response, the president and his supporters have accused the opposition of using the DAP scandal to distract the public, interrupt the ongoing investigations, and besmirch the Aquino administration. The political scene has become a mess, and amid such confusion Aquino's approval ratings, according to at least one survey, tumbled. A renewed crisis in Mindanao didn't help either.

Half-shocked, half-outraged, Aquino has gone the extra mile to counter his critics. He has gone as far as saying "I am not a thief", and poised to launch a nationwide campaign to defend himself, the purpose and constitutionality of discretionary funds such as the DAP, and debunk accusations against his associates. For some people, such actions smack of hubris, while some supporters are disappointed with how Aquino is dignifying personal attacks with a seemingly defensive and umbrageous posturing.

It is far from clear whether Aquino is approaching his "Erdogan moment", but many are hoping to see a swing back in the direction of less personalized attacks among political factions and more emphasis on legal channels and due process, especially the ongoing investigations against suspected plunderers as well as constitutional debates over the validity of discretionary funds such as the DAP.

Overall, what is clear is that the Philippines is approaching its own moment of truth, where a wave of corruption scandals are overwhelming state institutions, undermining confidence in the government, and reducing public officials into caricatures. Yet, in the same breath, if Aquino as well as the civil society get their act together, emphasize and invest in the rule of law, and find a way out of the current mess, the Philippines will most likely emerge as a more mature, deliberative, and participatory democracy. And Aquino could go down in history as Philippines' Lula.