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Why Is President Aquino So Popular? Effective Leadership and Enigmatic Charisma

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Under a climate of long-standing political cynicism, fueled by a perennial sense of social injustice and endemic corruption, elected leaders inevitably face an uphill battle for the hearts and minds of the people.

In developing countries where the majority of the population has yet to benefit from the fruits of economic globalization and reap the rewards of new engines of endogenous growth, one can hardly blame people for holding little respect for elected officials -- repeatedly falling into cycles of high (unrealistic) expectations followed by massive dissatisfaction.

From Mexico City to Mumbai and Manila, gestures of good will by elected officials can easily be interpreted as an exercise of deception and old-school shenanigans, reforms could be seen as basically the status quo couched in new garment, and displays of humility and contemplative decision-making could be perceived as indecision and cowardice. In short, it is extremely difficult to please the greater public, especially ones the euphoria of elections -- and all the accompanying advertisement, colorful events, and fairy tale sloganeering -- is over.

Engaging the greater public and sustaining wide-reaching political mandate is even more difficult, when you speak of countries with first-past-the-post electoral systems, whereby anyone with slightly higher votes than other candidates could end up as the president - nevermind he/she only garnered 30% of the votes, and is never given the second chance to reach out to the electorate in a prospective run-off round. Naturally, in such cases you tend to get "minority presidents", who have limited mandate and struggle to rise above factional politics.

And yet, the Philippine President Benigno "PNoy" Aquino has managed to sustain approval ratings as high as 70 percent, way into the third year of his tenure. By any measure, this is an astonishing record for any democratically-elected leader, especially one in a developing country still reeling from massive poverty, inequality and unemployment. Add to this a noisy and discordant media, where entertainment is held way above information and lambasting elected officials and blaming them for everything is a standard operating procedure.

Not to mention, even though the Philippines is hardly among top world economies, and while it is still bereft of a modern military-industrial complex to boast, Aquino has managed to even rank among the world's most influential leaders in the 2013 Time 100.

So what explains his massive political capital and global popularity? Are there lessons for other leaders across the world?

The Mystique of Political Charisma

Joseph Nye, the brains behind the highly popular doctrine of "Soft Power" and the author of The Powers to Lead (2008), has defined charisma as "the special power of a person to inspire fascination and loyalty."

And as Nye aptly points out, charismatic leadership is more apparent "when [people] feel a strong need for change, often in the context of a personal, organizational or social crisis." No wonder, he tells how fundamentally a popular leader mirrors something bigger, a zeitgeist, a larger public mood, which reflects, "Even more about ourselves, the mood of the country, and the types of change we desire."

Benigno Aquino is in many ways the Philippines' 'accidental president'. After all, he is said to have not only shunned running for the Philippine Senate in the past, preferring to stay as the district representative of his idyllic hometown in Tarlac and taking care of the extended Aquino clan so dear to him, but also hardly harbored any concrete ambitions for the top political office in the country. Despite being a smart and well-educated individual, with good training in economics and banking, he was neither known to be a stellar legislator, nor featuring among the high profile, ambitious, and flamboyant legislators, who fixed their gaze on the top prize.

His decision to climb the ranks of Philippine political pyramid was largely due to the persistent (and ultimately successful) persuasion efforts of family members and siblings, who believed in his leadership qualities and ability to contribute to the nation's betterment.

In this sense, Benigno Aquino III had a unique conception of political ambition as a moralistic fulfillment of a larger obligation to the collective. After all, he always lived in the shadows of his parents, who are deeply revered for their personal integrity and contributions to Philippine democratization.

"His father was the Philippines' most famous political martyr, his mother its most beloved President," wrote Time's Howard Choa-Eoan on Aquino's stellar pedigree, and how this ultimately sealed his destiny as the next Philippine president. "[He] inherited that legacy and, boosted by national mourning at the death of Corazon Aquino in August 2009, won the presidency in 2010."

Grasping the significance of the moment, PNoy sought to carve out his own place in history by translating widespread public sympathy into a formidable campaign to rid the country of its recent troubles: a decade of massive corruption, economic imbalances, and political instability under the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration (2001-2010).

Lucky enough, his 'good governance' (Daan Na Matuwid) initiative not only struck a chord among the electorate, but also eventually came to impress global investors and leaders, who credited Aquino's much-awaited crackdown on corruption and abuse of public office. And this proved to be not only a precursor for an unprecedented period of political stability and economic growth in the country, but also a cornerstone of Aquino's charisma anchored by an untarnished image of personal integrity and sincere leadership.

Riding Manifold Challenges

What's fascinating with Aquino's popularity, not exactly his policies, is his ability to maintain public support despite repeated crises questioning his leadership.

Beginning with the botched rescue efforts at a hostage crisis involving a dozen Hong Kong nationals, to China's repeated encroachment into Philippine-claimed features in the South China Sea, to a shooting incident involving a Taiwanese fishermen in the disputed maritime waters that sparked unprecedented levels of bilateral Philippine-Taiwan tensions, to reports consistently mentioning the Philippines' failure at providing inclusive and sustainable growth, and ultimately recent revelations suggesting massive corruption implicating dozens of legislators and government officials, Aquino has still managed to stay above the fray and enjoy public prestige.

He has astutely shifted blame to other parties, skillfully portrayed his administration as sincere and committed to reform, and doubled down on his tough stance against China to ramp up his nationalist credentials.

To demonstrate Aquino's popularity on a global scale, Time magazine has for instance portrayed Aquino as the "the face of the regional confrontation with Beijing over its claim to virtually all of the South China Sea" and praised his "brave stance" on this issue. Meanwhile, the giant credit rating agency Moody's, which is currently reviewing the Philippines candidacy for an investment-grade status, has praised Aquino for placing "the economy on the right course via infrastructure development, with a focus on upgrading transport links; an anticorruption push; a drive to halt tax avoidance; and improved government coffers," while emphasizing how the Philippines' continued success as a new brightspot in Asia "will depend on who takes the reins when Aquino steps down in 2016." In short, Aquino is seen as the pivot of the country's economic and political comeback.

Recently, when a number of rebels, belonging to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), decided to launch a coordinated attack and lay siege on Zamboanga city in early-September in order to protest their exclusion from ongoing peace talks in Mindanao, Aquino still managed to ensure massive public support and avoid criticisms over his approach to the peace process, which has excessively focused on one group only, the MNLF's breakaway group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Although known for his soft demeanor, Aquino, few days into the Zamboanga siege, flew to the crisis-ridden city and went as far as warning the rebels to lay down their arms or face the full force of the state: "There's a thin line that can't be crossed, putting civilians' lives at risk... When that line is crossed, I will be forced to not only show, but use the full force of the state." By displaying iron determination to quash the rebellion, Aquino was able to, at least in the meantime, repel criticisms over his administration's inability to foresee and forestall such crisis.

Overall, what is increasingly clear is that Aquino's popularity has much to do with the combination of his unassailable pedigree and a serendipitous confluence of favorable factors, ranging from economic revival to political stability and a broader zeitgeist, which favors (reluctant but seemingly) effective and humble leaders such as PNoy. The key to his success, so far, is his ability to hold back, to contemplate, to demure, and to humbly change course when necessary -- avoiding hubristic tendencies that have afflicted other popular leaders across the world. And this is why, despite all his faults and continuing problems in the country, many still see Aquino as the best leader they have had in decades.