It is unfortunate that those spontaneously paying tributes to former president Benigno S. Aquino III upon his recent passing have to preface their eulogies with the caveat that he was “not perfect.” They are, of course, technically correct. Nobody is perfect; not even saints. Yet mentioning this truism when singing paeans to the dead is usually avoided in any culture, unless the deceased’s imperfections are so glaring as to render their mention unavoidable.
In usual times, therefore, such caveats are invoked only when eulogizing disgraced but rehabilitated figures, and only out of respect to the victims of their shortcomings. You hear such caveats, for instance, in eulogies to Richard Nixon, who subverted the election process at Watergate – hence, imperfect – but also revolutionized U.S. foreign policy by engaging China and was therefore, in hindsight, a statesman. You also hear it in the Chinese Communist Party’s official pronouncements that Mao Zedong’s legacy was “forty percent bad” – an acknowledgement of the untold suffering caused by his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution – but also “sixty percent good.”
But Aquino was neither a Nixon nor a Mao. He was, by all accounts, one of the best Filipino presidents in recent memory. The alleged blemishes in his record that people often mention were merely the occasional miscalculations or uninspired decisions that are expected of any administration, including the best ones. They pale in comparison to the transformative policies his presidency oversaw, and are eclipsed by the superior personal virtues he demonstrated as a public servant.
I do not think, therefore, that these acknowledgments of the late president’s imperfections were meant to state the obvious about the nature of human frailty. I think they were simply a nod to current political realities: the Aquino dynasty has become divisive, if not unpopular. Everybody knows that the late former president was a virtuous man who served his country with honor, but nobody wants to be accused of having drank the so-called Aquino Kool-Aid.
I think this speaks of the extent of the slander that Aquino – and indeed his entire family, to whom Filipinos owe the democratic space they now enjoy – had to silently suffer as forces of both illiberal populism and Marcos restorationism perpetuate false narratives to undermine the legitimacy of the liberal values that the Aquinos represent.
But this also comes from something deeper than the proliferation of vicious trolls. The hostility of the current political environment towards anything “yellow” is also a historical signpost: Aquino’s death came at a time when the nation’s schizophrenic emotional pendulum is once again swinging, to paraphrase a leading commentator, from a yearning for a democratic liberator to a pining for an illiberal strongman. In other words, we are seeing the unraveling of the EDSA Republic.
How did we even get here? This is a question that, I think, is best left to detached historians to study years from now. There are many factors that led to the recent unraveling of the national consensus behind the progressive and liberal values that heretofore governed the parameters of mainstream Filipino politics for the past three decades. I suspect, however, that future historians will conclude that the demystification of the Aquino dynasty helped hasten it.
In the era of EDSA, the Aquino family personified modern Filipino democracy. Of course, this is a simplistic narrative that has never squared entirely with reality. But social contracts are forged through myth-making. The people’s faith in common values is often predicated on their belief in the stories that underpin them. In the case of the EDSA Republic, these stories revolve around Aquino’s parents, Ninoy and Cory.
To understand this is to recall how the Marcos dictatorship used fear and intimidation as a lid over the pent-up frustrations of Filipinos, how this lid was blown away by an explosion of national emotions made possible only by Ninoy’s martyrdom, and how these emotions were channeled into unity by the widowed Cory through her grace, fortitude, and moral integrity. It was her personal dignity that lent legitimacy to the republic that was established on EDSA in 1986.
This is not just historiography; this is actual history. Consider, for instance, that the framers of the 1987 Constitution were all handpicked by Cory rather than elected nationally. Instead of calling for a constitutional convention that could have been hijacked by warlords and dynasts, Cory chose to appoint women and men of integrity to write the new constitution, and what they produced is one of the world’s most progressive charters. The legitimacy of the 1987 Constitution is therefore premised on the personal moral integrity of the woman who led the revolution that produced it, and ratified only by the people in a democratic plebiscite.
All Filipino presidents that followed Cory pledged fidelity to the values that underpin the democratic order she established, even if their actual faithfulness to this pledge varied. It might be hard for most young people today to imagine this, but there was a time when yellow was a unifying symbol of the Philippines.
Modern political scientists would frown upon such simplistic symbolism and the personalistic paradigm it implies. I argue, however, that the yellow mythology was the necessary glue that held the national consensus together pending the consolidation of democratic institutions. It is therefore unsurprising that powerful forces seeking to dismantle or erode these institutions began by diluting this yellow glue.
These forces sought to consistently discredit the Aquino myth amid the democratic rambunctions that camouflaged the painfully slow but steady economic development that the restoration of democracy jumpstarted. Democratic institutions struggled to cope with the realities that perpetuated persistent social inequities, and their thorough and deliberative nature made them unresponsive to the urgency of expeditiously responding to the needs of the common man. Meanwhile, populists backed by pro-Marcos revisionists consistently offered the alluring proposition that the nation’s complex problems can be solved with simplistic solutions.
In their impatience, Filipinos grew disillusioned with their new democracy, allowing illiberal forces to slowly erode the EDSA edifice. I remember coming of age at a time of intense political divisions emanating from persistent legitimacy crises that began in 2001 and was aggravated from 2004 onwards, and my political awakening being marked by household debates that would sometimes question the very legitimacy of the EDSA Republic itself. It was clear then that a national soul-searching was unfolding. The sense that the era of EDSA was coming to an end was palpable.
It was at that time of political dysfunction that Cory died in 2009. The public grief that ensued turned into national nostalgia for the values she represented. Around a million Filipinos escorted her to her grave, and in so doing renewed the legitimacy of the progressive political order that she created. It was in this context that her son became president in 2010.
Benigno S. Aquino III was therefore elected not only as an economic builder but also as a national symbol. But alas, he lacked the necessary emotion to harness the residual gravitas of his family’s legacy, or even to protect it. This, I truly believe, is the only imperfection about him that is worth mentioning, if only to prompt some national self-reflection.
By now, we have read sufficient explanations of the reason behind his stoic disposition. These explanations are of course valid, and they affirm the high standard of personal integrity that the late president demonstrated. Yet they do not change the fact that Aquino’s refusal to harness or even acknowledge national emotions, while no doubt an asset to a technocrat administering day-to-day governance, was a liability in terms of defending an unraveling social contract.
He was supposed to uphold the EDSA spirit, to stand as a symbol of that spirit, to maintain the subliminal link between him and his people, and to be a pastoral president. Yet he chose to be an aloof technocrat. At times of crises and disasters during his tenure, Filipinos were often left searching for a modicum of empathy from their president, and always to no avail. This led to what a former Aquino official describes as “the traumatic divorce between the public and the Aquino family.”
The same official believes that the final straw may have come in Aquino’s failure to appear at the Manila tarmac to welcome police officers who were killed in a botched anti-terrorist commando operation in the south in 2015. The late president thought that being there would have entailed logistical problems rather than solutions, and he would rather work behind the scenes to ensure that the martyrs’ families would be taken care of. But the people saw it differently: the Filipino nation had bravely stood with the Aquino family when Ninoy and Cory died, yet their son could not even muster enough empathy condole with the nation as it mourn its martyrs. The subliminal link was therefore broken.
Aquino remained moderately popular after that, but he ceased to be seen as heir to democratic symbols. Instead, he became simply a passing politician. Public opinion started to judge his presidency against the standards of an ordinary administration, rather than a transcendent one. In the absence of an appreciation of a bigger historical context, his administration’s petty failures were magnified, and its perceived ineptitude were exploited by those actively seeking to discredit the yellow coalition. In the end, they amplified a message that was obviously false but nonetheless resonated: thirty years of democracy have spawned nothing but callous incompetence, and the time has come for change.
The tragedy is that all of these resulted from the trust that Aquino had placed in his people. He thought that the Filipino has matured enough to be patient, to trust his institutions, and to recognize that complex problems can only be solved with nuanced solutions that, in turn, require thorough and thoughtful deliberations that uphold reason over emotion. Indeed, this was evident in the message of the Daang Matuwid coalition in 2016: we are not there yet, but if we continue on this straight path, we will get there soon. But the Filipino has waited long enough, his needs remain in the here and now, and he simply does not have the time. If a transcendent, pastoral leader in the mold of Cory had made that call, the Filipino might have placed his trust.
But Benigno S. Aquino III did not choose to play that pastoral role. Instead, he chose to be a modern president for a people that remain unready to modernize.