In November, right after the President of the United States was re-elected, I wrote the essay “What Kind of President Would Obama Be?” In that piece, I drew on the works of professors Jack Balkin and Stephen Kowronek, the renowned scholar of American presidential history who classified his country’s presidents into four kinds: reconstructive, affiliated, pre-emptive, and disjunctive. The said essay elicited some reactions from both friends and readers, and at least a couple have asked if a similar classification of Philippine presidents can also be made.
Professor Kowronek’s classification describes a political cycle of creating and overturning dominant political regimes, which occur through a long period of time. Thus, it might not be applicable to the Philippine presidency, which has a relatively shorter history. At any rate, I don’t know all Philippine presidents well enough to come up with a similarly structured analysis of the entire Philippine presidential history. However– and I think this is obvious to all observers of Philippine politics– all five post-Edsa presidents seem to fit into only three different leadership templates, of which all students of Philippine politics should take note.
Almost exactly a year ago, Prof. Randy David articulated these three templates in a column on the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The first template, wrote Professor David, is the moral leadership brand. It has a constituency that cuts across almost all social classes, projecting an “image of a unified moral community” whose vision is “of a nation that can overcome the complex problems posed by corruption in government through the power of personal ethical example.” The figure of this template is, of course, the Aquino dynasty.
Ironically, the forebears of the Aquino name had not been noted originally for their “personal ethical examples.” They were seen merely as cunning politicians, not moral leaders. The original patriarch and the grandfather of the current president, the elder Benigno, was accused– unfairly, historians now agree– of treason because he worked with the Japanese during the Second World War. The more famous Benigno Jr., commonly known as Ninoy, meanwhile, was seen as an overly ambitious politician who, consumed by his desire to climb the stairs of Malacanang, slept with strange bedfellows until, says official history, imprisonment and exile turned him into the martyr that he was.
It was Ninoy’s widow, Corazon, who truly led by “personal ethical examples,” drawing mandate and political capital from her unassailable moral character. But while she successfully restored constitutional democracy and defended it from threats from the Right and the Left, she failed in terms of addressing poverty and inequality. Alas, that seems to be the limitation of the Aquino template: “Its approach to the problem of mass poverty,” says Professor David, “owes less to any structural analysis that prescribes redistribution than to the spirit of charity and sharing that leaves the unequal social order untouched.”
The second template, on the other hand, is the populist leadership brand, which presents a vision of “an inclusive society where no one gets left behind.” This brand draws its mandate and political capital from its ability to, firstly, validate the ways, and, secondly, articulate the hopes and frustrations– sometimes with dangerous rancor that invites class war– of the urban and rural poor, which it glorifies as the masa. Former President Joseph Estrada symbolizes this leadership brand, while Vice President Jejomar Binay, the strongest contender in the 2016 presidential elections, currently bears its banner.
Estrada, known by the masa affectionately as Erap, was the most maligned candidate in 1998. The Makati elite, the middle class, the Roman Catholic Church, and the mainstream media did everything they could to stop his rise to power, but to no avail. They had reasons for doing so: After six years of political stability and economic growth– the country was dubbed as an economic “tiger cub” ready for take-off– under President Fidel V. Ramos, the elite and the middle class doubted if movie star Erap, who never even had any pretensions to sophistication to begin with, could carry the torch onward. This concern was amplified by the eruption of the Asian Financial Crisis during the last few months of the Ramos administration.
The Catholic church, meanwhile, was scandalized by Erap’s philandering, gambling, and drunken lifestyle, and the fact that he was even flaunting it. But by making no apologies about his all-Filipino macho lifestyle, Erap was able to pass himself off as a genuine man of the masa. For some reasons, this kind of transparency– of not being a hypocrite who panders to the guardians of Catholic morality– appeals to the lower class. This probably explains why Vice President Binay, when confronted with rumors that he had an affair with another woman, readily admitted it, and, when asked if he is aiming for the presidency in 2016, made no effort to demure.
Erap’s strongest argument in 1998 was that, after six years of impressive economic growth that didn’t trickle down to the poor under President Ramos, the time had come for the masa to enjoy the fruits of an emerging economy. However, unlike Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand, who improved social services and economic livelihood for the rural poor of the Isan region, President Estrada, as far as I know, did not pursue a comprehensive pro-poor economic program comparable to Thaksinomics.
In other words, while it is good at articulating the masa‘s woes, the Erap-style populist template’s record on actually doing something about those woes is unimpressive at best. “Its choice of programs,” says Professor David, “betrays a fixation with patronage.” Look at how the Binay dynasty in Makati spends almost a billion a year on frivolous programs like birthday and anniversary cakes for residents and free movie passes for senior citizens, for instance. Moreover, its most glaring defect is its governance: The Estrada years were characterized by the absence of professional and ethical leadership, incompetence, rampant cronyism, and corruption– and all these made it easier for the elite and the middle class to bring President Estrada down in a civilian-military coup in 2001.
This year’s midterm election is a showdown between these two popular leadership templates. The Liberal Party-led coalition is banking on President Benigno S. Aquino III’s moral appeal, while the opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) is banking on President Estrada and Vice President Binay’s populist appeal.
The leaders of UNA know how popular President Aquino is, while the President knows how formidable the support base of President Estrada and, by extension, Vice President Binay, is, too; which is why all three figures are careful not to directly attack one another.
Still, both sides are harping on the differences of each other’s vision. President Aquino and the Liberals are emphasizing the administration’s gains, claiming that inclusive growth is just around the corner, but will be achieved only if the country stays on the Daang Matuwid. The triumvirate of President Estrada, Vice President Binay, and the politically-savvy Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile, on the other hand, is claiming that the gains of Daang Matuwid are practically meaningless since they are not being felt by the masa.
Finally, the third template is the technocratic leadership brand. This brand projects itself as being more concerned with meeting the challenges of a highly-competitive modern world than the parochial demands of the electorate. Thus, it draws it mandate and political capital from its ability to deliver good results, as opposed to its charismatic appeal or popularity. Two presidents fit this template: Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
A West Point-educated soldier with a degree in engineering, General Ramos was the first non-politician and non-Catholic to be elected president. He owed his victory in 1992 to the endorsement of the icon of moral leadership, President Corazon Aquino. As president, he reformed the bureaucracy, controlled the restless Armed Forces of the Philippines, pursued peace with Muslim rebels, dismantled monopolies, and opened the economy. Allegations of corruption hound his name to this day, but he is generally regarded as a good president, if not in fact one of the best the Philippines has had.
On the other hand, Macapagal-Arroyo ascended to the presidency after President Estrada’s ouster in 2001, and was re-installed amid massive evidence of fraud in 2004. At first, she projected herself as the successor of President Ramos, hinging her political vehicle Kampi to the General’s political party, Lakas. Well-educated and articulate, she traveled around the world and, speaking in French and in Spanish aside from English, tried to pass herself off as a “modernist leader” of an emerging economy.
To be fair, the economy did recover under her watch, although critics say it did so despite her. Unfortunately, “all her pretensions to modernity collapsed” when, faced with recurrent legitimacy crises, she became a transactional president, stretching the limits of the post-Edsa presidency; corrupting political and social institutions, including the Catholic church; and violating many political taboos, including the declaration of martial law. In the end, her term was marked with kleptocracy and human rights violations reminiscent of the Marcos years.
The emergence of these three leadership templates characterizes the political history of post-Marcos Philippines. The moral leadership of President Corazon Aquino restored democracy, while the technocratic leadership of President Ramos restored stability and revitalized the economy. In an emerging country whose economic growth is uneven and non-inclusive, populism is very attractive, hence President Estrada rose to power in 1998. The mismanagement and corruption of the Estrada years led to the questionable rise of yet another technocratic leader, Macapagal-Arroyo, whose term went out so badly it necessitated the rise of another President Aquino.
In 2016, assuming Secretary Manuel Roxas II is the preferred bet of the ruling Liberal Party, the Philippines will see a battle between the technocratic leadership brand and the Erap-style populist brand, whose charges will be led by the formidable Vice President Binay.
If President Aquino is able to consolidate his administration’s gains before he steps down, then perhaps Secretary Roxas will have a fighting chance. But, if the masa feels that, once again, they have been left behind, then it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to top the rise of Binay — for unfortunately, having endured Macapagal-Arroyo for nine years, the masa has become naturally wary of non-charismatic technocratic leaders, which Roxas is.