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Cory’s Son for President? Understanding Family Ties in the Philippines

September 16, 2009

Even in death, Corazon “Cory” C. Aquino, former president of the Republic of the Philippines, continues to influence Philippine politics. Forty days after her funeral, at the end of the traditional mourning period, her son Benigno Aquino III, nicknamed “Noynoy,” formally declared his intention to run for the presidency. The declaration was made in Kalayaan Hall in Club Filipino, where, 23 years ago, his mother had delivered her own inaugural address as president.

Noynoy Aquino is a Senator and the son of Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr – “Ninoy” – who was assassinated upon return from exile in 1983, an event that touched off several years of unrest that culminated in the historic People Power revolution and the 1986 ousting of President Ferdinand Marcos. Ninoy’s father (Noynoy’s grandfather) was Benigno “Igno” Aquino, also a Senator before World War II before becoming Vice-President of the Japanese-sponsored “second Philippine Republic” toward the end of the war. Igno’s father (Ninoy’s grandfather, Noynoy’s great-grandfather) was Servillano “Mianong” Aquino, who was a general in the anti-colonial revolution fighting successively at the turn of the 20th century against Spain and the United States and who served in the revolutionary government’s Congress. Mianong’s father (Ignos’ grandfather, Ninoy’s great-grandfather, and Noynoy’s great-great-grandfather) was Don Braulio Aquino who belonged to the landed aristocracy and lived 150 years before his great-great-grandson announced a run for the presidency.

Lest we overstate the solidity of family lineages, we can remember that Philippine expert Alfred McCoy entitled his anthology “An Anarchy of Families.” Noynoy is the second cousin of another declared candidate for the presidency, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro. Noynoy’s mother, Cory Aquino, is a cousin of Teodoro’s mother, Mercedes. The two wings of the Cojuangco clan have been feuding for decades.

Noynoy will run as a candidate of the Liberal Party. Of the Liberal Party members, an early contender was yet another scion of a political clan, Senator Mar Roxas, grandson of President Manuel Roxas. However, a month after Cory’s death, realizing he had only lukewarm ratings in the polls (continuously rating 5th or 6th), Mar Roxas withdrew from the race, giving way to Noynoy’s candidacy. His declaration was received warmly by the public as a noble sacrifice, while political pundits opined that the decision was pragmatic and it was time to cut his losses.

Surrounding Noynoy on September 9 at Club Filipino as he declared his candidacy were supporters from the Liberal Party, civil society groups, politicians, and, inevitably, family members – including his voluble youngest sister, mega-media star Kris Aquino. When asked by a reporter what legacy he would wish to leave after his term, Noynoy responded, “I want to be a president that is missed when I step down.” This reply was seen as a criticism of the current president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (herself the daughter of a former president), who many suspect to be reluctant to step down from power. Noynoy, who has not been accused of corruption, is perceived by many as the antithesis of rhetorically grandstanding politicians, as the alternative to “traditional” politicians.

“Traditional” politics was recently on display when a special non-working holiday was declared for the September 7 internment of the executive minister of the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), Eraño “Ka Erdie” Manalo, who had died at the age of 84. The INC was established by Manalo’s father, Felix Y. Manalo, in 1914 as what he saw as an attempt to go back to the original teachings of Jesus Christ, and has since grown to be the country’s second largest religious organization after the Catholic Church. Ka Erdie had presided over its continuous growth and international expansion since succeeding his father as executive minister in 1963. The declaration of a special holiday in recognition of the INC’s loss is a demonstration of its political power. It is estimated that over 80 percent of its members vote as directed by the INC’s leadership, which decides which candidates to support for each election “on a case by case basis.” Not surprisingly, officials of all stripes – from the Aquinos to the Arroyos – arrived to mourn with the hundreds of thousands of INC members who lined up at their leader’s wake.

Manalo’s son, Eduardo “Ka Eddie Boy” Manolo, is expected to step into the executive minister’s position – he has been the INC’s deputy executive minister.

Similarly, Noynoy owes the plausibility of his presidential candidacy to the recent attention on his family’s legacy. Two months ago, before his mother’s death, Noynoy was not among the long list of politicians being mentioned as “presidentiables.” But Noynoy’s mother’s death resulted in an outpouring of emotion. Thousands of Cory supporters and non-supporters braved fierce rains to pay their respects, invoking scenes reminiscent of 1986′s “People Power” and changing the political landscape leading up to the 2010 presidential campaign.

Although there are proven instances when dynasties are not the recipe for success in the Philippines, Noynoy certainly has shaken up the Philippine presidential race. A snap poll on the island of Luzon (where 40 percent of Philippine voters live) puts him far in the lead of the previous front-runners. Whether this popularity is a flash in the pan (the Filipino expression is “ningas cogon” — grass fire), and whether the low-key Noynoy has the stomach for a bruising presidential race, is the sort of thing that the long campaign period until May 2010 will reveal.

Maribel Buenaobra is The Asia Foundation’s Director of Programs and Steven Rood is the Foundation’s Country Representative in the Philippines. They can be reached at mbuenaobra@asiafound.org and srood@asiafound.org, respectively.

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