A Remarkable Presidency, A Lasting Legacy
Senate President Franklin Drilon
November 25, 2004
First of all, it is my privilege and honor to be with you on this momentous occasion. To this day, I carry with pride the distinction of having been part of the Aquino administration. It was truly a joy working as Labor Secretary, Justice Secretary and Executive Secretary to the former President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino.
While the post of the Executive Secretary is informally known as the “little President” and even if the Administrative Code clearly outlines the functions of the Executive Secretary, the “character” of the individual holding the position depends largely on the management style of the President. Widely thought of as the presidential alter ego, the Executive Secretary frequently finds himself in a delicate position as he carries out the decisions of the President and acts as a buffer for the President absorbing the shock of an impact of an adverse public opinion resulting from some unpopular executive act or reducing friction between antagonists.
Looking back, I can proudly say that the job prepared me for bigger and tougher challenges when I became a legislator and Senate President. The job indeed had been a treasure trove of invaluable lessons in governance.
The transition from dictatorship to democracy had been difficult. There were contending forces within and outside the administration which sought to influence government policies especially in the realm of national security and foreign policy. To their dismay, President Aquino proved to be a leader in every sense of the word.
The people who have worked closely with President Aquino are the people who can truly attest to her unique style of governance and her deep commitment to democracy.
She said, and I quote, “ours is a government that came to power borne on the shoulders of our people; we must, therefore, govern on the basis of that same people power”. These were the words that laid the foundation of the highest office of the land.
President Aquino’s style was to govern for the benefit of all, rather than for any specific portion of the constituency. Consciously and deliberately, she decided to forego the seeming benefits of partisanship and chose not to join any political party not even the party that was designed and organized expressly to support her government.
Corazon Cojuangco Aquino is both a leader and a reformer. As leader of a nation deeply wounded during the martial law era, a nation that had seen violence, economic deprivation and political divisiveness under the dictatorship, President Aquino set an agenda when she assumed office foremost of which was the reestablishment of democratic institutions and processes.
One of the first acts of her administration was the dismantling of the dictator’s machinery. She enacted a Freedom Constitution to temporarily replace the 1973 Philippine Constitution used by the dictator as an instrument of convenience for his one man rule. Despite a wide latitude of power provided by the Freedom Constitution, President Aquino only used it to facilitate the rehabilitation of the government. Under the Freedom Constitution, she appointed fifty men and women to the Constitutional Commission. The membership was an interesting mixture of personalities drawn from as wide a circle of groups as feasible: NGOs, people’s organizations, professional organizations, the clergy and the laymen, religious groups, academe, military, business groups, farmers, anthropologists, political scientists, journalists and politicians even of the Marcos clique were invited to sit together in one hall to deliberate the kind and details of the social compact that the Aquino government should submit to its people.
By February 1987, a year after she took over the reins of government, a new Constitution was overwhelmingly ratified by the Filipinos. In May of the same year, the first electoral exercise under the new Constitution was held.
One eminent mark of President Aquino’s character is her sincerity. She honored her promise to have a new constitution, return the people’s basic freedoms; and even her election promise to release the political prisoners, an act that clearly showed her sincerity in forging peace with the communists.
Moreover, she honored her word not to run again under the new Constitution even if there was no legal impediment. Despite the prodding of people close to her, she was firm in her decision to step down when her term ended.
Such sincerity and the integrity she was known for are rare in the world of politics and governance.
The Aquino presidency was marked by strict adherence to fundamental imperatives such as the commitment to social justice through poverty alleviation and better administration of justice; and through transparency, restoration of public trust and confidence in government. These imperatives guided this presidency’s conduct of public administration.
From the day she assumed office, President Aquino adhered to a system of management reflective of “people power.” Her style was personal, consultative and populist.
President Aquino devoted half of her administration to policy setting and agenda prioritization. Meetings and consultations were frequently held by specialized bodies such as the CORD-RDC , NEDA Board and Cluster E which were created to provide for more focused and effective venues for discussions of national issues. During these meetings President Aquino listened and discerned the issues as they were intensely debated on. In the CORD-RDC meetings, she showed her keen interest in the issues and concerns of the local governments and was very receptive to the development ideas of local officials.
The Aquino Cabinet was made up of diverse personalities, hence the deliberations and arguments during meetings varied from being lively and spirited to passionate and intense. Ever the consensus builder, President Aquino made most of her decisions after the issues have been thoroughly debated on and recommendations made.
The composition of her Cabinet and the diversity of her advisers worked in her favor as their various perspectives on specific issues provided her with several options.
However, while she encouraged debates on issues, once a decision has been made, she wanted her official family to support the decision, stand by it and to speak in one voice. She had an attentive ear and patience for debates and arguments but she despised making public any of these disagreements.
Unlike the impression some people had of her, President Aquino was no weak leader. She is made of sterner stuff; she did not hesitate to let people go, even those who were close to her.
The last two years of President Aquino’s term was devoted to the implementation of action-oriented interventions. It was also marked by two calamities that rendered catastrophic consequences to the economy: the 1990 killer quake and the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo.
However, the two natural disasters also brought out the effective crisis manager in the President. She assembled a band of experts from the government and the private sector which successfully handled the massive reconstruction and rehabilitation work.
Much has been said about the Aquino administration: what it accomplished, what it failed to accomplish and what it could have accomplished. The President received so much flak for failing to seize the golden opportunity to ask the international community to write off the country’s foreign debt which was then in billions of dollars.
But President Aquino understood very well that the nation’s credibility before the international community was at stake if it did not honor its financial obligations. The euphoria from the first-ever people power revolution the world had ever seen will go down the drain if the nation failed to earn international respect.
President Aquino inspired and required honesty and transparency from her subalterns in the management of government affairs through leadership by example. To be even suspected of corruption during those years was a big embarrassment. Those who were persistently talked about as corrupt had to be fired even during the first year of her administration.
In relation to government projects, the President was not easily swayed by pressures even from people close to her. The construction of the MRT was a shining example of her integrity. There were pressures from individuals identified with two powerful religious groups to award the construction of the MRT without any bidding. But true to her character, the President did not yield to the pressure despite the risk of losing precious political support.
However, the Aquino administration was not spared from allegations of graft and corruption although a dozen years after she left the Presidency, the charges have yet to be substantiated. There were no presidential exposes. No Senate or Congressional hearings. No incriminating products of enterprising investigative journalists. No Ombudsman or Sandiganbayan cases. What set her apart from her predecessor and successors was her absolute transparency in her dealings as President. For instance the proposed sale of the Philippine Embassy properties in Tokyo did not push through when problems relative to the transparency of the transaction surfaced.
The Filipinos are a very suspicious and knowledgeable constituency. They demand good faith and honesty of their leaders not only in financial matters but in all their dealings whether personal or political. President Aquino outshines almost everyone especially the politicians. She is honest, frank and candid. She has never been guilty of Orwellian double speak. This extraordinary candor is borne out of an abiding conviction that she has nothing to hide. There has never been a hidden agenda as far as she is concerned.
Another admirable character trait of President Aquino is her profound respect for the rule of law. One incident provides a clear evidence and tells a lot about the character of a great leader who recognizes the limits of power and the primacy of the law. This refers to the time when she sought redress for what she felt was a wrong done to her person. She testified in court as an ordinary citizen and allowed herself to be grilled by lawyers in a court of law.
Moreover, as former Justice Secretary, I never saw her interfere in the cases handled by the Department of Justice \ no matter how politically controversial the cases were.
Indeed, it was a fulfilling experience to serve a remarkable presidency -- a trusting presidency. The Executive Secretary and the entire Cabinet performed their duties to the extent of the President’s confidence in them.
Replete with colossal problems inherited from her predecessor that included empty government coffers, ruined democratic institutions and processes a demoralized bureaucracy and a highly politicized military, the Aquino presidency is a success story in the history of democracy.
With no experience in governance, the challenges she faced during her administration could have broken the spirit of lesser mortals. The ingredients of a failed democracy were present during her term but her faith in God and in the Filipino people sustained her and made her even stronger.
When her term ended, she handed the reins of government to her successor after holding honest, orderly and peaceful synchronized national and local elections. Moreover, she bequeathed to her successor a working economy, healthy democratic institutions, an independent judiciary, an energized bureaucracy, empowered people and a government respected by the international community.
The administration of President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino will always be remembered for its enduring legacies: democracy, a trusting presidency and profound respect for the rule of law.