Many foreign analysts thought that Corazon Aquino would fail, but she is proving them wrong. President Suharto of Indonesia recently publicly recognized the integrity of the Aquino government by withdrawing support for the Muslim independence movement in the southern Philippines. However, his advice to "crush communist insurgents immediately" will go unheeded because her absence of anger in dealing with opposition forces is emerging as a major strength for her government.
This strength was evident from the beginning. Three million people demonstrated peacefully for four days until the "unarmed forces" of the Philippines ousted Ferdinand E. Marcos. The "people power" created during that "revolution" is the basis for Aquino's continued strength. Her conciliatory personal philosophy has allowed her to mobilize the people in a way that a more retaliatory approach would not.
A confrontational style of government traditionally has been viewed as a stereotypical male form of power--especially by the West. Female leaders have been criticized as weak when they have behaved in a non-confrontational manner. But it is from her femininity that Aquino's power has emerged. That power deposed Marcos without destroying the country's social fabric.
The well-being of the people, rather than personal power or bureaucratic tradition, is Aquino's primary concern. For example, when Marcos' former vice presidential running mate, Arturo Tolentino, attempted a coup against this seemingly vulnerable government, only a few citizens and 300 soldiers--less than a fifth of 1% of the Philippine armed forces--briefly joined him in the effort.
Aquino sent the insurgents back to their units with a strong reprimand instead of severe punishment. The absence of anger and the non-retaliatory spirit robbed the opponents of a target. After 20 years of oppression, this startling change has created a new momentum. Filipinos sense that now they can use their energy to create a democracy instead of struggling to protect themselves against a tyrant.
Aquino believes that there are simple solutions to some of her country's complex problems. She wants to recover the billions of dollars stolen by the Marcos family, rather than relying on complicated borrowing schemes that would plunge the Philippines even deeper into foreign debt. She also is trying to keep millions of dollars from flowing out of the country by persuading the Pentagon to use Philippine suppliers to service the military bases instead of the U.S. firms that currently provide those services.
Aquino has not set herself up as a powerful centerpiece. While she makes the decisions that affect the broad public interest, she has been careful to distribute power and decision-making throughout her cabinet as a deliberate political strategy. She encourages communication and debate among cabinet members in order to foster participation. This approach has produced an atmosphere of open interaction in decision-making. Because cabinet members feel secure in their positions, they are free to work for the good of the entire country instead of squandering their energies on personal power struggles. This supportive attitude makes it difficult for opponents to focus on anything but the issues.
Aquino made three strategic and well-timed moves that brought the opposition into alignment with her forces. Immediately after taking office she appointed all parties, including the opposition, to membership in the constitutional convention. Two weeks before the convention started she announced that she would not be a candidate for reelection. This freed the opposition parties to work on the constitution without having to worry about running against her. She granted amnesty to the members of the New People's Army, along with an invitation for them to help rebuild the country.
These tactics enhanced her credibility with the people and produced a positive momentum. The task now is to maintain that momentum on all fronts. While her cabinet gains experience in running the government, the clock is ticking. It is an arduous undertaking to operate a government, motivate a people, diversify the economy and simultaneously institute democratic reforms. Complicated problems must be solved during the next six months: A new constitution must be ratified by the people, open elections held, the debt problem controlled and the economy developed from the bottom up.
Because of Aquino's commitment to make the country self-governing, the structures for these critical reforms are emerging on schedule. It would have been easier for her to use dictatorial powers and martial law to create short-term stability. The risk would have been that democratic reform might not have followed. Thus she averted a blood bath that would have fragmented the country for years. The transition provides a window of opportunity for the Philippines and the world to join forces to formulate a true democracy.
Whether this experiment works depends on the staying power of the Philippine people and the response of other countries to their needs.
The Aquino era teaches that democracy can be a natural and positive development among Pacific nations. The Western nations that learn the lessons of this experience will be well positioned to participate in a new dynamic era in the Pacific.