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New president for Philippines, but same old song?

By Jim Maceda, NBC News Correspondent

LONDON – There was something both unique and yet oh so déjà vu about Benigno Aquino III’s inauguration as the Philippines’15th president Wednesday.

On the one hand, here – finally – was a Benigno Aquino taking the presidential oath at the podium. That was something his assassinated father of the same name, who was revered as almost a saint in the Philippines, never lived to attain.

But the scene, and supporting cast, was troublingly familiar: hundreds of thousands of cheering Filipinos stretched across Manila’s Rizal Park in a sea of yellow, Aquino’s campaign color.


People gather at Rizal Park to witness the oath-taking ceremony of Benigno Aquino III as the Philippines' 15th President Wednesday, June 30, 2010 in Manila, Philippines.

The scene was reminiscent of the "people power" rallies back in 1986 for his iconic mother, Corazon Aquino, whose signature color was also yellow. She died last year from cancer, prompting a groundswell of sympathy and support for her son.

That self-proclaimed "plain housewife" – Cory, as she was known – was catapulted into international fame for taking on the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, by running against him in her husband’s place. And now her own son, known as a "lightweight legislator," won a landslide victory – seemingly out of nowhere. Pundits chalked up his win to his family name and the sympathy vote after his mother’s death.

True, Aquino, called "Noynoy" by his supporters, now 50, said all the right things in his mother tongue, Tagalog, and highly refined English.

"My parents sought nothing less, and died for nothing less," he told the crowd, "than for democracy, peace and prosperity. I am blessed by the legacy. And I will carry the torch forward."

He promised his people a new day, and a crackdown on endemic corruption. But those of us who covered his famous parents heard it all before.

Déjà vu all over again
Cory’s supporters once chatted, "Sobrana, Tamana, Politana," or "Too Much Already, Enough Already, Change Him!" (referring to Marcos). But long after Marcos and his cronies were "changed," corruption only changed hands.

Cory was squeaky clean, but, faced with a recalcitrant Congress, her land reform efforts were stillborn. Her promises to balance the budget were never met. In all, there were seven (unsuccessful) coup attempts against her by restless renegade military officers, some of whom went on to become popular politicians in a system that fed on corruption and nepotism.

Then came President Fidel Ramos who, granted, brought six years of relative stability, until former actor Joseph Estrada succeeded him and turned the presidential palace into a neo-colonial betting shop.

Estrada, after just two years in office, was impeached and jailed for "plundering the nation," only to be granted a pardon by his successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

She made big promises, too, but the trend hardly improved. Arroyo’s turbulent nine years in power saw another four failed coup attempts and several bids to impeach her on vote-rigging and corruption charges, though none ever stuck.

And that brings us to Noynoy, perhaps the greatest living personification of Filipino hopes and dreams.

But who was standing near him on the presidential dais? Joseph Estrada – the plunderer – applauded Noynoy’s every word. And Arroyo – the Teflon Lady – was even given military honors as she was sworn in, this time as a congresswoman.

"I can forgive those who did me wrong," said the new President Aquino at one point, "but I have no right to forgive those who abused our people."

Yet, Marcos never paid a penny for the abuse – martial law, tens of thousands of extra-judicial killings and political prisoners – that he wreaked on his nation.

And what about General Fabian Ver, Marcos’ Army Chief of Staff, a man linked to Ninoy Aquino’s assassination? Didn’t he go into quiet exile in the United States?

Even Imelda Marcos never received more than a suspended sentence for all her profligate – and often illegal – draining of the government coffers.

Still unrealized dreams
In steamy, tropical Philippine politics, the line between forgiveness and weakness is often blurred. It’s one reason why, nearly a quarter of a century since the fall of Marcos, the gap between "haves" and "have-nots" has never seemed greater.

Fully a third of the 90 million Filipinos live on a dollar a day. And that cocktail of poverty, corruption and a restless military feels just as combustible as ever.

True, the inauguration was democracy, of sorts, in action. And it was exciting to see. As the festivities went on long into the night, a relaxed President "Noynoy" sang jazz and pop tunes with a live band on stage.

But now the campaign rhetoric has ended and the work begins. I can’t help thinking it will be the same old song.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News London correspondent who was based in Manila in the 1980’s.