Filipinos should honour Aquino by pressing on

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 August, 2009, 12:00am

Corazon Aquino was synonymous with democracy for Filipinos. Her courage and determination in leading the opposition against dictator Ferdinand Marcos 23 years ago made her a symbol of their hopes and aspirations for freedom. The regime was swept aside in a sea of 'people power', and the woman who thought of herself as 'a simple housewife' assumed the presidency. She quickly found that character and charisma count for little when it comes to institution-building and good governance.

Aquino's six-year term was fraught with disappointment. She was unable to break the hold of the landed elite on the economy and in society and politics, leaving her much-lauded agrarian reforms in tatters. She was often an indecisive leader; her frustrated opponents were soon trying to force her from office. She died at the weekend with democratic institutions strained by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's government.

Mrs Arroyo has stacked the judiciary with her supporters. She is behind moves to redraw the constitution; opponents claim she is trying to stay in power beyond her mandated single term. This has been denied, but it is clear from court rulings and the killings of critics and journalists that democracy is threatened. Aquino's passing highlights the need for ever-greater vigilance.

The overthrow of Marcos did not markedly change the economic circumstances of Filipinos. Poverty and joblessness remain rife. Corruption continues to be endemic. There is freedom of speech, but the constitution that guarantees that right is under fire.

Democracy is not simply about voting and expressing opinions openly; it also requires step-by-step hard work to build the rule of law and institutions. A democratic symbol, like a Nelson Mandela or a Corazon Aqino, can help galvanise a movement for change, but this is not the be-all and end-all of the process. Aquino has been an inspiration to Filipinos and they have much to thank her for. They must now use her memory to more forcefully drive their aspirations for a clean and honest government.