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MANILA, Philippines – President Benigno Aquino III admits he needed weekend escapes from the job’s pressures when he started as the Philippines’ president, but nearly 2 years on he exudes passion and says he is firmly in control.
During an in-depth interview with AFP at the presidential palace, Aquino pointed to a host of economic indicators to justify his enthusiasm, while displaying a relish for bare-knuckled political fights against his opponents.
“There are so many things that have transpired that none of us could even have imagined when we were campaigning,” Aquino said reflecting on his first 21 months in office that followed a landslide election win.
He referred mostly to the state of the nation’s economy, which after decades of under-performing has showed signs of steady, if incremental, improvement under his leadership and mantra of clean-governance.
Aquino, 52, insists the economy is on the right track, citing a series of international credit ratings upgrades and the rise of the Philippine stock market to record highs in recent weeks as evidence.
Among his proudest achievements are luring foreign manufacturers and other investors to the Philippines, extending health cover, cutting government waste and expanding an incentive scheme to keep millions of poor children at school.
Critics accuse him of lacking urgency on the economic front, pointing out GDP growth was just 3.7% in 2011 partly because he cut government spending when they say pump-priming was needed.
But Aquino’s policies, which have an overarching theme of tackling the corruption infecting all sectors of the nation’s economy, have won endorsement from a wide range of sources.
World Bank country director Motoo Konishi said last week the economy was in good shape with inflation stable at around 2.7%, manageable government finances and a well-focused social protection system.
“Besides having strong macroeconomic fundamentals, the country is benefiting from political stability and a popular government seen by many as strongly committed to improving governance and reducing poverty,” he said.
A survey released by one of the nation’s most reputable polling groups on Thursday, March 22, also found Aquino was holding onto the support that carried him to the biggest election win in modern Philippine politics.
The Pulse Asia survey showed his popularity ratings at 70%, with just 9% disapproving.
A big factor in Aquino winning by such a large margin in 2010 was brand association.
He is the son of Corazon Aquino, one of the country’s most loved political figures who led the democracy movement against dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s and then succeeded him for 6 years as president.
Her death in 2009 led to an outpouring of support for the Aquino family, transforming the bachelor son from a publicity-shy senator with a reputation for achieving little in politics into the country’s most popular politician.
Meanwhile, business leaders are showing their support by opening up their wallets.
One of the country’s biggest conglomerates, Ayala Corp, announced last week that its real estate arm would invest $1.4 billion over the next 5 years on projects within the country’s financial district of Makati.
“The economy is on a positive track…. that’s why we’re aggressive in our investment,” said Ayala Land president Antonino Aquino, who is not related to the president.
In last week’s interview, President Aquino said holding the reins of the country felt much more comfortable than the initial period after taking over from Gloria Arroyo, who ruled the Philippines for nearly 10 years before him.
“The first 3 months we were all looking towards Friday,” Aquino said.
“When Friday came there would at least be a small break in between the discovery of other problems.”
Aquino has repeatedly accused Arroyo and her allies of running down the country through massive corruption, and he referred again in the interview to her time in power as a “lost decade”.
Aquino has mounted an at-times controversial campaign to prosecute Arroyo and her allies, who include Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona.
Arroyo is now awaiting trial and could spend life in jail after being charged with election fraud. Corona is facing an impeachment trial in the Senate and will lose his job if found guilty of corruption.
Critics accuse Aquino of persecuting his opponents. But he made no apologies, and insisted there would be no let-up in the anti-graft campaign.
“We are trying to get the kingpins of corruption,” he said. – Agence France-Presse