By Jim Gomez
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine president-apparent and nominees to what he pledged would be a lean, graft-free Cabinet promised last Wednesday to travel overseas less, investigate corruption and renew peace talks on ending decades-long insurgencies.
With the vote count nearly complete, Benigno Aquino III began assembling his Cabinet from the ranks of defectors from outgoing President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administration. One ministerial nominee said bloated contracts, especially from Arroyo’s last six months in office, would be investigated before being honored.
Despite lackluster terms as a congressman and senator, Aquino is set to become president after winning wide support in Monday’s election, largely due to the political legacy of his democracy icon parents. He has 41.81 percent of votes in the nine-way race, with votes from 88.78 percent of precincts counted by Wednesday evening, according to a government-accredited watchdog.
Aquino’s closest rival, former President Joseph Estrada, had 26.49 percent of the tally so far.
Aquino — whose father was assassinated while opposing Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship and whose mother led the 1986 “people power” revolt that restored democracy — will inherit a Southeast Asian nation grappling with poverty and debilitated by decades-long Marxist and Muslim insurgencies, military unrest, corruption, violent crimes and political strife.
“Our country badly needs this shot in the arm,” said Corazon Soliman, the first to accept a Cabinet post from Aquino. “We have been given a second chance to do this right.”
Soliman defected, along with several other Cabinet members, from Arroyo’s administration in July 2005 amid a vote-rigging scandal that nearly forced her from power. Soliman and her colleagues had called for Arroyo’s resignation and backed Aquino.
A committee will help Aquino form a Cabinet before he takes his oath June 30, selecting people “with integrity, honesty and no track record of corrupt practices,” Soliman told The Associated Press.
Aquino announced Tuesday that Soliman accepted his offer to return to the Department of Social Welfare and Development. He repeated a campaign promise to use his first days in the presidency to wage a battle against corruption.
“I will not only not steal, but I’ll focus on combating smuggling and cleaning up the notoriously corrupt Bureau of Customs and other revenue-generating agencies.”
Teresita Deles, who also defected from Arroyo in 2005, said Aquino will immediately reconstitute a peace talks panel negotiating with communist New People’s Army rebels, who have been waging a rural-based Marxist rebellion since the late 1960s, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which is fighting for Muslim self-rule in the southern Philippines.
Both sets of negotiations stalled under Arroyo.
Aquino also told the AP last week that he will create a commission to look into allegations against Arroyo, his former economics professor.
Arroyo was accused of vote-rigging in 2004 and implicated in several scandals that led to coup attempts and moves to impeach her. Calls for her prosecution have been an important campaign issue. Nevertheless, she ran for a House seat on Monday and was declared victorious in a landslide in her home province of Pampanga.
It was only after former President Corazon Aquino died of cancer last August that her son, a quiet lawmaker and bachelor, decided to run, spurred by the massive outpouring of national grief for the leader who helped oust Marcos in 1986. She had inherited the mantle of her husband, Benigno Aquino Jr., an opposition senator gunned down by soldiers at Manila’s airport in 1983 upon return from U.S. exile to challenge Marcos. ♦
Associated Press writers Hrvoje Hranjski, Oliver Teves, and Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.