By Karl Malakunas
Tarlac, Philippines – Sitting inside a museum displaying the bloodied clothes his democracy hero father was wearing when assassinated, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III admits that for a long time he did not want to be president.
Even after winning elections in the Philippines by a landslide as Filipinos put their faith again in his family’s revered name, the 50-year-old bachelor appears not to be entirely comfortable that the nation’s burdens rest with him.
“I look at it as an obligation and as a job,” Aquino told Agence France-Presse in an exclusive interview at the Aquino family museum in their hometown of Tarlac on May 11, a day after the elections. “I cannot look at it as a situation where I can promote myself or put myself on a pedestal.”
Aquino is still to be officially declared the winner of the elections, with the tally not 100 percent completed, but he has an unassailable lead and his team is preparing to take the country’s reins on July 1.
When asked about his emotions the moment he realized he would become president, Aquino spoke not of excitement but personal sacrifice.
“I am still trying to adjust to the fact that there will be a drastic change in lifestyle,” he said, elaborating on the inevitable end to dinners in restaurants and anonymous strolls in shopping malls.
“Now I realize what my mum was saying when she wanted to try and go to a grocery store.”
Aquino often echoes his mother, Corazon “Cory” Aquino, and sees their destinies as the same.
In the deeply Catholic Philippines, Cory Aquino is regarded with near saint-like status for leading the “People Power” revolution that ended Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship in 1986.
But she was thrust into the role of revolutionary only after her husband, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, was shot dead at Manila airport in 1983 when he returned from US exile to lead the democracy movement against Marcos.
Cory Aquino was famously reluctant to lead the Philippines because it would mean having to take chief responsibility in healing a nation afflicted with so many dictatorship-borne social and economic woes.
But she became increasingly comfortable with her fate, and her six-year term is now looked back upon fondly by many Filipinos weary of corruption and poverty as a time when they had an incorruptible leader.
Her son said that, even though he had been congressman and senator for more than a decade, he had little desire to become president until last year when his mother died.
“I would be inheriting the problems of an administration that for nine and a half years has really wreaked havoc on our country,” Aquino said, explaining his reluctance.
He compared Arroyo’s corruption-tainted reign with Marcos’s dictatorship, saying they both wrecked fundamental democratic institutions and badly damaged the economy.
But Aquino said that, like his mother, he felt obliged to assume the burden after listening to the clamor of millions of Filipinos.
“At the end of the day (I thought) I would not be able to live with myself… if, knowing that I could have done something, I chose not to and the situation became worse,” he said.
In a similar fashion to his mother, Aquino intends to try and lead the country back from corruption-laden despair by example.
“I did make a public vow, I will never steal,” Aquino said, adding he intended to follow in his mother’s footsteps and not live in the Malacanang presidential palace.
“I want to reside if possible in my family’s residence,” he said. “I want to be able to end the day having as much a normal life as possible, to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground.”
Aquino wants to emulate another of his mother’s symbolic acts and not use the powers of office to beat Manila’s notorious traffic congestion.
“If there is traffic, we are part and parcel of it because at the end of the day the buck has to stop with me,” he said.
Ultimately though, Aquino’s mother moved into a house close to the presidential palace and her security personnel forced her to travel quickly through the traffic.
And while she is much-loved for being a role model, she was not a panacea for the Philippines’ entrenched economic and political problems.
Aquino similarly acknowledged he would not be able to fix the country during his six years in power, which cannot be any longer due to constitutional time limits introduced by his mother to prevent another Marcos-style dictatorship.
“We cannot transform our society in six years. But we are hoping to be able to provide that impetus and momentum to carry over into the next administration,” he said.