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Philippines: Aquino's presidency and the Yellow Priest

President Aquino faces challenges at his 100-day mark. Good thing he has the "Yellow Priest."

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III salutes during the commemoration of National Heroes Day with a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of Unknown Soldier Monument in Libingan ng mga Bayani at Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City, Metro Manila, Aug. 29, 2010. (Jay Morales/Malacanang Photo Bureau/Reuters)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Is change finally coming to the Philippines?

For one Filipino-American Catholic priest and supporter of the new president Benigno Aquino III, the answer is a qualified "yes."

The Taiwan-based Father Joy Tajonera is part of a group that urged Aquino to run for office after the politician's mother, democracy icon Corazon Aquino, passed away.

He began shuttling back and forth on the two-hour flight between Taiwan and Manila during the campaign, and became active in the "yellow ribbon movement" supporting Aquino's candidacy. He even had a bright-yellow, Roman Collar shirt and yellow cossack made to show his support for Aquino and for change — an eye-catching get-up that earned him the label "The Yellow Priest" from the Philippines media.

Now, just past 100 days into Aquino's presidency, Tajonera's still a believer. And he insists Aquino — nicknamed "Noynoy" or "PNoy" — is the real deal.

"One encouraging thing I hear from both young and old is optimism — that it's possible to hope that the country will be better," said Tajonera, who at 51 is about the same age as the new president. "That sense of hope is what helped Noynoy get elected — people are clamoring for change."

The Philippines has long been one of Asia's underachievers, trailing far behind its peers in the region due to a potent mix of corruption, clan-based politics, long-running armed rebellions, incompetence and the out-sized influence of a landed elite.

Aquino hasn't changed that overnight, of course. But Tajonera insists that the fledgling president has already succeeded in projecting a clean, humble image for his government. He's gotten the style right — now everyone's waiting for him to make more progress on substance.

Other analysts also give Aquino good marks."I wouldn't give him a perfect score, but I would say he passed the test of his first 100 days," said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila. "So far so good, in the sense that he has made key initial steps for fighting corruption and poverty — he's appointed people to key positions."

Most Filipinos seems to agree; Aquino's latest satisfaction rating was 71 percent, compared to just 11 percent dissatisfied, according to a survey by Social Weather Stations.

Philippines media made much of his recent, lower-key trip to the U.S. — spending a third what his predecessor did for a state visit to New York City, by lodging at Sofitel instead of the Waldorf, and eating at street-side hot-dog stands instead of Le Cirque.

Members of the "yellow ribbon movement" at a mall in Taipei. Father Joy Tajonera, far left.
(Courtesy of Joy Tajonera)

Tajonera ticks off several more examples of Aquino's more modest, down-to-earth ways. PNoy has scrapped "wang-wang" — the practice of Presidential motorcades using wailing sirens to get through metro Manila's notorious gridlock. He's done away with self-promotional billboards on public projects, which were widespread under his predecessor.

He gave his entire inaugural address and first state of the nation address not in English but in Tagalog, the Philippines' main dialect — a first for a Filipino president. "There's a divide in the country between those who have and have not — and those who speak English well and those who do not," said Tajonera.

And Tajonera has personally observed that government officials and police have a noticeably less "arrogant" and more polite, upright attitude.

Case in point: when one of Tajonera's relatives was caught speeding as he rushed to make a lunch with the priest during one of his trips to Manila, he tried bribing his way out of a ticket in the tried-and-true Philippines style — by passing a banknote to the cop along with his license. This time, it didn't work.

Still, there's plenty of reason to doubt whether PNoy can change the broader system. The most significant challenges are his lack of control of Congress and the courts, which could hobble his efforts at reform, said Tajonera.