A chain-smoking bachelor with a penchant for Coca-Cola and video games, Benigno Aquino III, who has died aged 61 of renal failure as a result of diabetes, attracted as much attention for his lifestyle habits as for his political successes as Philippine president from 2010 until 2016, among them reviving the economy, combating domestic corruption and defending his nation’s territory against China in the international court.
The only son of two Philippine greats of democracy, Aquino had never aspired to become president himself. He instead declared it “fate” that he was pushed into the role by virtue of his family’s dynastic history. Both his mother, the former president Corazon Aquino and his father, the assassinated senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, were revered for leading the struggle to restore democracy to the archipelago after decades of dictatorship, with his mother leading the “people power” revolt that toppled the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
After his mother’s death plunged the Philippines into mourning in 2009, Aquino, previously regarded by critics as an under-achieving lawmaker, entered the presidential race as a latecomer, rising to power on a wave of public support and vowing to put an end to the scandals, corruption and poverty that once again plagued the Philippines.
Noynoy – or Pnoy – as he was affectionately called by his supporters, sometimes referred to the nation’s problems as biblical burdens that were impossible to solve within one six-year term. But his administration managed to achieve a number of domestic and international successes.
Aquino ushered in reforms that revitalised the Philippines economy to levels not seen since the 1970s, signed into law a heavily opposed reproductive health bill that promised universal access to sex education and contraception, and negotiated a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the majority-Catholic country’s largest Muslim rebel group. He also took China to the international court in 2013 over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, a case the Philippines won at the Hague three years later.
Yet poverty in the nation remained endemic, and Aquino was heavily criticised for his slow response to the 2013 typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,000 Filipinos. Two years later, his administration came under further attack after a botched police operation to capture Muslim rebels left 44 officers dead.
He was criticised for reportedly playing video games during a hostage crisis in 2010, an allegation he denied. A former police officer hijacked a bus in central Manila, and eight tourists and the hijacker were killed during a failed security rescue. Aquino caused outrage by smiling at the press conference.
Born in Manila, Aquino gained an economics degree at Ateneo de Manila University before working in the family’s sugar business in their native Tarlac province, north of the capital. He launched his political career in 1998, spending more than a decade as a congressman and senator, during which time critics said he achieved very little. Aquino was himself shot five times in 1987, when rebel soldiers attempted to overthrow his mother’s presidency. One of the bullets remained embedded in his neck.
Bespectacled, soft spoken and known for being a man of few words, Aquino sometimes baffled the greater public and aroused much speculation in the chatty Filipino press over the future of one of the nation’s most powerful political families. His father was shot dead at Manila airport in 1983 after returning from exile in the US to lead the democracy movement against Marcos. His widowed mother went on to become an adored public figure. Aquino’s uncle served in congress, his aunt was a governor, and one of his rivals in the 2010 presidential election was his cousin.
For a country in which powerful families are often depended upon to fill the absence of centralised authority, Aquino’s bachelorhood put into question the lasting legacy of not only his family’s name, but national peace as well. Despite having a number of girlfriends, Aquino remained single, joking that he had “just been unlucky” with romance.
“I am only human, and thus, I am imperfect,” Aquino said in 2015. “I ran for the presidency despite my discomfort with the trappings of power, because if I passed up on this opportunity to effect real change, I would not have been able to live with myself.” The office is limited to a six-year term and in 2016 Rodrigo Duterte was elected to it
He is survived by four sisters.