LONDON. — London -- The return of Imelda Marcos to claim her shoes and face corruption charges was, after all, the wet squib many Philippine political commentators had told us it would be. The memory of the Marcos dictatorship, dampened by the passing years, is not for re-igniting.
To that extent, President Corazon Aquino has triumphed. Moreover, whoever replaces her in next May's election will have to run the gantlet, not only of a free poll but a rambunctious press, and deal with a wrangle-minded Congress and a judiciary least partly independent. These are the fundamental rewards reaped by the popular overthrow of Marcos six years ago and the democratic rule of Mrs. Aquino.
Nevertheless, she is going to leave behind equally fundamental flaws. Corruption, if not on the scale of the Marcos years, remains endemic -- the World Bank has estimated that it costs the government nearly a third of its national budget. Money continues to be the currency of power -- all those already in the race for the presidency are unusually wealthy, and prefer to use their riches rather than the content of their political platform to win supporters and influence people.
It is Mrs. Aquino's inability to remove herself from the clutches of her own hidebound class -- the landed estate-owning gentry -- that is her single most far-reaching and enduring failure.
The Philippines can never expect to extricate itself from its economic straitjacket unless it imitates its three most successful neighbors, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. All date their amazing economic progress from the time major land reforms freed resources locked up in feudal backwaters.
In Japan, it was the American occupying forces, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, that rammed through the redistribution of land. In Taiwan, it was instigated by Chiang Kai-shek, who made landowners of 60 percent of the former tenants. In South Korea, it was pushed by strongman Syngman Rhee, who similarly made owners of 64 percent of the former tenants. Compare this with the Philippines, where only 20 percent of the people own 80 percent of the land, and two-thirds of the 10 million people employed in agriculture do not have title to the land they till.
Under the present-day quasi-feudal system, not only is sustained economic growth an illusory pursuit for the whole of Philippine society, the severity of the poverty of half its population appears to worsen. In Manila, there are now thousands of hungry, homeless children growing up on the street, a phenomenon that only occurs when there is terrible sickness at the heart of society.
In her first year in office, Mrs. Aquino appeared to ignore the problem. Then, when her security forces shot dead right in front of the presidential palace 18 protesting farmers demanding land, she moved to act.
An executive order redistributed land, followed later by reform legislation. Both were riddled with loopholes. The agency responsible for implementing the law is riven with corruption and has had five bosses in five years. Last year the government acquired just 55 acres of private land for distribution!
Mrs. Aquino's own family estate, a 17,000-acre sugarcane plantation, is effectively untouched by legislation, which speaks volumes about the intractability of landowner power.
In the history of revolutions, one thing stands out: it is blamable poverty that seems to serve as a trigger of popular violence. Mrs. Aquino may leave office too soon to see it, but the Philippines has all the makings of a society heading for catastrophe.
Many of the most violent 20th-century conflicts have happened when a substantial part of the population is blocked from earning a secure living from the land it tills. This was an important ingredient in the Russian revolution, the Mexican revolution, the Spanish civil war and the Irish struggle for independence. Since World War II land protests have played a catalytic role in successful revolutions in China, Bolivia, Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, and it was of substantial significance in the toppling of the shah of Iran.
Tragically, Mrs. Aquino, nee Cojuangco, a direct descendant of the old oligarchy, despite her many selfless acts of courage, has made it plain that at bottom she is loyal above all to her family, her friends and her class. Her country will long suffer from this.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.