Philippines’ Binays in Fight for Political Life

In October of 2006, the then-Makati City Mayor, Jejomar “Jojo” Binay barricaded himself in City Hall and refused to accede to a suspension order issued by the Philippines’ Department of the Interior and Local Government over charges that he was keeping “ghost employees” on the city payroll and enriching himself by pocketing the salaries of the nonexistent staff.

After three days, a Court of Appeal issued a temporary restraining order preventing then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s government from enforcing the order. Eventually Binay beat the rap and remained as mayor until he ran successfully to become the country’s vice president in 2010, allegedly lining his pockets as he went.

Today that situation is being played out in remarkably similar fashion by his son and successor as Makati Mayor. Jejomar “Junjun” Binay Jr has been accused, like his father, of corruption by the country’s Ombudsman, Conchita Carpio Morales. He has barricaded himself in his 21st floor office with father Jojo providing strategy and moral support and about 1,000 people in the streets at various times as a buffer against arrest. His supporters have said they will spend their nights in the quadrangle below the tower.

This is not the first time the country’s capacity for impunity has been tested. It is a particularly Filipino bit of theater. Nonetheless, the current squabble can be regarded as a test of whether the Philippines is maturing enough as a society to arrest and jail the corrupt. The country has had five years of relatively rational government at the hands of President Benigno S. Aquino III after two presidents – Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo – were accused of massive corruption.

There has already been one stunning case. Three powerful members of the Philippine upper house have been charged with corruption. Senators Jose “Jinggoy” Estrada and Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr. have been detained for months at the national police custodial center in Camp Crane; Senate President and legendary political survivor Juan Ponce Enrile, 91, because of his advanced age is at the general hospital also in the camp, the national police’s main headquarters. They have been held after being arrested last year on charges of plunder and graft in connection with the massive Pork Barrel scam that became public in 2012. It is uncertain when, if ever, they will go on trial.

The Binay case is the latest to grab headlines. It may well be that both Binays have profited enormously from corruption. But as a longtime western observer said, there are few completely honest men in Philippine politics and they could well be targeted for their political ambitions. Vice President Binay is leading the polls to be president in 2016.

“The Binay clan are bad but this is all about 2016 [when the Philippine presidential election is to be held]. It has nothing to do with justice,” the western observer said. “The establishment just hates Binay and fears he will be another Erap Estrada, a swaggering dark-skinned goofball who embarrasses the cultured mestizos.”

Jojo Binay rose to national prominence in the slipstream of his support for the current president's mother, Corazon, when she battled ex-dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s. A former human rights lawyer, Jojo was first placed in power in Makati by President Corazon Aquino in 1986 when the previous occupant, a crony of Marcos, was evicted. He went on to build a dynasty and a broad following.

Both Binays, father and son, are under what appears to be credible suspicion of amassing considerable wealth on contracts from the mayoralty, along with Jojo’s daughter, Makati Rep. Mar-len Abigail Binay-Campos. The Ombudsman’s office has issued a subpoena for her gross earnings as a congresswoman and her travel orders.

In the son’s case, the Ombudsman charged that he and 21 other city officials had committed “several alleged irregularities in the procurement and award of the contract for the design/architectural services” and the award of five contracts for the construction of the Makati City Hall Parking Building. Junjun is continuing to sleep on his office sofa while his lawyers ask for the suspension to be arrested.

The government has backed away from any immediate steps to physically remove Junjun from office, given the family’s large following among city workers and poor Filipinos, who in the past have demonstrated that they can dig in to support their patrons. Jojo Binay was famous during his mayoralty for small touches like ordering the delivery of birthday cakes to favored citizens, rich and poor alike. Mass actions by protestors could potentially clog the streets near City Hall.

The tough-talking Jojo has been accused by a blue-ribbon Senate committee of amassing vast unexplained wealth from kickbacks from at least 10 infrastructure projects, including the PHP2.7 billion [US$60.3 million] Makati City Hall parking building. Investigators say 28 percent of the money went back to Makati government personnel, 13 percent of it to Binay himself and 15 percent shared between city officials, councilors, Commission on Audit staff, department heads and workers. As he had done nine years earlier, he simply refused to face the Senate panel, calling it a witch hunt.

Binay is close to the powerful if tainted political machine of former President and current Manila City Mayor Joseph “Erap” Estrada. He also has a formidable machine of his own. The fear is that Binay could be another Estrada, a popular movie star who easily won the presidential race in 1998 only to follow that with a presidential career regarded largely as an opportunity to rifle the public treasury and engage in late-night drinking sessions with his buddies. He was cashiered by public protest engineered by the country’s old elite, the military and the Catholic Church in 2001.

It may well be true that the Makati theatrics are aimed at stopping the vice president from succeeding Aquino, a scion of one of the most aristocratic families in the Philippines. Binay trounced Aquino’s running mate, Manuel A. Roxas, to take the vice presidency under the curious Philippine practice of allowing a presieent and vice president from different parties. Aquino wants to see Roxas as his successor.

There is widespread suspicion in Manila that it is Roxas, the Interior and Local Government Secretary – the agency charged with the suspension -- who is behind the current campaign to rid Filipino politics of both Binays and in fact the vice president has accused Roxas of doing so to derail his presidential campaign. In any case, Binay’s net satisfaction rating, as measured by the Social Weather Stations polling organization, has fallen from a high of 67 percent last year to 44 percent in January of this year.

The ombudsman, Morales, is one of a trio of women appointed by Aquino who are considered relatively immune to the political tradewinds. The others are Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Maria Gracia M. Pulido Tan, the head of the Commission on Audit. Nonetheless, Morales was appointed a regional trial court judge by Corazon Aquino. She swore Aquino into office as president in 1986, rather than the then –chief justice, Renato Corona.

In the meantime, the drama goes on in the streets. The doors of City Hall are closed, with access only for the mayor and supporters. Junjun has remained in his office except for press conferences in a nearby office. He has vowed to stay there until the Court of Appeals decides whether he should be ousted. Supporters are being served meals and officials have organized singing and dancing contests.