Philippine Presidential Race Changes Course

A 10-month-long campaign by Philippine authorities to tie Vice President Jejomar Binay to vast corruption appears to have finally taken its toll, with Binay falling substantially behind Sen. Grace Poe in public opinion polls as a potential successor to President Benigno S. Aquino III in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes.

Pollsters between June 5 and June 8 in face-to-face interviews asked prospective voters to name up to three candidates to lead the country. Poe – who has made no announcement of her intentions – is preferred by 42 percent of those polled, according to the respected Social Weather Stations organization, compared with 34 percent who named Binay and 21 percent for Aquino’s close friend, Manual A. Roxas, the interior and local government secretary. Pulse Asia, the other influential polling organization, indicated that Poe has the backing of 30 percent of Filipinos with Binay having slipped to 22 percent.

The most recent previous poll, between March 1 and 7, had Binay at 29 percent and Poe at 14 percent. Third on the list at that point was Joseph “Erap” Estrada, 77, who was driven from office in 2001 on suspicion over plunder charges after serving 31 months as president. Estrada has slipped slightly to 10 percent while Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who has openly advocated the killing of suspected criminals without the trouble of trial, has risen slightly from 10 percent to 15 percent.

Binay and his family have been the subject of a long series of revelations beginning last September of vast amounts of money – PHP16 billion [US$369.6 million] by one estimate – stashed in various accounts plus millions more spirited out of the country by associates to places like Canada despite spending much of his life in public service. His salary as Makati mayor was PHP32,000 [US$718] per month.

Vast properties have been uncovered, including a 360-hectare hacienda in Batangas, 100 km. south of Manila, complete with its own air-conditioned piggery – his wife couldn’t stand the smell – as well as a plus-sized replica of the Kew Gardens in London, a 40-car garage, an aviary and a horse ranch. There are other properties scattered around, including along the rim of the Lake Taal volcano caldera, where movie stars, gamblers, politicians and crooks cavort. Binay has denied all charges and said the properties are owned by other people

Poe, on the other hand, has a public persona of scrupulous honesty despite relatively little experience in politics. She was famously a foundling, left in a church by her mother and adopted by the late movie star Fernando Poe, who ran in a disputed presidential election in 2004, dying shortly after of heart disease. Poe had spent much of her adult live in the United States, graduating from Boston College and working for US firms until she returned home after the death of her father.

In 2012, she launched her candidacy for a seat in the Senate, running in the election as an independent affiliated with Aquino. She won her senate seat with the most votes of any single candidate.

While the campaign against Binay may well have plenty of substance as to the corruption charges, the common wisdom in Manila is that the country’s Mestizo establishment, having put up with one charismatic character from the lower social orders – former movie star Erap Estrada – is determined to put Binay out of action before he can get close enough to be a viable presidential candidate. The 72-year-old Binay was the son of a librarian and a schoolteacher, the only child to survive childhood and – like Poe a foundling -- was adopted.

A human rights lawyer, he defended political prisoners detained by the Marcos regime. For helping prisoners, he was imprisoned himself. He was considered close to Corazon Aquino, the former president and mother of the current one, which led him into politics.

Over the past five years, with the election of Aquino, the Philippines has begun to straighten itself out from decades of endemic corruption, not only from the years when the Marcos regime committed theft of public money on a vast scale, but from the two presidencies immediately before Aquino – Estrada and Macapagal Arroyo. The government tendering process has been cleaned up although plenty remains to be done. Rational processes have been put in place.

Binay's political camp, the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), is tied to the political machine of Estrada, now the Manila mayor although Binay has a formidable political machine in his own right.