Philippines Faces a Lame Duck Political Year

Politics in the Philippines is known for being chaotic, a mixture of bare-knuckle democracy, deep corruption, theatrics–-by real movie actors in some cases – and the country’s own dramatic ethos. There is often hope that things will settle down but they rarely do for long.

Today, despite four years of economic growth, political stability and relative prosperity, with gross domestic product rising at better than six percent annually over the past two years, the country appears about to lurch back into crisis. Coffee shop muttering and political tongue-wagging has it that President Benigno S. Aquino III may not fill out his term, which ends in 2016.

The common wisdom is that despite his own uncle, political godfather Jose “Peping” Cojuangco Jr., joining those asking that the president step down, Aquino is in little real danger of being forced out. Nonetheless, forces are coalescing around the attempt to oust him.

According to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, among the chiefs of the nascent revolt are the leaders of the National Transformation Council, born in 2014 and headed by former officials identified with former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has spent the last four years under house arrest, mostly at Aquino’s instigation, for corruption. The Council features Noberto B. Gonzales, Arroyo's former defense secretary and architect of a dark campaign of extrajudicial attacks on leftist activists, and Renato Corona, the former chief justice and Arroyo ally whom Aquino drove out of office through impeachment.

Aquino has lost some momentum as his six-year presidency has worn on, allowing his enemies to circle. But the trigger for the current controversy was a massively botched police raid on January 25 in Mamasapano on Mindanao in which 44 elite police officers were killed trying to capture a couple of Islamic terrorists. An official board of inquiry report released in mid-March ignited public outrage when it was revealed that Aquino was involved in planning the raid along with Alan Purisima, a former police chief who was suspended in December on graft charges.

Aquino didn’t help matters by saying Purisima let him down. According to Social Weather Stations, one of the most reliable Filipino polling firms, Aquino’s ratings have fallen to 47 percent satisfied, 17 percent undecided, and 36 percent dissatisfied with his performance, the lowest level in his presidential career, making it unlikely that he will be able to pass the baton to a candidate of his choosing in 2016. His own presumed pick, interior secretary and aristocratic scion Manual A. Roxas, has fallen far behind.

Aquino's most important contribution as president has been to pick up on some of the reforms that were begun under former President Fidel A. Ramos during his one term from 1992 to 1998. Partly because of the onset of the Asian Financial Crisis and partly because of the election of two deeply corrupt presidents in Joseph Estrada and Arroyo, those reforms were largely abandoned or reversed.

That could happen again. A continuing corruption investigation of Vice President Jejomar "Jojo" Binay, the 2016 frontrunner, has seen Binay’s ratings actually rise, according to Pulse Asia, which in a March poll found his approval rating at 29 percent, up from 26 percent in November when the publicity went widespread. The investigation has spread to Binay’s son, Jejomar Binay Jr., or Junjun, who followed his father into the mayoralty of Makati City. Instead of obeying instructions from the country's Ombudsman to step down during the investigation, Junjun has mobilized his followers and refused orders to leave city hall.

Jojo Binay, who spent two decades as Makati’s longest-serving mayor before going on to the vice presidency and passing city hall to Junjun, cemented affections with his constituency by such acts as famously sending birthday cakes to all citizens who passed their 70th birthdays. Both have a large public following who seem unfazed by convincing evidence that the family has amassed a considerable fortune at expense of the public purse. Those followers have turned up at city hall on a daily basis to support the Binays – although the Manila-based news site Rappler said some supporters are invited for an “allowance” of PHP300 [US$6.63] to show up and sign an attendance sheet.

The family, including Jojo's daughter, Mar-len Abigail Binay-Campos, who holds a seat in Congress, sees the investigations as political attacks to which they must respond. They have done so with considerable success. Jojo has accused Mar Roxas of being behind attempts to get him on corruption charges as an election ploy.

With the well-born, Wharton-educated Roxas flagging – although he is still on the list – Aquino is said to be considering backing Grace Poe, the 46-year-old, American-educated adopted daughter of the late actor Fernando Poe Jr. The elder Poe lost to Gloria Arroyo in 2004 in a disputed election rife with electoral fraud. Grace Poe was elected to the Senate in 2012 and has won steadily rising approval.

The concern behind the maneuverings for the broader good of the Philippines is that reforms under Aquino, such as a transparent tendering process and other measures, could be reversed by a questionable successor such as an Estrada or Arroyo.

“The president and the administration have implemented many reforms. I think there is a big risk of reversal when it comes to corruption protection,” said Ronald Mendoza, executive director of the Asian Institute of Management in Manila. “It is a valid concern if the next president attempts to reverse them. But I don’t think it’s inevitable. Transparency and accountability have a built-in constituency now. It has to be pursued. I believe it is possible to build a coalition around reform.”

In the meantime, 20 of the country’s 24 senators and 100 members of the House of Representatives, and possibly more, are embroiled in the country’s massive P10 billion Pork Barrel scandal, which saw lawmakers redirecting money from development projects to their own pockets. The list lawmakers includes virtually all of the country’s top politicians, including Manny Villar, a presidential candidate in the 2010 election; two members of the family of former President Joseph Estrada; Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr; Loren Legarda, ranked by the US Embassy as one of the country’s five most prominent women; three members of Arroyo's family and many more

These investigations have taken their toll on government stability.

“In addition to a toxic, unstable political climate in the country, and renewed violence in Mindanao, companies in Luzon could also be facing power shortages in the months to come,” according to the consulting group Pacific Strategies and Assessments (PSA). “It appears unlikely that President Aquino will have the political power to successfully navigate the country through to the May 2016 national elections and into the next administration. Mr. Aquino’s popularity ranking is at an all-time low. Legitimate questions about his role in the Mamasapano incident have combined with political mischief about his general competence as a leader to undermine both his popularity and authority."

In rather colorful language, PSA says, “Unfortunately, the ship of state will cross these treacherous waters without a rudder as the captain has been stripped of much of his moral authority and largely confined to his cabin.”