The Philippines’ Jojo Binay Keeps Rolling

Last week, the Philippine Court of Appeals froze 242 bank accounts associated with the family and political associates of Vice President Jejomar Binay, the putative leading candidate for the presidency in 2016. The accounts reportedly hold PHP600 million (U$13.48 million).

That isn’t all. The country’s anti-money laundering council believes the Binays have as much as PHP16 billion [US$369.6 million] stashed in various accounts plus millions more spirited out of the country by associates to places like Canada.

Those are the latest revelations in what is believed to be a months-long campaign by the leaders of the Philippine political establishment to neutralize Binay and keep him from what appears to be an almost unstoppable march to the Presidential election scheduled for next July.

But while Binay does appear to be a target for political harassment by administration allies, many of the corruption allegations against him also appear to be legitimate. 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-size 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, where movie stars, gamblers, politicians and crooks cavort.

Not bad for a former Makati mayor whose monthly salary was P32,000 [US$718 at current exchange rates] per month during the 20-odd years he served as chief executive of the country’s commercial center in the Manila conurbation.

If that implies massive corruption, the Philippines’ voters so far don’t seem to care. Although the latest poll was taken more than two months ago between March 1 and 7 by the respected Pulse Asia, that was after months of allegations against the vice president and his family that had largely failed to leave a dent. It still shows him with 29 percent of the voters willing to vote for him as president if the election were held today.

Third on the list is Joseph “Erap” Estrada, 77, who was driven from office in 2001 on suspicion over plunder charges after serving 31 months as president. Estrada was tied with Rodrigo Duterte in the polls at 12 percent although Human Rights Watch is demanding that the government investigate Duterte, the Davao City mayor, for his alleged role in summary executions of criminals in his city.

Duterte said in a speech on May 15 that that his approach to crime fighting depends on the killing of suspected criminals. “We’re the ninth safest city,” he said. “How do you think I did it? How did I reach that title among the world’s safest cities? Kill them all [criminals].” He has embarked on a six-month tour of the country, advocating rubbing out criminals without bothering with a trial as his presidential platform.

That raft of candidates has left President Benigno S. Aquino’s anointed favorite Manual A. Roxas solidly lodged at just 4 percent approval. It may not speak confidently about the Philippine electorate’s approach to democratic politics, although the respected Grace Poe, a 48-year-old neophyte senator who was educated in the United States, is running second to Binay with 14 percent of the vote and thought to be rising steadily.

Binay cemented his relationship with the voters, first as a crusading civil rights lawyer closely aligned with Aquino’s mother Corazon. He has a natural politician’s touch, ordering birthday cakes to be delivered to all senior citizens, and to couples on their 50th wedding anniversaries. He is the longtime Philippine head of the Boy Scouts although there are allegations he looted Boy Scout property to fatten his accounts.

“He is very popular, he has been in politics for a long time, he has cultivated amazing networks in local government, it is where he gets his support,” a longtime political analyst told Asia Sentinel. “Over the years, he has basically laid the groundwork for next year. He’s got all sorts of things to keep the network going, He is one of the leaders of one of the Philippines’ largest fraternal organizations, he heads the Boy Scouts, and being a politician and rich, people allow him to get away with this.”

The small touches appeal especially to Filipinos, including the birthday cakes. It may be cynical, but they work, he says. “No politician in Filipino history has ever done anything like this.’

But beyond that, according to another longtime observer of Philippine politics, with his deep brown skin and his rough-hewn manner, he is regarded by large segments of the impoverished electorate as one of their own, as Estrada is, unlike the light-skinned Mestizos who make up the country’s business and political elite and who have largely ignored the poor and plundered the country’s assets and natural resources. Accordingly, the electorate are willing to forgive a lot to an upstart.

But then again, it looks like there is a lot to forgive. Investigators from the Office of the Ombudsman alleged that the construction of several buildings in Makati during Binay’s mayoralty were overpriced by PHP 1.3 billion [US$ 35.9 million at current exchange rates] while the vice president and his family members held office in the city.

Binay has responded that many of the accounts holding the US$360 million held by his friends and are not associated with his assets despite an intricate web of evidence and testimony by former associates and eyewitnesses to the contrary. The allegations of corruption, he says, are part of an ongoing effort on the part of the establishment – headed by Aquino and Mar Roxas – to derail his campaign well before the electoral process begins.

As the Manila-based country risk firm Pacific Strategies & Assessments pointed out in a subscription-only report this week, while the anti-money laundering council may have nailed Binay dead center, “Unfortunately, there are two recurring themes of the council’s actions. They are rarely effective in obtaining convictions of high-level individuals implicated in their investigations, and they often focus on political opponents of whoever is in office at the time.”

But in the long run, whether he is merely beloved despite the credible allegations of corruption, the upshot is sinister. President Aquino, who is currently undergoing heavy weather from various charges, has clearly laid out plans to improve the country’s governance. The Philippines has been climbing steadily in Transparency International’s rankings, from 94th in 2013 to 85th of 175 countries in 2014 – still a long way to go. But, according to a political science professor who spoke on background, a reversal would be tragic, and there are serious concerns that Binay’s happy pol image is going to mask the return of both corruption and the continuation of impunity which is deep and wide in the Philippines.

“I would like to believe that the voters have been radicalized,” the professor said. “Even if Binay is elected, I would hope they will be vigilant enough to watch for the abuses, and to demand that they be reversed.”

The continued use of this powerful agency for political purposes opens a Pandora’s Box for politicians in the country. The Anti-Money Laundering Council is so powerful that it can unveil transactions across peso and foreign currency accounts; pursue connections to family members, lawyers and associates; and even request and obtain details on transactions conducted overseas.

Who among the current Liberal Party leadership is prepared to stand up to that degree of scrutiny when the political winds at some point change?