Philippine VP Runs into Corruption Roadblock

Until very recently, Philippine Vice President Jejomar “Jojo” Binay appeared to be cruising toward the top job in the 2016 general election, when President Benigno S. Aquino III must step down by law. Aquino’s close friend, political ally and designated successor, Manuel A.“Mar” Roxas, has largely imploded, political analysts in Manila say, having shown himself to be ineffective as a campaigner, perhaps because of his patrician roots.

But corruption charges generated by a blue-ribbon Senate committee have thrown the presidential race into confusion and put Binay onto the back foot two years before the race. Binay’s unnatural wealth has long been a topic of conversation but the move against him seems engineered by forces aligned with Aquino, who want to see a cleaner candidate follow his six-year term. Indeed, the spreading scandal has given a slight bounce to Roxas’s chances, providing some faint hope that he may yet be a viable candidate.

Up from the bottom

Binay came from humble roots to become a crusading human rights lawyer and key backer of the late President Cory Aquino, the current president’s mother. Cory Aquino installed Binay in office in Makati City after she deposed Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 and he became the longest-serving mayor the main Metro Manila business district has seen, serving various terms between 1986 and 2010. His only son is Makati mayor now.

The swaggering, tough-talking Binay is also 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, who was vice president under former President Fidel Ramos. Ramos was widely regarded as a competent chief executive who got the country moving during his term from 1992 to 1998. Riding on his movie star fame, Estrada easily won the 1998 race,only to follow that with a presidential career regarded largely as an opportunity to rifle the public treasury.

And with Roxas having lost most of his never-substantial allure, there appeared no one on the horizon who could overtake Binay, one reason Aquino has toyed with asking the legislature to change the constitution to allow him to run again, which almost certainly is a political nonstarter.

Anybody but Jojo

There would be an anybody-but-Jojo movement if there were anybody but Jojo, thus the growing allegations against him from the Aquino camp. The names of two attractive and competent women have been suggested – Senator Grace Poe, the adopted daughter of the late actor and presidential candidate Fernando Poe, and Leni Robredo, the lawyer wife of the late Jesse Robredo, Aquino’s reformist interior secretary, who was killed in an airplane crash in 2012. She is now in the House of Representatives.

Although Binay’s ratings are sliding, he remains the candidate to beat. According to the latest poll by the Social Weather Stations polling organization, his net public satisfaction rating fell from 67 percent to 52 percent, although the sounding, taken prior to Sept. 29, preceded revelations that he secretly owns vast properties in Batangas and Cavite, south of Manila. Even so, 79 percent of respondents said they wanted Binay to face a Senate probe into construction projects, particularly of a city-owned parking garage while he was mayor that appears to have soaked up a huge amount of money.

According to allegations from the Blue Ribbon commission, he reportedly received 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.

Binay has refused to face the Senate panel, calling it a witch hunt. That led this week to an order for him to appear, which he defied. The panel closed yesterday without his appearing, although new embarrassments appeared, with magazine pictures of the vice president, clad in military fatigues, showing visitors around the Batangas estate and looking every inch like he owned it.

According to former Makati Vice Mayor Ernesto Mercado, who has acknowledged that he received kickbacks himself, at least PHP4 billion from various projects ended up in the pockets of Binay and others. Binay says he can only be impeached for violations committed during his term as vice president and that the charges are a mirage.

But the vice president’s protestations of a modest lifestyle were demolished last week when a helicopter hired by Mercado flew over the Batangas estate to photograph and detail a luxurious 350-hectare plantation that includes an air-conditioned piggery, an orchard nursery and a chicken farm. It includes a majestic mansion and a leafy maze modeled after the one in the Kew Gardens in London.

Although the property is nominally owned by a corporation whose shareholders are reportedly dummies, Mercado said he will present proof that Binay owns the property to the Senate committee. He said he also has evidence that Binay owns three other properties in Tagaytay City on the slopes of the Taal volcano in Cavite.

That kicked off a uniquely Filipino drama, with Sen. Antonio Trillanes, who won his own office while campaigning from a jail cell after attempting a coup as an army officer, loading reporters into vehicles and going on a tour of the Batangas farm, which the Philippine Daily Inquirer described as six times the size of the 58-hectare Rizal Park in Manila. The property includes a 40-car garage. Although the ownership of the properties is in the hands of nominees, the Inquirer reporters have traced the nominees to Binay’s office when he was Makati mayor.

The way Makati works

A longtime political observer of the Philippines describes Binay as a popular and effective mayor of Makati, who provided good schools, an good and almost-free university, quality health care, reasonably safe streets and jobs built on a munificent tax base provided chiefly by the Ayala Corporation and its partners. Ayala developed and controls the gleaming business district and a series of luxury neighborhoods that ring Makati. Traditionally, the Makati mayor uses the tax money generated by the system to look after the non-Ayala districts, allowing the developer to run the high-end bits of the city that work for the benefit of the wealthy business elite.

The Philippines has been saddled with a long string of deeply corrupt leaders going back well before Marcos, who was forced to flee the country after being suspected of engineering the murder of Aquino’s father in 1983. Cory Aquino was honest but ruled ineffectively for six years before giving way to Ramos, considered perhaps the country’s most effective modern leader. Then came Estrada, who was forced from office by a military-engineered popular revolt in 2001, only to be succeeded by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who today remains under house arrest for plunder after her 10 years in office.

In going after Binay, who is also the national leader of the Boy Scouts, the Aquino forces are seeking to avoid a replay of 1998. If Binay falls, the rodeo will begin and the race will be wide open.