The Philippines Has a Crucial Choice

Can the Philippines put together two successive administrations that are tolerably competent and honest and survive a full term?

That is the question confronting the nation as it gears up to elect a successor to President Benigno S. Aquino III next year. It is the central issue as many Filipinos look back in anguish to remember that the productive and pragmatic Ramos administration was followed by the sleaze of the Joseph Estrada era, his overthrow by so-called People Power in 2001 and then the more competent but equally sleazy regime of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Ramos, in office from 1992 to 1998, failed to identify and promote a suitable successor who could win at the polls. Hence former film star Erap Estrada’s victory in 1998. Has Aquino done the same by anointing Manuel Araneta Roxas for 2016? This is the Mar Roxas who lost the 2010 vice-presidential race to Jejomar Binay, constantly lags Binay in popularity polls and will face him in 2016.

Should Aquino have preferred the one person who leads both Roxas and Binay in the polls, Senator Grace Poe? Aquino dithered for weeks before finally endorsing Roxas. Grace Poe is the adopted daughter of the late film star Fernando Poe who was defeated by Arroyo in questionable circumstances in 2004.

She benefits from the family name, the support of her godfather Estrada, who himself still enjoys side support, and her reputation for honesty and modestly competent performance as a senator in the Aquino camp although not his party. American-educated at Boston College, she spent 17 years in the United States as a product manager for a scientific products company, only returning to the Philippines after the heart attack death of her adoptive father.

Why Mar Roxas?

Aquino went for Roxas perhaps out of loyalty to the man who made way for him in 2010 in the surge of enthusiasm for another Aquino in the wake of the death of his mother, Cory Aquino. He probably also feels that Roxas has the experience in government that Poe lacks, at age 46, having been a senator only since 2013. The grandson of former President Manuel Roxas and son of a senator, Roxas, 58, has an elite political pedigree and experience as secretary of several departments of government, most recently as Secretary of the Interior.

Roxas certainly seems like an acceptable choice for those looking to continue the policies of Aquino. He is from a family long sufficiently powerful and prosperous to want a clean administration. But these qualities also make him vulnerable to Binay, a man from a modest background who pursued populist policies as mayor of Makati and subsequently entrenched his wife, son and daughter in power in Makati and as a presence in the Senate. For months he has been besieged by credible allegations of corruption and revelations of the massive wealth his family has acquired while in public office. These have dented but not destroyed his mass appeal.

Roxas’s weakness may prove temporary and talk that he is unelectable may be overstated. The support of Aquino will help and he has done well previously. Roxas topped the polls in his senate bid in 2004, serving until 2010, and only lost to Binay by a tiny margin in 2010. He badly wants the support of Poe as his vice-presidential candidate but she remains undecided on whether to run for the top job or the lesser one, or stake out some other position. The outcome of a three-cornered contest is unpredictable and would probably remain so until the last minute.

Don’t count out Jojo

Binay too has yet to anoint a vice-presidential running mate as various individuals and parties jockey for position with one eye on the opinion polls. He may be relieved that popular Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte, noted for his successful but brutal anti-crime efforts, is not standing for any post but he failed to endorse Binay, comparing him to the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Nonetheless, Binay on his own has a strong political machine developed as Makati mayor through a vast network of “sister city” relationships; he sent used school supplies and other materials to other regions throughout the Philippines as a way to turn himself into a national leader through patronage. He even opened a special hotel for provincial leaders where they can stay free on the city tab if they are in Makati.

As someone who emerged from outside the traditional mestizo elite, Binay has the same additional appeal to the disenfranchised that won Estrada the presidency and kept him popular even after he was impeached and later driven from the presidency for corruption.

Additional candidates for the presidency may yet emerge such as the controversial former chief of police, Panfilo Lacson, who escaped murder charges by fleeing to Hong Kong in 2010, returning only after a dubious Court of Appeal ruling. Others are Senator Peter Cayetano, former presidential candidate businessman Manny Villar and perennial candidate and publicity-hound Miriam Defensor-Santiago, although she recently announced she suffers from stage-4 lung cancer. Even Ferdinand Marcos Jr might see a chance to put his family name to use in a crowded field.

It is worth remembering that Defensor-Santiago almost beat Fidel Ramos in the 1992 election when there were seven candidates for president and Ramos won with only 23 percent of the vote. Ramon Mitra, long viewed as the front-runner, was fourth.

With no run-off system, a large number of candidates can lead to very unpredictable outcomes. So it remains to be seen whether the party system is beginning to re-form in the Philippines so that the choice is confined to two or three candidates as it was in the pre-Marcos era. Meanwhile there is no sign that politics is becoming any less dynastic.

Elite fears

Opinion polls are notoriously volatile and while Roxas enjoys the support of the Liberal Party, Poe lacks either a party or a program, both valuable if not essential at turning popularity into votes for the presidency. Parties have long been of scant account in Philippine elections that are all about personalities not policies. But the Liberal Party is again a national organization as it was before Martial Law was declared in 1972. If Roxas can make the election into a referendum on the Aquino administration, which has doen a good job despite some major mistakes, it should help.

But there is a long way to go before May 9, 2016. The coming polls will be watched, probably with increasing nervousness, by those who believe that under Aquino the Philippines has turned a corner and can look forward to many more years as leader rather than laggard among the populous nations of South East Asia.

Binay is especially being watched with alarm by the mestizo aristocracy, the establishment that has ruled the country economically if not politically since the days more than 100 years ago when it was a Spanish colony. While not always clean, the aristocracy and the companies they control in this era benefit more from good government than rank corruption.

Estrada, a movie actor and outsider, broke that tradition. What the aristocracy fears is another outsider with dubious ethics in the person of Binay, born in Batangas of a school librarian and orphaned at age 9, especially one whose undeniable riches allegedly flowed from corruption.

The last hope, according to Manila-based political scientist Ronald Mendoza, the head of the Asian Institute of Management, is that even if Binay wins, the country will have progressed far enough due to the reforms and transparency Aquino has implemented that corruption can be held in check by good-government watchdogs.