Friday, June 11, 2010

New Philippines VP Presents Noynoy His First Big Test

There is one big fly in the ointment of reform and clean government promised by the soon-to-be installed administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino: his vice president, Jejomar (Jesus-Joseph-Mary) Binay.

The oft-elected mayor of Makati City, Metro Manila’s business hub, Binay surprisingly prevailed over Aquino’s running mate Manuel “Mar” Roxas in the recent polls. Thus the new president finds himself with an uneasy bedfellow, who ran on the same ticket with former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada, who was ousted in a 2001 revolt/coup prompted by the corruption and incompetence of his administration.

Binay’s success suggests that the urge for clean government was not the only factor at work in an election that gave Noynoy an overwhelming victory. For Binay, his populist stances, record of effective rule in Makati and high-profile fights with the outgoing administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo triumphed, albeit narrowly, over Roxas, a competent but blue-blooded former investment banker and grandson of the first president of the independent Philippines.

Binay’s own controversial career and alliance with Estrada proved a help, not a handicap, for one who has never been a nationally elected senator and who has no obvious power base outside the capital.

The question now is what Noynoy should do with Binay, who may yet hanker after the presidency, even though he will be 73 years old by the time the next election is due. Should he be included in the cabinet, putting at risk Noynoy’s assurances that ministers will be appointed for competence and cleanliness rather than for political favors, and creating a possible rival faction within the cabinet? Or should he be given some grandiose title but limited role outside the cabinet and day-to-day government? Would Binay see that as a slight and use his influence quietly to disrupt Noynoy’s efforts to get legislation enacted by money-oriented congressmen and ego-tripping senators?

The situation is complicated by the fact that Noynoy is said to be on good personal terms with Binay, who was first appointed as Makati mayor by Cory Aquino in 1986 as a reward for his role in the first People Power Revolution, during which time he earned the nickname “Rambotito” — little Rambo.

Binay has been in charge of Makati ever since. Elected several times between 1988 and 1998, he let his wife have one turn in the office from 1998 to 2001 before returning as mayor from 2002 to 2010 when the baton was passed to his son, Jejomar Jr.

Binay is a classic big-city boss who has adroitly used the resources available from Makati’s hosting of the office towers that form Manila’s central business district to fund lots of projects that have burnished his pro-poor image. Indeed, Makati’s wealth has enabled Binay to extend his godfatherly largesse to smaller cities and villages around the nation.

Various corruption allegations have been hurled against him, some by people known for probity, but it is also hard to tell how much some of these have been based on facts or whether they are fueled by the machinations of his political rivals.

Most recently, he has been in a battle with the Bureau of Internal Revenue, which claims that 1.1 billion Philippine pesos ($23.7 million) in withholding taxes from city employees is due from the Makati government. Whether or not this claim was part of a campaign by Arroyo to discredit him, it presents Noynoy with another dilemma. He has promised to bridge the yawning budget gap by improving tax administration rather than introducing new taxes. Can he persuade the tax office to clean up its act if it has a legitimate case against Binay’s Makati?

For sure, vice presidents have little function other than what they are given by the president. But Noynoy has scant administrative experience and a reputation for being too nice to be tough. Moral authority derived from his mother, and backed by his own clean reputation, was the source of his victory and is the basis of his power as he takes office. He cannot afford to compromise with sleaze for the sake of short-term expediency.

As he finalizes his list of appointments, “What to do with Binay?” will be a big question. And the answer could say much about how Noynoy intends to govern.

Philip Bowring, former editor of The Far Eastern Economic Review, is a founder and consulting editor of Asia Sentinel.

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