So keenly anticipated by much of the media, the “break” between Vice President Jejomar Binay and President Benigno Aquino III has not come to pass. On the contrary. Despite the attempts of the usual Binay opponents to downplay the subject (they didn’t talk about politics), the supposed awkwardness (it was merely cordial), and even the length of a meeting between Binay and Aquino (it was thirty minutes, not three hours) in the evening of October 14th, judging from what ensued afterwards, that meeting seems to have patched things up between the two.
Besieged by charges of corruption and unexplained wealth, Binay had been calibrating since last year his criticism of the administration of which, by serving as chair of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) and Presidential Adviser on OFW (Overseas Filipino Workers) Concerns, he is a part.
Since early this year he has distanced himself from the controversy over Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF), or the pork barrel, and the equally contentious Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) of the Aquino administration.
He had weighed into the PDAF issue as early as last year by declaring that “lack of discipline” had led to the misuse and diversion of pork barrel funds. By October this year, he also began sounding like an oppositionist by echoing public complaints over the power crisis, “the rising prices of oil and other commodities,” the escalating crime rate, “the hellish traffic jams, unsafe MRT and LRT,” plus “the recurrent flooding and the wrath of nature (sic) that we must all prepare for.”
If that sounded like an opposition rant, Binay, after all, is supposed to be in the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), which every citizen of this unhappy land has every right to expect would be monitoring administration performance, checking its abuse of power if any, and generally keeping an eye on what it’s doing or not doing. Opposition criticism would inevitably bear on Aquino III, he being both President of the Republic as well as head of the ruling Liberal Party. But Binay has studiously tried to make a distinction between the Aquino administration and Aquino himself—a task impossible in other places on the planet except in that part of it called the Philippines.
Aquino’s reaction to Binay’s seeming realization that he’s from the opposition was understandable: he suggested that as a Cabinet member, Binay was free to leave at any time if he doesn’t agree with what the administration’s doing—or, if he has any suggestions for improvement, to make them when and where they matter most, impliedly during Cabinet meetings, for example.
It was these words, and Binay’s absence in one Cabinet meeting, that led the media to speculate on the seeming probability of a Binay-Aquino break. Binay’s calibrated criticism of the administration had not escaped media notice, but the contradiction between Binay’s being both a member of the administration and at the same time its critic the media seemed to have dismissed as merely normal in the context of the tangled political relationships, alignments, realignments and alliances that in another country would be viewed as strange and even absurd.
In the case of the Binay-Aquino relationship, it begins with the fact that the Vice President of this country, unlike, say, in the United States, can come from a different party than the President.
The Philippines has had the same situation before. Diosdado Macapagal of the Liberal Party, who later became President, for example, was the first Vice President not to come from the same party as Carlos P. Garcia, who was a Nacionalista.
And then there’s the case of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was elected to the Vice Presidency through a different political coalition than that of Joseph Estrada, under whom she served until Estrada was deposed in 2001. As a sop to the opposition, Arroyo did serve in the Estrada Cabinet as Secretary of Social Welfare and Development. Her father Diosdado, however, was never given a Cabinet post while he was Vice President during the incumbency of Carlos P. Garcia.
The Binay-Aquino relationship goes farther than the need to placate the so-called opposition, however. Binay was a steadfast ally of Corazon Aquino, and had made a name for himself during the martial law period as a human rights lawyer. He has since been, as the media are wont to describe him, “a family friend of the Aquinos.” (Make that “a close family friend of the Aquinos”).
Named officer in charge of Makati City in the aftermath of the EDSA mutiny that overthrew the Marcos dictatorship, Binay became mayor of Makati, from which vantage point he amassed enough national support for him to bypass the usual route via the House of Representatives and the Senate to the Vice Presidency—and, he and his allies hope, the Presidency.
The strength of Binay’s friendship with the Aquinos was in ample evidence this week, when, among other statements, Aquino III virtually asked the Senate to present whatever proof the Blue Ribbon Sub-Committee orchestrating the litany of charges against Binay has, rather than prolonging the process by accusing Binay of corruption today, hidden wealth tomorrow, and who knows what else by next week. In the same interview with the media in Beijing, China, Aquino also said that Binay had been doing his job as a member of the Cabinet, and that he was “innocent until proven guilty” of the charges against him.
One could argue that Aquino was merely making it clear that Malacañang had nothing to do with the Senate’s seemingly unremitting campaign against Binay. But this being the Philippines, where what the President says matters not only to ordinary citizens but also to the bureaucracy and the political formations including his own party, what he said, despite his own denial, sounded like an instruction to his Senate allies to conclude the hearings, while at the same time validating Binay’s own claim to being, despite appearances, a loyal Aquino backer and “a team player” in the Cabinet whose other members he has been criticizing.
Aquino’s words had earlier been matched by deeds. He had earlier named Binay’s HUDCC in charge of the implementation of the “streamlined approval process” of securing permits, certifications, clearances and licenses for “housing and resettlement projects in Yolanda-affected areas” mandated by his own Administrative Order No. 44 ( he signed it last Oct. 28)
If Aquino’s allies are surprised, and consequently fretting and wringing their hands over the former’s statements and his giving Binay even more responsibilities, in the process seeming to undermine even the Liberal Party’s own political interests, they shouldn’t be. Although common class interests matter most, and are the necessary foundations of political alliances, what makes the bonds between Binay and Aquino even stronger are those personal and familial ties that in feudal Philippines often supersedes everything else including, so it seems, politics.
First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.