Enrile, Estrada, Ramos, Binay, and Aquino
Enrile, Estrada, Ramos, Binay, and Aquino (PCOO Photo)

Because he thinks his current problems are at least partly the doing of some Aquino administration personalities, among them his putative rival in 2016, Manuel Roxas II, Vice President Jejomar Binay has criticized the administration of which he’s a part—in which he in fact occupies two critical posts, those of chair of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC), and Presidential Adviser on Overseas Filipino Workers’ (OFW) Concerns.

In one of those instances demonstrative of the perverse character of the political system, he’s part of the so called opposition while at the same time occupying a Cabinet post in the administration he and his party mates are supposed to monitor and criticize, whose abuses they’re supposed to check, and whose use of power they’re expected to moderate. Binay is both critic and the object of criticism at the same time.

It’s the best of both worlds and an arrangement that has served him well. From the vantage points of his Cabinet posts he has succeeded in further lengthening his reach into two major sources of votes—the poor and near poor, and the country’s OFW millions.

The Binay situation would be bizarre in another country where there’s a real difference between being in the “administration” and being in the “opposition.” But it’s merely “normal” in the Philippines, in the same way that corruption, poverty, injustice, violations of human rights and mindless violence have always been part of the daily lives of millions of Filipinos. The reason for it is that the cliques we call political parties in the Philippines differ only in name, there being no divergence in their approaches to governance, and due to the total absence among them of platforms of government.

So evident is this reality that even some pols themselves have pointed it out. In an attempt to distance themselves from the dominant parties of their time, for example, in 1959, Raul Manglapus, Manuel Manahan and Emmanuel Pelaez declared themselves part of a “third force” armed with a distinct ideology (they were more rightwing than either the Liberals or the Nacionalistas) and platform (they favored policies that would further enhance the country’s already stifling ties with the US).

Unremarked, however, is the even more fundamental fact that the fatal absence of ideological and program differences among Philippine political parties is only a reflection of the dominance over Philippine politics of basically the same handful of families that have had a monopoly over political power since Commonwealth Days.

Only on the surface do these families seem to have differences. Despite the rhetoric about reform (can anyone be openly against change in a country that so desperately needs it?), they’re united by the same political, economic and class interests premised on keeping Philippine society the way it has been for centuries. The Binay dynasty is as committed to stasis and stagnation as the Roxases, the Enriles, the Arroyos, the Estradas, the Aquinos and the Marcoses. Loudly anti-communist, they are themselves extremely class-conscious, protective of their privileged status and zealous in the exercise and defence of their entitlements.

For all their pro-poor pretensions, the Binays never let us forget that they’re more powerful and wealthier than the people who put them in the Vice Presidency, the Senate and the Office of the Mayor of Makati. And through Benigno Aquino III ‘s seeming modesty there often flares that burst of ill temper, certainty and arrogance so characteristic of the descendants of the Spanish-era principalia, who think the poor to be no more than uncomprehending brutes whose sole purpose in life is to vote them into office every three years.

Despite this fundamental unity, however, conflicts do arise among the political elite. It happened in 1959, when disagreements over who to run for various government positions led to defections from the Liberal and Nacionalista Parties and the formation of the Grand Alliance. It was worse in the late 1960s when, despite his having been elected with the help of the Lopez family, one of whose senior members was in fact his Vice President, Ferdinand Marcos seized control of Lopez interests upon the declaration of martial law.

The conflict—reflective of the hostilities between the old landed elite and the upstart bureaucrats who had made an art out of enriching themselves in office—escalated into violence, culminating in the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. in August, 1983. But even that did not prevent the coming together of previous enemies, and the return to positions of power of the very same families that had played so prominent a part in running the Marcos dictatorship.

The election of Benigno Aquino III in 2010 on the wave of a popular clamor for honest governance brought into the open the essential singleness of interest and purpose among the political parties. Binay ran for Vice President under the banner of the so-called opposition, but took care not to attack Aquino III, supposedly because of his close ties with the Aquino family, but because he didn’t want to alienate Aquino supporters. And in 2013 the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) and the Liberal Party supported three common candidates for the Senate.

Binay has kept to the strategy of being both in the administration and in the opposition, but, never a forbearing man, Aquino III’s patience is wearing thin, and in response to questions over Binay’s criticism of his administration (which Binay insists is directed only against some of his fellow Cabinet members), has declared that Binay is free to leave the Cabinet. Binay has disingenuously announced that he won’t do any such thing, he being a “team player” —a statement that truly redefines that term drastically.

The prophesied break between Aquino and Binay has not happened—at least not yet—but that doesn’t mean it won’t. But if and when it does, it won’t mean that, having finally discovered that rare gem called principle, Binay will be signalling, between that event and 2016, the dawn of an authentic opposition and multi-party system in Philippine politics.
Rather will it mean only a temporary re-alignment within a political elite whose factions have habitually found it easy to reconcile and recombine, there being no basis save personal, familial and class interests for permanent divisions.

Such a break can, and probably will, mean a difference in the political fortunes of individuals like Binay and Manuel Roxas II, but it won’t make any difference in the fundamentals of Philippine politics: the dominance of a class united by the same interest of keeping things the way they are and the way they have always been.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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