How do you solve a problem like Mar Roxas?

Natashya Gutierrez

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Congressmen allied with the President wonder if there's anyone else the Liberal Party can endorse in 2016, amid concerns that Interior Secretary Mar Roxas is not a viable candidate

WINNABLE? Allies of the President wonder if Interior Secretary Mar Roxas is the right person for President Benigno Aquino III to anoint. Photo by Mike Alquinto/DILG

MANILA, Philippines – In the House of Representatives, there’s unease among key allies of President Benigno Aquino III. They are worried about 2016.

“Is it really going to be Mar?” allies ask each other, referring to presumed Liberal Party (LP) standard bearer, Interior Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas II. “Is there really nobody else?”

Congressmen are beginning to lose hope that Roxas still has a fighting chance in the 2016 presidential race. Opposition candidate and Vice President Jejomar Binay – who has long ago announced his intent to run for president – appears formidable with his soaring approval ratings. Roxas’ numbers, meanwhile, are going the opposite direction. 

In the latest Pulse Asia survey, Binay topped a list of 11 names of possible candidates, with 41% of respondents saying they would vote for the Vice President. Roxas was in 5th place, with only 7% picking him as their first choice. And with the scrapping of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) – discretionary funds allotted to lawmakers which they have used in the past to secure votes – it is not difficult to understand why congressmen allied with his party are nervous about 2016.

“Is it really going to be Mar?” allies ask each other. “Is there really nobody else?”

Aquino’s allies in the House of Representatives are “looking at options” as early as now, and starting talks with other parties in anticipation of 2016, according to a legislator supportive of the President. Convinced that the LP has no viable candidate at the moment, nor could government fund allocations such as the PDAF, legislators are concerned about their own welfare.

“Everyone wants to be on the right side. There’s a growing sentiment that when you’re aligned with the party [in power] it’s easier for you,” the legislator told Rappler. “But there’s a prevailing sentiment that [Mar] is not winnable.”

In Malacañang, 2016 is also top of mind for the President. Along with the creation of the Bangsamoro, the rehabilitation of Yolanda-hit areas, and his commitment to inclusive growth, picking his successor is also a point of concern for the Chief Executive. His recent speeches are clues.

Aquino often weaves in an appeal to the public – at groundbreaking ceremonies and holiday appearances, business gatherings and provincial visits – to “pick a leader who will continue and further improve the reforms we’ve made,” and to ask the people for vigilance against those who “want to return to the old system.”

He’s concerned that the next president will put his reforms to waste, if it’s someone who is not allied with him. Thus, his constant message of continuity.

“They don’t show it, but they’re worried about the surveys,” a Malacañang source close to the President told Rappler.

Hopeful for Mar

The President’s choice for 2016, as of today, is Roxas, who in 2010 gave up his presidential ambitions for Aquino.

Roxas is well-educated, with an impressive academic background. He is a Wharton graduate, the grandson of a former president, and the son of a retired senator. He has ample government experience and has a clean record when it comes to handling government funds. In short, Roxas is the perfect successor. (READ: Why there’s no giving up on Mar Roxas)

The LP’s strategy is to bring Roxas to a respectable position in surveys and hope that Aquino’s endorsement will further push him to a comfortable distance from Binay. The problem is, Aquino’s ratings are at their lowest since the beginning of his term.

Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, a key Roxas supporter, is confident that the numbers will change, and that much can happen in two years. They expect that after Aquino’s State of the Nation Address, and the administration’s explanation about the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) that was declared partly unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the President’s numbers will rise again. And probably so would Roxas’.

“There was an abnormal blip after DAP and PDAF. He will recover,” Abad said, blaming the drop in Aquino’s numbers on a “concerted effort” by those who want to deflect themselves from the PDAF issue and those who have an axe to grind with the administration.

'SURVEYS CAN CHANGE'. Secretary Mar Roxas' allies say the reception of Roxas on the ground is warm, and believe surveys can change. File photo by DILG

LP stalwart and Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya also told Rappler the focus is on the programs of the President – which they believe will be more than enough to sway votes come 2016 – and insisted the surveys “don’t worry us.”

But to some politicians and strategists allied with Aquino, this is beginning to sound like wishful thinking.

Proof of this is the level of activity and buzz at the Liberal Party headquarters in Balay, the family residence of Roxas.

Roxas invites his party mates in Congress for gatherings every first Monday of the month. There they talk about issues, the party’s various positions, projects of regions, and the party’s structure, among others. According to the legislator source, the number of lawmakers who go to these meetings have steadily begun to decrease. Casual endorsements for Roxas by the handful of die-hard allies have been met with little enthusiasm by the majority, and sometimes tension, if not awkwardness.

Aquino’s struggle

The struggle to find a viable successor is real to the extent that it has influenced some of the President’s recent actions.

Driven by the desire to pass important bills before he leaves office, Aquino understands his influence over legislators is diminishing as days go by, especially with less than two years left in his term.

Wanting to ensure he doesn’t lose any support for his other significant bills and reform initiatives, and in fear of becoming a lame duck president, Aquino in mid-August dropped a bomb: from being adamantly opposed to touching the Constitution, he suddenly suggested an openness to a second term. The Constitution – established during the presidency of his mother and democracy icon Corazon Aquino – ­currently prohibits a president from running for re-election after one 6-year term.

“The second term idea was never serious,” a Malacañang official close to the President said.

Aquino never meant it.

“The second term idea was never serious,” a Malacañang official close to the President said.

The same source explained that the pronouncement of a second term was only to “provoke the other side” and “to confuse them,” to make Binay’s camp slow down on their campaign aggression. It was an attempt to soften up the opposition and make them think twice about attacking the President, in addition to ensuring his allies stay faithful to him.

If Aquino’s camp knew they had a strong candidate to begin with, talks of a second term would never have even been floated.

Even in Congress, the President’s statements on a possible second term had little credibility and was met with confusion.

Asked whether Aquino floating the idea of a second term worked to keep congressmen on his side, the legislator source said the President’s allies were surprised to hear Aquino say he was open to it but knew it wasn’t a real consideration since day one.

SECOND TERM? President Benigno Aquino III says in a television interview that he is open to a second term, but sources say it was all a strategy. Malacañang Photo Bureau

“Everyone in Congress believes it’s not going to happen,” the source said. “We know him as a person. He always talks about the number of days he has left. And we know he wants his last two years to be productive.”

A more effective solution, said the legislator source, may lie in Aquino finding an alternative to Roxas. The source clarified many believe Roxas can do a good job as president in maintaining the reforms of this administration – the problem is his winnability.

But Aquino is also to blame, said the source.

Many believe Roxas can do a good job as president in maintaining the reforms of this administration – the problem is his winnability.

Because the President has yet to anoint Roxas as his chosen one, “Roxas has been unable to consolidate” or “galvanize support.” At the same time, Aquino’s silence also helps Binay, who is spared of criticism from allies of the President as long as he himself hesitates to separate the Vice President from his administration.

“We can’t criticize Binay because he’s still part of the family. We’re caught in the middle,” the lawmaker pointed out. “[The President] should make a decision.”

Coalition cracks

The situation is also exacerbating cracks within the LP and within Malacañang.

At the moment, talks among congressmen of moving out of the Liberal Party or backing a different candidate are rife, but no actual transfers have taken place – at least not yet. At least two sources Rappler interviewed said they expect moves to start happening in the first half of 2015 – unless the LP finds a viable alternative to Roxas.

There are about 112 LP members in the lower chamber, out of 290 seats.

A similar dynamic is taking place inside the Palace. All continue to be loyal to the President, but it’s no secret there are factions within Malacañang’s walls.

Since 2010, when Aquino first set foot in the Palace, he took with him the men who helped him during his campaign.

They were united in backing Aquino, but divided in their bets for vice president. The so-called Samar faction is linked to Binay, who ran with the opposition, while the Balay faction or the LP is identified with Roxas, Binay’s 2010 rival for the vice presidency.

More than halfway through the President’s term, the factions are even more pronounced now that 2016 nears.

When the controversy surrounding the DAP first came out, some of the men closest to the President inside Malacañang were just as surprised as the Filipino public.

When the controversy surrounding the administration’s economic stimulus package, the DAP, first came out, some of the men closest to the President inside Malacañang were just as surprised as the Filipino public. Allegations of bribery and senators receiving millions of pesos of DAP funds for projects not part of the General Appropriations Act also caught administration officials off-guard. They knew about DAP, but they did not know the details regarding DAP allotment to lawmakers.

One thing those left out of the loop had in common? They are not members of the Liberal Party.

Thorough discussions on DAP is one of many examples of how, in the President’s inner circle, some groups or individuals bypass others when speaking to Aquino.

While they may be constantly sniping at each other, they continue to serve one master: Aquino. “Working behind [Aquino’s] back? They won’t cross that line. At least for now,” the Palace source told Rappler. “Maybe next year.”

‘Not the time’

Abad said it is much too early to make any judgments on Roxas. “I think it’s premature to make conclusions of the viability of the candidate at this point,” he said.

He speaks of “two tracks” moving forward. “The first one, which is important, is that the President’s reform agenda must not just continue but intensify,” Abad told Rappler.

“The other track is: to whom then is the torch going to be passed? That’s an important track. Those who believe that they are both capable as well as committed to this reform thrust of the Aquino administration, they must begin to prepare themselves so that when that moment comes, when that opportunity opens, the door opens right before them, then they can have that moment and carry the torch.”

FOCUS ON REFORMS. Liberty Party stalwarts believe focusing on reforms will be enough to sway votes for the President's chosen one in 2016. Malacañang Photo Bureau

Because the party’s focus is on making the reforms so convincing that the people would be scrambling to ask the President who he will appoint, Abad insisted “now is not the time” to worry about 2016, but “the time to prepare.”

Having been a congressman through 4 presidencies himself, Abad also brushed off concerns of their allies in Congress.

“Of course they want to be with the winning candidate, but that’s the nature of politicians,” he said. “We have 22 months until we vote. Politicians are seguristas. But presidential elections are not determined by local politics. Presidential elections, unlike congressional and senatorial elections, are governed by issues of vision and persona.”

Abad said Aquino would be “intimately involved” when the time to campaign for 2016 comes, since “he is the most identified with all this poverty reduction and economic agenda with a strong good governance platform.”

He also expressed confidence that Binay’s numbers will see a decline, especially once the President anoints his successor, and the Vice President gets distinctly separated from the administration.

So how does one solve a problem like Roxas? To some of the President’s men, he apparently isn’t the problem.

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.