The return of the ‘juggernaut’? What Binay needs to do to win

Mara Cepeda
The return of the ‘juggernaut’? What Binay needs to do to win
Vice President Jejomar Binay is bent on keeping his core voters, who delivered his victory in 2010, through his anti-poverty platform. Will it be enough this time around?

MANILA, Philippines –  At age 9, Jejomar Binay would daydream about becoming president as he collected pig slop for his uncle’s backyard piggery.

“Batang-bata pa ako naiisip ko na iyan, minsan-minsan. Sa katotohanan, talagang nangangarap akong maging pangulo ng bansa (I have been thinking about it since I was very young. In truth, I’ve really dreamt of becoming president of the country), Vice President Jejomar Binay once said in a television interview.

Among the presidential candidates, one could argue that Binay started laying the groundwork for his bid long before others. He had no pretenses about his lifelong ambition and was the first to declare his presidential bid as soon as he was elected vice president in 2010.

Binay hit the ground running as he traveled across the country amid accusations of premature campaigning over the next 6 years. He brought gifts of wheelchairs to seniors and had boodle fights with local leaders – acts outside his official capacity as housing chief and presidential adviser on overseas Filipino workers’ concerns. (He resigned from these positions in June last year). He repeatedly reiterated that visiting every barangay was just “part of his commitment to be with the people.”

Binay’s journey to Malacañang seemed unstoppable – an observation shared by his staunchest critics – until multiple corruption allegations made by his former allies at a Senate inquiry hit him full force. 

The man who once topped election surveys suffered a beating from the yearlong Senate probe and a series of communications gaffes. These cost him the top spot in election surveys, just months before election day.

He briefly regained the lead by employing a strategy of silence, and letting his spokespersons speak on his behalf. It also helped that other presidential candidates were attacking each other at the time, and public attention veered away from the Vice President.

But the latest surveys conducted by two polling firms showed Binay again trailing  neophyte Senator Grace Poe, who faces disqualification over citizenship and residency issues. From a high of 40% voter preference in April 2014, Binay was at 23% in January, 4 months away from the May elections.

What should the 73-year-old, who has packaged himself as the most experienced and pro-poor candidate, do to win? 

1. Stick to the anti-poverty message 

Binay’s advantage over his political rivals is said to be his consistent campaign message – his rags-to-riches story makes him better equipped to address poverty, and his achievements in Makati will be felt all over the country if he is elected. (READ: The Leader I Want: Jejomar Binay’s to-fix list for 2016)

It’s a message that is clear in his campaign promises – income tax cuts, free school supplies and uniforms for students, free healthcare, and an expanded Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) in his first year as president.

Along with his pro-poor package is his promise to be a competent leader, based on his experience as a public official – Makati mayor for 21 years, Metropolitan Manila Development Authority chief, housing czar, and presidential adviser on OFWs. (READ: 9 things to know about Jejomar Binay)

People inside and outside his camp believe that Binay just has to continue selling this image. 

“The way he ran Makati is very attractive to the poor, when you have these types of welfare services for free for senior citizens and other residents, so he wants to model running the nation after what he did in Makati these past few decades,” University of the Philippines assistant professor Jean Encinas-Franco told Rappler.

Ateneo de Manila University political science instructor RR Rañeses agreed. “Keep it the way he’s doing it. I think his ads are really very classy, ‘di ba (right)? And rather than join the fray, that’s one way of showing them that he knows how to run his campaign.”

Given such observations, “giginhawa ang buhay kay Jojo Binay (life will be better with Jojo Binay)” should remain as the primary message in his speeches and political advertisements in the next 3 months. 

MAKESHIFT STAGE. Vice President Jejomar Binay gets on two chairs before addressing the crowd in Balayan, Batangas, on February 12, 2016. Photo by Mara Cepeda/Rappler

Charisma is key too. It’s not difficult for Binay to connect with his core voters – the masses – as he reminds them at every opportunity that he is one of them. The Vice President appears most at ease in their presence, inserting jokes in his addresses instead of just reading a prepared speech in English, verbatim, in more formal engagements.

While promising the continuation of the 4Ps under his administration in one campaign rally, he joked: “‘Yung 4Ps, gagawin kong 5Ps! ‘Yung panglimang P, libreng pustiso! (I’ll turn the 4Ps into 5Ps! The 5th P is free dentures).” In Barangay 9 in Balayan, Batangas, on February 12, he got on two plastic chairs – one foot on each – so the 5-foot-2 official could be better seen by the crowd.

The results of the latest Pulse Asia survey on presidential preferences, however, show that just sustaining this message may not be enough. 

In the January Pulse Asia survey, he remains the favored candidate of the poorest Class E at 30%. But Poe and administration standard-bearer Manuel Roxas II, at 26% and 25%, respectively, are not far behind. The Vice President lost supporters in both classes – by 8 percentage points in Class D, and by 12 percentage points in Class E – while the ratings of Poe and Roxas increased in both.

Poe is also the preferred bet of Class D at 32%; Binay is at 22%.

The Binay camp is aware of the threat posed by Poe, though it maintained that it remains unfazed. Binay’s recent attacks on Poe, however, paint a different picture.

At a rally in Calamba on February 10, he told supporters that he never abandoned his country, and that he never considered pledging allegiance to another government. The following day, in Cavite, he said experience in governance is key to being a competent president. Again, without naming Poe, he attacked her inexperience to lead the country, saying someone who just had teaching experience is not fit to be president.

Poe worked as a preschool teacher for 3 years at the Montessori School of Cedar Lane in the United States.

Will this strategy make voters rally behind him or dilute the efficacy of his “solid” message? This is something that his strategists would have to gauge. 

2. ‘Pirate’ administration allies at the local level

ALLIES. Partnerships with local parties, like vote-rich Cavite's Partido Magdalo, are important for anyone wishing to become president. Binay is seen here with incumbent Cavite Governor Jonvic Remulla and Vice Governor Jolo Revilla. Photo by Lito Boras/Rappler

National elections are won at the local level and political analysts agree that UNA should continue forging alliances with local leaders to secure his win.

It is easier said than done, however, as the ruling Liberal Party’s (LP) machinery remains a big hindrance for any politician going against an administration candidate.

UNA spokesman Mon Ilagan told Rappler that the administration party “is now using the 4Ps against the Vice President.” This explains why Binay consistently tells voters that the program will continue under his administration.

Ilagan also accused the LP of buying the votes of local politicians through the Bottom-up Budgeting program, which allows civic society groups, non-governmental organizations, and local governments to choose projects they want the national government to fund. 

Sinasabi nung kalaban sa administrasyon na bilangin ninyo ang populasyon ninyo, dagdagan ninyo ng zero at iyon ang magiging programa o proyekto ninyo (Our enemies in the administration are telling their allies to count the population in their area, add another zero to fund, and that would be their proposed program or project),” he alleged at an UNA sortie in Rizal.

Rañeses thinks this is a serious issue UNA should be concerned about. He advised the opposition party to “work on pirating people from the locals,” especially those allied with the administration.

“If you are a reelectionist or if you want to win, you have to be allied with the administration camp in order for you to get a slice out of the budget pie,” he said.

Rañeses suggested that the Binay camp reach out to administrators of the 4Ps. “You look at the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program, the 4Ps, the CCT [administrators], they double as agents of the party. So they have incentives from the party if they are able to release the CCT only to people who are identified with the LP.”

For Franco, this “systemic problem” in Philippine politics will be an obstacle for Binay, referring to the absence of a genuine political party system in the country. (READ: Strange 2016 poll circus exposes weak PH parties)

She said that even if UNA forges new alliances, loyalty isn’t guaranteed because at the end of the day, local politicians would still be primarily concerned with keeping themselves in power.

“To what extent these groups would be loyal to them in the elections, we don’t know. Because the nature of synchronized elections is a ground for these loyalties. When you’re dealing with synchronized elections, people on the ground are distracted because they also have to fight for their own survival,” she said. 

3. The elephant in the room: Responding to corruption allegations

SOLID FOR BINAY. Those who remain loyal to Binay are unfazed by the corruption allegations against him. Photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler

Over the past year, Binay has been accused of many anomalies – from overpricing two city infrastructure projects as Makati mayor, earning kickbacks in city projects through alleged “dummies,” to owning a lavish 350-hectare property in Batangas and having 242 bank accounts.

Even if Binay refused to show up before the Senate inquiry, his campaign spokesperson, lawyer Rico Quicho, said they have already answered the allegations by submitting an affidavit and Makati city government documents to the Senate to refute the claims of Binay’s detractors. 

“We have stated that we would face all the allegations in an impartial and independent tribunal,” Quicho told Rappler, reiterating the stand taken by Binay  since the Senate probe began.

Binay has always chosen to speak on the allegations directly to the people – not before the Senate panel. In September 2014, he delivered a 21-minute speech to address the issue, but did not take questions from the media afterwards.  A year later, he released television ad calling the Senate probe against him as “masakit, malupit, pagkatao ay minamaliit (painful, cruel, my person is belittled).”

There seemed to be a shift in his stance in November 2014, when he challenged his staunchest critic, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, to a public debate, but the Vice President himself later backed out.

Aside from skipping the Senate inquiry, the Binay camp had also attacked Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales for allegedly being “remote controlled” by the ruling Liberal Party. Morales, who has a strong following on social media, had repeatedly asserted her independence and apolitical nature. (READ: ‘Impeach me,’ Ombudsman dares critics)

To clear his name, Binay filed a P200-million ($4.41 million) damage suit at the Makati Regional Trial Court against Morales, Trillanes, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, Caloocan City Representative Edgar Erice, and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, for allegedly “destroying” his reputation.

Binay also sued for damages members and officers of the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC), and his political rivals in Makati: former Makati vice mayor Ernesto Mercado, Mario Hechanova, lawyer Renato Bondal, and Nicholas Enciso IV.

During the campaign period, should the Binay camp change its strategy on handling the accusations against the Vice President? 

Rañeses doesn’t think so, believing that those who are unsatisfied with his response “will never be convinced.”

“I don’t think Binay should address it at all. Because the public doesn’t care. The people who want him to answer that are most likely to not get persuaded anyway….So he should instead focus on the people who don’t care about those allegations against him,” he said.  

Franco, however, thinks a change of strategy is at hand, citing the case of former Senate president Manuel Villar Jr, the early front runner in the 2010 presidential race who, like Binay, seemed headed to victory.

Among other factors, Villar is believed to have lost the 2010 elections after snubbing the Senate hearings on the ethics case against him over accusations that his real estate conglomerate benefited from a “double-insertion” for the government’s C5 road extension project.

“He (Binay) might probably think that it does not matter to some people or probably the voters, or he might probably be confident that he has a solid base, but the thing is, we have so many presidential candidates and he needs to get as many votes as he can. It’s  also important for him to, at the very least, address these allegations,” explained Franco.

She said that even if former president Corazon Aquino did not die the year before the 2010 elections – seen as a key boost to her son’s presidential bid – Villar would have lost all the same.

“In the 2010 elections – let’s take out the factor of the death of Cory Aquino – I think one thing that posed a problem for Senator Villar then was that he was too late in explaining the allegations made against him. So Binay might probably be going this road also,” she said. 

Quicho said the Binay camp is still “comfortable” where the Vice President is now, even if the latest surveys show him in second place with Roxas and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.

“We’re really comfortable. Because in a race, it’s like a marathon. You don’t dash to the finish line. You run your pace, you keep to your strategy, and you finish it strong,” he said.

Analysts say that the political landscape remains volatile at this point, with the pulse of the people constantly in flux until the final weeks – perhaps even hours – before election day. 

With a tight presidential race, the question now is whether Binay, the dark horse of the 2010 elections, can again pull off an upset in the campaign homestretch. – Rappler.com

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.