With Senator Grace Poe’s survey surge to overtake Vice President Jejomar Binay in Pulse Asia’s voters poll, the VP has taken off the gloves. Thus, his resignation from the Cabinet of President Benigno Aquino 3rd.
Binay can now attack the administration without feeling awkward in Palace meetings. And with this new critical stance, he and his United Natiionalist Alliance (UNA) party would likely grab more headlines in the coming months.
The heightened media and public attention should lift Binay’s ratings in the future, especially if he overshadows Poe on front pages and prime time. That could well happen if she is constrained from attacking the government in the hope of still getting Aquino’s support.
Any assault on misgovernance will find millions of Filipinos nodding in agreement, especially long-suffering Metro Rail Transit commuters, law enforcers angry over the Mamasapano massacre of police commandos, Yolanda victims still awaiting rehabilitation, Mindanaoans fearing the Bangsamoro agreement and bill, and other disgruntled sectors.
Attacking the LP will lift the VP
Lambasting the Liberal Party-led administration would also help blunt the LP’s campaign charging Binay with massive corruption as Makati mayor. Just as Aquino’s assault on the past administration makes people think he is clean, Binay’s criticism of current excesses would project him positively.
And there is plenty of sleaze to hit, from the worst smuggling in Philippine history, and the trebling of pork barrel since 2011, to the malversation-ridden Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), and controversial transactions at the Departments of Transportation, Defense, Agriculture, and other agencies.
Not to mention pork barrel anomalies implicating administration lawmakers, now kept under wraps by Secretaries Florencio Abad of Budget and Leila de Lima of Justice. In sum, Binay, still the most trusted top official in Pulse Asia’s poll, would strike many chords among Filipinos, potentially increasing voter support.
Binay would also begin advocating portions of his envisioned platform of government, shifting public and media attention away from Makati anomalies to national concerns. Filipinos would be interested in measures to restore MRT efficiency and safety, address government underspending, better manage disputes with China, and forge a constitutionally valid pact with Muslim rebels.
Other concerns demanding better governance are the legally mandated but yet undone creation of a billion-peso disaster agency like America’s Federal Emergency Management Administration; and the delay-plagued public-private partnership infrastructure program.
Plus the inefficiency and hampered outlays due to dozens of unfilled high-level positions; criticism from state auditors over the P40-billion-a-year conditional cash transfer stipends for the poor; and the growing sense among the destitute that rapid economic growth isn’t benefiting them.
If Aquino and his allies ignore the opposition’s criticism and proposed initiatives, and keep attacking Binay’s Makati record, they run the risk of seeming to put politicking over burning concerns affecting tens of millions of ordinary Filipinos. But if the administration addresses issues raised by the VP, that deflects its campaign to villify him.
The challenge for Poe
What about new survey topnotcher Grace Poe? As noted earlier, she could be hamstrung in matching Binay’s headline-grabbing attacks on the administration, whose backing she seeks.
More problematic, when media asks her views on opposition criticism of the administration, she may defend it and come across as an apologist for its mistakes. Or Poe could avoid comment and seem like a novice lacking in governance knowledge — the very weakness Binay had raised obliquely about her.
And if the popular senator turns adversarial toward Aquino, especially if he picks Secretary Mar Roxas as LP standard bearer after the State of the Nation Address a month from now, then Poe would seem to be just copying Binay, whose fiscalizing would have been rolling out for several weeks by then.
As for her governance platform, Poe and her advisers would have to do some fast thinking to match Binay’s programs, which his seasoned experts may well have been crafting since he announced presidential plans years ago. In a talk with this newspaper last year, the VP discussed policy options for a wide range of national concerns.
If she does not have her own well-thought-out initiatives to impress press and public, Poe could face the criticism that undercut support for her late adoptive father Fernando Poe Jr., when he could not discuss governance in the 2004 elections and got testy over media’s repeated badgering for policy statements.
That failure to explain his programs did much to turn FPJ’s 10-percentage-point survey lead in January of that year into a 7-point deficit in the last opinion poll before the May voting. That final spread was equivalent to 2 million more voters preferring then President Gloria Arroyo a fortnight before elections, helped by Iglesia Ni Cristo and El Shaddai backing. She eventually won by 1 million votes, half her final survey lead.
The coming maneuvering
LP diehards hoping to sink Binay with more illicit allegations may be hard-pressed to find anything big enough to dwarf administration irregularities like Aquino’s P150-billion DAP malversation, his tripling of pork barrel to over P20 billion a year, the five-fold leap in contraband to $19 billion annually, based on International Monetary Fund trade data; the P200 billion in revenue lost to smuggling, as the President himself admitted in his 2013 SONA; and the $30-million bribe solicitation in MRT bidding reported by Czech company Inekon.
Faced with poll defeat and graft charges under a Binay presidency, the administration could still try to arrest him. But if his ratings rise, even the Sandiganbayan may balk at crossing someone who could become the next president.
Indeed, most congressmen probably are, as tipped by Speaker Feliciano Belmonte’s admission long ago that a Binay impeachment would not happen. If the VP regains and maintains top survey position, then politicians of every stripe could shift, especially those wary of future corruption cases. Maybe even Aquino.