Binay still runaway favorite despite corruption probe

MANILA — A high-profile corruption investigation has put a national spotlight on Vice President Jejomar C. Binay, but it has done little so far to dampen his political prospects.

A Senate sub-committee, the Department of Justice, and the Office of the Ombudsman are investigating allegations that the Vice President misused his power as mayor of Makati, the country’s main business district, to enrich himself. The investigation has dominated newscasts and headlines for weeks.

Still, Vice President Binay remains the runaway favorite to be the next president of a country all too used to seeing its highest officials accused of wrongdoing.

The Vice President denies any wrongdoing, and has not been charged with any offense. He told The Wall Street Journal that the Senate inquiry into his affairs was a political witch hunt designed “to erode my standing as a prospective presidential candidate,” and was based on “mere allegations, insinuations, and guesswork.”

Despite his recent travails, Binay insisted he is still “committed to go down to the wire for the presidency.”

Voters like Manila taxi driver Arsenio Gomez shrug off the allegations, saying they will support Binay for president in May of 2016 regardless of the outcome of the investigation.

WHAT BINAY DID IN MAKATI

“They’re all corrupt,” Gomez said of Filipino politicians, reflecting what analysts say is a common view here that corruption remains a deep-rooted fact of life. Gomez said he is more interested in Binay’s record in the city of Makati, which he is widely credited with transforming into the country’s most-dynamic business hub, now home to skyscrapers, corporate headquarters, and luxury housing developments, during more than two decades in City Hall.

The accusations against Binay come as President Aquino has made cleaning up Philippine politics one of his legacy goals. Tackling graft dovetails with another important priority – attracting far more foreign investments to help sustain economic growth of around 6-7 percent.

But Aquino has struggled to turn around the public’s perception of politicians, despite efforts at cracking down on corruption. In addition to the Binay allegations, voters for more than a year have watched high-level members of the Senate defend themselves against allegations that they were part of a scam that cost taxpayers around $225 million. Aquino’s predecessor, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, is under hospital arrest on corruption, which she denies.

“This is the conclusion of many people – that Aquino barely dented it,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Manila-based Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said of the administration’s war on graft.

CORY LOYAL FOLLOWER

Once nicknamed “Rambotito,” or “Little Rambo,” for his former habit of sporting an Uzi submachine gun and wearing military fatigues, Binay rose to prominence during the 1983-86 People Power Revolution that overthrew then-President Ferdinand E. Marcos and replaced him with Corazon “Cory” Aquino, mother of the current president.

A lawyer known for representing victims of the Marcos regime – for which he was jailed for several months – Binay was among Mrs. Aquino’s most loyal protectors during the often-bloody transition.

She appointed him mayor of Makati in 1986, a post he retained through a string of election victories until he was elected vice president in 2010, when he was the running mate of Joseph Estrada, a former president seeking a comeback bid for office. Estrada lost the 2010 presidential race, but vice presidents in the Philippines are elected independently by voters and Binay won the post.

Estrada had been convicted and jailed on corruption charges in 2007 but was immediately granted a pardon by Arroyo, which further fueled voter cynicism during the 2010 elections.

The 72-year-old Binay, who holds a commanding poll lead over any likely challengers, has faced a steady drip of allegations from former aides, officials, and residents in Makati. The allegations include claims that Binay lavishly overspent on public buildings in Makati, and that he failed, as required by law, to declare his ownership of a 350-hectare estate in Rosario, Batangas. But Binay has denied ownership of the property, and businessman Antonio Tiu has already surfaced before the Senate to claim ownership of the property.

The allegations came to light in August when a former unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Makati raised questions over construction costs in the city. Prompted in part by Binay’s political rivals, according to Casiple, a Senate sub-committee convened hearings on the matter. Former aides and other local officials then came forward with the other claims of wrongdoing, widening the investigation.

But Binay said he “strictly followed the procurement process” when spending public funds on the Makati public buildings in question and insisted that he “never owned the Batangas that my detractors are trying to pin on me.”