Binay’s politics

In his interview with ANC’s Lynda Jumilla the other night, Vice President Jejomar Binay said that he made clear his intention to seek the presidency in 2016 as early as when he took office as vice president—unlike Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, the presumptive candidate of the ruling Liberal Party, who, he sneered, has been “hypocritical” about his plans. Clearly, Binay wishes to project the image of a straight-talking politician who has nothing to hide. But, a statement like that is double-bladed: It also gives the impression that political ambition is all that consumes him, and that, as a public official, he has little time for governance.

As someone actively seeking the highest office of the land, Binay ought to know that he is bound to be subjected to the most intense scrutiny way before Election Day itself. The scrutiny will come not just from the mass media but, indeed, from the political system itself. The Senate investigation into alleged corrupt practices in Makati, where the Binay family has held sway for 28 years, should therefore not come as a surprise to anyone.

While the ongoing Senate hearings are supposed to be an inquiry in aid of legislation, the information these generate inescapably carries political as well as legal implications. As a veteran politician and lawyer, Binay is aware of this. He says he will not be party to a “fishing” expedition, or allow his office to be disrespected, intimidated, and prejudged. But, in refusing to honor the invitation to appear before the subcommittee that is conducting the investigation, he forgoes the chance to clear himself of any suspicion of wrongdoing. Seventy-nine percent of all Filipinos, according to a recent survey of the Social Weather Stations, want him to face his accusers at the Senate.

Binay argues that the proper venue for answering criminal charges is the court, and, technically, he is right. But, what is at stake in the Senate hearings is not his guilt or innocence but, rather, the public’s perception of his suitability for the presidency. He objects to the “demeanor” of the senators conducting the investigation. To be fair, they do sometimes sound like prosecutors and judges rather than as legislators in quest of better laws or policies. Still, people who appear in such hearings are not without their rights.

There are rules governing these proceedings. Other senators (and one of them is a Binay daughter) who may feel that invited witnesses are being unfairly treated can take up the cudgels for them. An overzealous senator may alienate the public and unwittingly invite sympathy for those at the receiving end of the inquiry. Where the hearings are televised, as they are in this case, the public becomes the judge of everyone’s demeanor.

All this is to state the obvious: The Senate is a political body and the hearings are a political event. As such, they are consonant with the essential nature of politics—which has to do with the power to make collectively-binding decisions. In the exercise of that power, the Senate conducts hearings and invites people to shed light on issues relevant to the legislative function. These hearings may stray beyond their stated subject matter, and indeed they often become venues for assessing the competence and/or integrity of persons in public office. It is up to the chair and the members to limit their scope.

As I understand it, though Binay has been invited to the hearings, he is under no legal compulsion to attend them. He is being asked to explain how a modest extension of City Hall built under his watch as Makati mayor could have cost so much. His refusal to honor the subcommittee’s invitation is itself a political statement. People may interpret this refusal as a justifiable bid to protect the honor of the vice president’s office. But others may view it as an unwarranted avoidance of accountability.

Instead of answering the allegations of people with whom he used to work closely in Makati, Binay has chosen to impugn the credibility of the allegations by linking them to a conspiracy to stop him from being elected president in 2016. In the ANC interview, he explicitly named Roxas and Senate President Franklin Drilon as the brains behind this political plot. Yet, he offered no direct evidence to prove this.

Let us assume there is such a plot. Would that make the corruption allegations against him less deserving of an answer? Clearly not. But, when confronted with allegations of misconduct, politicians like Binay are quick to say they would rather wait for the charges to be heard in court—almost as if they were sure the cases would not prosper there.

Binay loves to rail against the political motivation behind the Senate hearings. Yet he himself is quite adept at exploiting the crudest narratives of resentment by portraying himself as a dark-skinned Filipino of humble beginnings who is being persecuted for daring to aspire for the country’s highest office. He seems sure that come 2016, the Filipino electorate will choose him as the next president, thus effectively clearing him of all the charges that are being hurled against him.

It is one of the realities of a society in transition that law is not fully differentiated from politics, and so, apart from determining who should govern, elections also tend to function as the ultimate arbiters of guilt or innocence.

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