Glimpses of a Binay presidency

In many ways, the state of politics and governance in the city of Makati exemplifies everything that is dysfunctional in the nation’s political system. Law is put in a position of having to constantly assert and defend its autonomy against political power. The official is so tightly folded into the personal that it becomes impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Every attempt to audit official performance is regarded as a personal attack, or an assault on the whole family.

But our people appear to tolerate it, or even welcome it, unable perhaps to imagine any other way of governing a society. That is how entire clans are able to monopolize political power in many provinces of the country across generations. These families manage to weave an elaborate tapestry of patronage that covers all the essential spheres of everyday existence. Access to this system is solely decided by one’s place in an intricate web of personal connections. Here, public services become the privileges of the connected, not the entitlements of citizens.

The modern hope is that as a society becomes urbanized and relatively more prosperous, people are released from the diffused roles they play in traditional patronage systems. When this happens, the personal is demarcated from the institutional, and the various function systems of society become sharply differentiated from one another.

Instead of becoming a reality, this vision has remained a pie in the sky for most of our people. Instead of advancing to a higher level of institutional complexity, Philippine society appears to be drowning in a series of “de-differentiations.” The majesty of the law is undermined when politicians insist on deciding what is lawful and what is not. The sanctity of public office itself is eroded when politicians stay too long in power, and pass on their offices to members of their families as though they were part of the heirloom.

But, there are two significant developments in the nation’s politics that are worth noting. The first is that, instead of withering away, the patronage system has flourished everywhere, recruiting new players into the game. A new political class that controls a lot of cash, rides on media popularity, and commands a direct line to major politicians at the center has replaced the land-based traditional ruling elite. But, there has hardly been any change in the patronage system itself.

The second is the simultaneous entry of members of the same family into the political system. Using the same patronage network and political machinery, the political family expands its clout by deploying its members to multiple elective positions, in much the same way a corporation uses a strong market presence to develop new businesses. This did not exist in the golden years of pre-martial-law politics, when a strong feeling of delicadeza (restraint arising from a deep sense of propriety) was enough to deter politicians, no matter how popular they were, from fielding their relatives to various positions at the same time.

What is remarkable is that this is happening not only in the countryside, but also in the most urbanized cities of the country. The family of Vice President Jejomar Binay is perhaps the most glaring example of this phenomenon. Appointed mayor of Makati by President Cory Aquino in the period of transition that followed Edsa I, Binay went on to be elected and reelected to the same position until he hit the constitutional three-term limit in 1998. Instead of giving others a chance to serve, he made his wife run for the same office, even as he groomed his only son to be mayor someday by getting him elected as city councilor.

Elenita Binay became mayor of Makati from 1998 to 2001, the same period Jejomar Binay served as chair of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority. When his wife’s term was over, he promptly took over again as Makati mayor, was reelected twice, and stepped down only in 2010, when, once again, he ran into the mandatory three-term limit. But, rather than relinquish the position, he kept it within the family by fielding his son Junjun Binay, who is currently on his second term as mayor.

After being mayor of Makati for 21 years, Binay thought 2010 was the right time to enter national politics. He ran for vice president and got elected, even as his presidential candidate lost. In the meantime, his daughter Abigail was elected district representative of Makati, in which position she is now on her third term. As if to test the extent of his growing national clout, in 2013 he fielded another daughter, Nancy, who had worked as his personal secretary, for a senatorial seat. In a crowded field dominated by administration candidates and veteran politicians, Nancy won as part of the opposition slate, affirming the bankability of the Binay name at the national level.

Any politician who has garnered electoral successes of this magnitude, a record that indicates at the very least a tacit public approval of his dynastic ways, cannot be faulted for believing he will be the next president of the republic. But, more than that, it should not come as a surprise to anyone if the Vice President, who has lorded over the city’s affairs for more than three decades, has begun to imagine himself as the lawgiver of Makati.

Watching the Binay patriarch and Senator Nancy rush to the side of Mayor Junjun, not just to lend moral support but also to assail the legitimacy of an order from an independent office of the judicial branch, gives us a glimpse of what things could be like under a Binay presidency. The law would take a backseat to politics. The political would be reduced to the personal.