What if Binay had won the presidency?
There was nothing inevitable with Rodrigo Duterte’s victory in the 2016 elections. A kernel of Dutertismo mythology is the presupposition that the former mayor’s march to power was somehow preordained.
Few remember that up until March 2016, just a month before that fateful elections, Mr. Duterte was still not the frontrunner. A year earlier, he was barely part of the national conversation. It was another veteran mayor who was still a top contender at the time: Jejomar Binay, the bête noire of the liberal media and middle classes. With a formidable machinery and “masa” following, he was generally in the best position to capture the presidency.
If not for the incessant infighting among the top three candidates, two of whom served in the same Cabinet and two hailing from the same ideological camp, Mr. Duterte had no credible path to Malacañang. Populism eventually won by default.
This raises a curious set of counterfactual questions: What if Binay had become our president? Would it have been better for the country? And what is the implication of his defeat for future elections?
Such questions began gnawing at me in the opening year of the Duterte presidency, as his scorched-earth war on drugs and an increasingly overt pivot to China shocked the world.
During one of those traffic-choked drives home, I saw a big, green banner with bold white font that proclaimed, “Kay Binay, may buhay” (With Binay, there is life). What at first seemed like a senseless political slogan suddenly assumed a whole new constellation of meaning.
Throughout the years, I was a staunch skeptic of the “Binayismo” political project. I found it hard to ignore the front-page exposés and manifold corruption scandals hounding Makati City’s administrative organs. The ensuing investigations launched by credible magistrates such as Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales raised serious good governance questions.
As a years-long resident of Makati, I saw how countless humble folk hailing from the less glitzy corners of the town were grateful for countless freebies ricocheting among Makati’s poorest neighborhoods. But Binay’s bold promise of exporting Makati’s welfare system seemed specious beyond the tax-rich pastures of the country’s commercial center. And his overtures toward China, including his flirtation with a joint development agreement in the West Philippine Sea, were far from reassuring.
And yet, despite the increasingly vicious attacks against him, with all other presidential candidates ganging up on him throughout multiple television debates, Binay consistently maintained a competitive edge in the race until the 11th hour.
The overall effect, however, was generalized cynicism toward the entire political system, especially among reactionary sections of the middle class. It was precisely within this context that Mr. Duterte deftly positioned himself as the anti-establishment candidate, one willing to burn down the whole rotten system if necessary. In their hatred of crooks, many voters were now ready to flirt with tyranny.
For me, there are at least three lessons from this fateful episode in Philippine history. First, as Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci astutely observed a century earlier, history is not predetermined by some invisible forces, since “conjunctural” or “occasional” developments can radically change its trajectory. In other words, never underestimate the element of contingency in politics. Today’s frontrunners for the 2022 presidential election may well end up like Binay. We may very well get another Duterte-like political “outsider” as our next president, another anti-thesis to the reigning president. Second, be careful of not only what you wish for, but also what you wish against. In a fervent desire to deny Binay’s quasi-leftist populism a path to the presidency, the voters ended up placing a right-wing populist in Malacañang. The results speak for themselves. And finally, what if a Binay presidency wasn’t the total disaster his critics foresaw? What if, as an astute politician, he would have been smart enough to try to win over his critics and, accordingly, become a more refined version of contemporary populists such as Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, who made his country a better place for millions of poor and marginalized Thai citizens?
The remarkable transformation in recent years of his long-time aide and daughter, Sen. Nancy Binay, into an unlikely icon of independent thought, wit, pragmatism, and humility certainly presents some food for thought.
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