October 19, 2006

Makati stand-off: The bigger picture

I stood on the steps of the entrance to the Makati City Hall, taking in the sights and sounds of the latest political stand-off in the heart of the country’s premier business center, where an embattled mayor fights off what is widely perceived to be political persecution by his sworn enemy, no less than the de facto president, Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Mayor Jejomar Binay’s fortitude and will to stand his ground is most apparent. He appears calm and focused as he is approached by a throng of concerned followers, supporters and mass media people lured by an unfolding real-life drama that could have some unusual twists and quite unexpected outcomes.

Mr. Binay’s preparation for this moment is clearly more than psychological: there is a sense of order and direction despite the tense atmosphere, the constant stream of people and the bellowing of the loud speaker conveying the ongoing program where speakers take turns lambasting the government and calling on the crowd to chant Binay’s name in a demonstration of their loyal support.

The threat that the police and even army troops will storm Mr. Binay’s bastion, a twenty-two story, modern high rise rivaling those in the central business district, is real. It can also happen earlier than expected should Malacanang take the option of trying to nip in the bud what Mr. Binay’s supporters hope will become, at least, a mini “people power” phenomenon. On the other hand, a bloody assault could be politically costly and provoke even more widespread outrage and set into motion events that could spin out of control.

There is an unmistakable feel of traditional, patronage politics in the air. After all, Mr. Binay is not just a well-entrenched local politician in one of the wealthiest cities of Metro Manila, he is also the head of UNO or the United Opposition, a loose alliance of opposition parties and personalities that he is most instrumental in cobbling together, to do battle with an unpopular but wily and ruthless Malacanang occupant. Moreover, most of several hundreds of people gathered in front of the city hall are Mr. Binay’s poor constituents in Makati, beneficiaries of years of the city government’s largesse in the form of fairly generous social services and benefits.

Yet the presence of the broad array of groups and forces that have been working for more than a year in trying to force Mrs. Arroyo to step down from power -- in the wake of irrefutable evidence of massive cheating during the last presidential elections, of plunder of the national treasury and wanton abuse of authority by Mrs. Arroyo and her subalterns, and of grievous human rights violations including unabated extrajudicial killings of activists and suspected dissidents -- is the best proof that the political crisis in Makati is not really about its mayor much less his alleged crimes in office.

First things first, is the preventive suspension order issued by Malacanang valid? Mr. Binay contends that it is not. He is accused of placing “ghost employees”, i.e. employees who do not exist, on the payroll of the city but there is no clear proof of such. There is not even a listing of who the alleged “ghost employees” are and in what departments they are said to have been spuriously employed. Neither is there evidence Mr. Binay is responsible for hiring such alleged non-existent city hall employees nor that he tolerated their alleged anomalous drawing of salaries from the government.

With not even the flimsiest of grounds for a Malacanang-ordered preventive suspension, other circumstances contribute to the suspicion that the move to force Mr. Binay from the mayorship of Makati is a brazen abuse of presidential power meant to systematically eliminate the strongholds of the Opposition and substantially weaken if not destroy their ability to challenge Mrs. Arroyo’s illegitimate rule.

For one, the preventive suspension has been leveled against not only the mayor but the vice-mayor and all of the members of the city council. All the better to demolish Mr. Binay’s residual political control or influence in the city government?

Secondly, the complainant against Mr. Binay is a perennial loser for the mayoralty who has made it his lifetime ambition to cut Mr. Binay down to size. When asked by reporters if he would accept an offer to take over in the event that the incumbent is successfully removed from office, he is said to have immodestly announced his willingness to serve the remainder of Mr. Binay’s term. Why was Malacanang only too eager to entertain this complaint at this time?

Why didn’t Mrs. Arroyo’s bright boys undertake due diligence to investigate the matter fully before unceremoniously trying to kick Mr. Binay out? Indeed, the tentacles of the Chief Executive, from the Executive Secretary to the Department of Interior and Local Governments to the Philippine National Police, have all acted with indecent haste, if not uncharacteristic efficiency, in issuing the preventive suspension and then plotting the mayor’s bodily removal from his office.

The larger picture must be shown for all to see. This is not just another mayor’s desperate fight to remain in office in the wake of charges of graft and corruption.

It is the latest in the wave of illegal, criminal assaults by a politically isolated regime against those who have the will and the capacity to bring about the broad united front of political forces necessary in order to rid the country of Mrs. Arroyo’s dastardly leadership.###

*Published in Business World
20-21 October 2006


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