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Aquino, Liberal Party, in near panic

Eleven months to the May 9, 2016 elections, and with the deadline for the filing of certificates of candidacy just three months away, President Aquino and his Liberal Party are now in near panic, worried that their presumptive candidate, Mar Roxas, has little chance of winning the Presidency.

Aquino’s camp has also been told that a quick preliminary poll shows that Vice President Jejomar Binay’s satisfaction and voter-preference ratings have gone up after he broke away from his Administration on June 22 and has become its leading critic.

On the other hand, their second choice, Senator Grace Poe, their own lawyers say, could be disqualified for failing the citizenship and residency requirements for the Presidency. “Could,” when the stakes are high, is a frightening word – especially for financiers requiring billions of pesos in funds. Furthermore, Aquino and the Liberal Party can’t stand Senator Francis Escudero, who may not only be Poe’s mentor, but even her svengali.

“Those so-called ‘consultations’ in the past days by Aquino with Grace (Senator Poe) and Chiz (Escudero) are their desperate attempt to read whether Poe could be relied on to protect them, to keep them out of jail in the next administration,” a Liberal Party official said.

Grace with her adviser… or even svengali?
Grace with her adviser… or even svengali?

It is getting to be the consensus in the Liberal Party that Roxas might even land third in the Presidential elections. Or even fourth, going by recent polls showing newcomer Davao Mayor Rodolfo Duterte even overtaking Roxas.

“Do we want a Cory decision, or a Ramos one?” That’s what’s being asked in the party now, an official said.

He was referring to the fact that Cory Aquino junked her ruling coalition’s Ramon Mitra as her candidate and picked Fidel Ramos in 1992. When his time came to endorse a candidate, Ramos, however, picked the party candidate Jose De Venecia, who miserably lost to the popular Joseph Estrada in 1998.

The stakes have become high for Aquino and his Liberal Party associates, as there are obvious cases – the Disbursement Acceleration Plan (DAP) budget hijacking, the Mamasapano massacre, corruption in military purchases, and at the MRT-3 system, among others – that could put them to jail.

An Aquino relative and Roxas ally personally supervised a recent poll so that the respondents – purported to be “randomly” chosen – included those from such areas as Forbes Park, Panay, Negros islands, and Tarlac, known to be sympathetic to the Liberal Party leader.

Yet, even with that intervention, the survey couldn’t lift the Liberal Party leader enough to portray him as having the presidency within range, a source said. “And everyone knows you can cheat in the elections only if the polls show your man has a fighting chance, “ the Roxas ally said.

DILG Secretary Mar Roxas, Senate President Franklin Drilon and President Benigno Aquino 3rd
DILG Secretary Mar Roxas, Senate President Franklin Drilon and President Benigno Aquino 3rd

Roxas’ 10 percent
The latest Pulse Asia survey undertaken May 30 to June 5 showed that only 10 percent of respondents reported they would vote for Roxas for president. While that’s a jump from the 4 percent he got in the March survey, it was less than half the 22 percent leading candidate VP Jejomar Binay got.

Furthermore, as often has been done in the past, the Pulse Asia poll seemed to have been synchronized with the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s banner headlines a few days before and during that survey period. In that period, Roxas’ name and face became prominent for three days as Aquino’s choice for the Presidency.

It was also during that period that the newspaper’s banner headlines reported that the Senate committee had finalized its report on the investigation into allegations of anomalies against Binay in Makati City – with Poe, who is getting to be the newspaper’s candidate as Aquino was in 2010, backing up the report.

What has worried Aquino and the Liberal Party is that despite what has been a most intense character-assassination campaign starting late last year to portray Binay as a crook, the candidate’s satisfaction rating has gone up, bouncing from a low of 35 percent in March 2015 to 42 in June, while his voter-preference rating is at 22 percent, even according to the Pulse Asia report.

Indeed, the hearings in the Senate against him and his son Jejomar Jr. purportedly to investigate charges hurled by senators under Aquino’s thumb have numbered about 50, more than its 36 hearings on the pork barrel scam.

For instance in 44 days last year, more than half of the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s banner stories were about the allegations, portraying them as facts, and not accusations. (See my columns, “A Travesty of Journalism”, Oct. 9, 2014 and “The Inquirer vs Binay,” January 15, 2015). Binay’s denials and evidence of his innocence were relegated to the insider pages.

That kind of barrage would have put Binay in the basement with single-digit ratings, as what happened in the case of Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Ramon Revilla. Instead, it demonstrated his strong core of support, now tested that it would likely be intact till the 2016 elections.

While Poe’s ratings have rocketed from just 15 percent in March 2014 to 30 percent in May this year (according to the Pulse Asia polls), her being Aquino’s and his party’s presidential candidate would have its own risks.

First, Roxas – the Prince of the Liberal Party – obviously would blow his top, having already given way to Aquino in 2010. The machinery and funds which the Liberal Party in the last five years have been designed for – even managed by – Roxas, such as the billions of pesos in discretionary funds under the Department of Interior and Local Government he has headed, aren’t easily transferable to Poe. This was the lesson in the 1992 elections, so that one of Ramos’ closest friends reportedly had to sell three of her mansions in Forbes Park to help fund his campaign.

Nonong and Simeon
Lawyers Jose Avelino (“Nonong”) Cruz and former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo – Roxas’ strategists said to be behind the cases against Binay – are known to be loyal only to him and not to the Liberal Party. They may just withdraw from the political world and concentrate on their law firm, if Poe is anointed Aquino’s candidate. That could result in the total collapse of the cases the Liberal Party have and will hurl against Binay – and that’s practically what they have to boost their candidate’s chances.

What if Roxas commits suicide? “E di pahiya tayo,” a Liberal party Eastern Visayas official even morbidly quipped.

Poe is said to have acquired the backing of an industrial tycoon and the Lopez clan. But that’s all. Worse, Escudero is said to have told financiers that Poe wants contributions to be coursed through him – which has raised the eyebrows of many potential funders.

Second, aside from the inherent, and very real risk that she would be disqualified from running for President even at the height of the campaign period, Poe is politically, and in one major sense, morally, a tabula rasa.

What if she wins, but leaves Aquino and his colleagues to the “wolves? After all, for all her high-moral-ground positioning, she considers the admittedly immoral Joseph Estrada – who was convicted of plunder – as her uncle of sorts, and looks up to him.

What if Escudero, son of a top Marcos technocrat, becomes the power behind the throne? And behind Escudero, of course, would be all the monsters of the Yellow Horde’s world: Danding Cojuangco and Marcos loyalists. Already at this time, Poe has insisted that Escudero accompany her in her meetings with Aquino, and it was Escudero, not Poe, who reported to the media what transpired. A top Liberal partyman asked: Can you imagine a government run by a young brash narcissist?

It seemed to be such a perfect plan in 2010. Roxas would be Vice President, and it would be a walk in the park for him to be President in 2016.

Indeed, as the poet Robert Burns put it long ago, “The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry.”