by Dr. Nicole Curato
If you don’t like her, don’t vote for her. This is a standard response I hear from people – though not necessarily supporters – who defend Nancy Binay’s Senate bid.
There is no question that Binay has the right to run for a national post. She fulfils legal qualifications for Senate membership. Even though she has never formally held a local position or can take primary credit for a successful public service project, an argument can still be made about her political competence. I share the view that there is some sense of elitism in devaluing her behind-the-scenes role as assistant to her parents. As a colleague puts it, most people respected “a housewife when she became President of the Philippines” and, decades after, even elected her son who had a lacklustre legislative performance as President. Why should Binay be singled out for her senate bid?
In a rare one-on-one interview, Binay appears both reasonable and personable. In contrast to the caricature sketched in social media, she seems to have a sense of pragmatic politics. She understands the complexities of an electoral campaign, perhaps including the costs of participating in public debates.
The democratic process of electoral politics
It is true that people who do not like her can simply not vote for her but the question remains as to why she was lodged to a position of political privilege in the first place. After all, democracy is not just about the right to run and the right to vote. These rights are contingent on a fair and accountable process of electoral campaigns – from parties vetting, selecting and fielding candidates to voters making decisions based on informed preferences.
The circumstances that led to Binay’s inclusion in the United Nationalist Alliance’s (UNA) slate exemplify not only the electoral process’s weakness but also the predatory character of this election’s political actors. Binay describes herself as an accidental candidate after Joey de Venecia dropped out of the Senate race. From the beginning, she explains, her father was against the inclusion of her name in surveys because she was not going to run anyway. It was Navotas Representative and UNA campaign manager Toby Tiangco that asked Binay to be part of the slate because she was rating well in surveys.
Putting Binay in the slate is a masterstroke for UNA but a setback for electoral democracy. While it boosts UNA’s chances of electoral success, this pragmatic move sets a new standard for fielding candidates in national positions, where “because she is my daughter” becomes an acceptable justification. Survey results are confused for people’s clamour from concentration of political capital to very few surnames. What to some is a Binay brand of public service, is, in normative political theory, a dagger in the heart of the public sphere where aestheticized political brands limit space for intelligent discourse, democratic deliberation, critical questioning and informed decision-making. Voters are socialized to become consumers, as if choosing candidates were like choosing a favourite brand of shampoo with a new scent.
Undermining her father’s other legacy
As I have previously argued, this election is unique because kinship-based politics has become the norm, and almost a prerequisite to get elected in a national post. This, I suggest, undermines our right to vote. The campaign to not vote for dynasties leaves citizens with very few choices, often among independent candidates with relatively little political experience precisely because the political space has been limited to a few families.
The problem runs deeper, however. Nancy Binay’s run for the Senate is parasitic on the very same conditions that allowed her father to begin his political career after the EDSA Revolution. Vice President Binay – a product of the Philippine public school system – started his political career as a human rights lawyer, providing legal assistance to political prisoners during the martial law regime. Her father was a beneficiary of the post-EDSA legacy which created political space – albeit very little – for ordinary, non-cacique citizens to hold public office. Nancy Binay’s candidacy further limits the political space for future Jojo Binays to have a fair shot at winning a national seat.
Instead of continuing the Binay brand of public service, democracy could benefit more from creating conditions that allow people like Vice President Jejomar Binay to start a political career. This, I suggest, is a more meaningful legacy, one that is not dependent on the political survival of one family but facilitative of the emergence of new voices from traditionally disenfranchised groups. This piece is not an attack against Nancy Binay, but a reaction to the democratic system that her senate bid undermines. Instead of demonizing her, it is reasonable to broaden the discomfort to the exclusionary electoral process that makes it easy for her to run in the first place.
Nicole Curato, PhD is Assistant Professor in Sociology at University of the Philippines Diliman. She was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian National University and is the Associate Editor of the Manila Review.