Vice-president has credentials as champion of poor

The new Philippine vice-president, Jejomar Binay, has a highly unusual but apt given name.

It is a short form for the biblical Holy Family - Jesus, Mary, Joseph - which in the Filipino language is pronounced 'Susmaryosep', an exclamation of surprise and disbelief.

It was exactly this sentiment that greeted the controversial mayor of the financial centre of Makati when he won by only 727,084 votes over front-runner Mar Roxas, running mate of President Benigno Aquino.

Roxas said he would demand an official recount this week, claiming more than two million votes had gone missing. Binay (pictured) denied he had cheated and said he had merely campaigned better, harder and smarter by forging sister-city relations with 200 towns and cities across the country.

The post Binay had coveted - secretary of the interior and local government - was denied him by the president although their families were friends.

Aquino made it clear he would not abandon Roxas, who had earlier given way to his presidential bid.

The perception has been widespread that Binay, 67, would use that portfolio, which oversees the 130,000-strong police force and more than 17,000 local government executives, for a presidential run in 2016. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Binay was frank enough to say he had long nursed an ambition to serve the country at the highest level: 'I was aiming to be president when I was still in grade school, about age 10 or 11, because the presidency is associated with public service.'

Short, dark-skinned and born poor, Binay does not fit the profile of the prominent Filipino politician. He has overcompensated, using his 21-year stint as mayor of Makati City and closeness to former president Joseph Estrada to immense advantage. In fact, Estrada's son Senator Jinggoy Estrada recently anointed Binay as his father's successor as a champion of the nation's poor.

'I came from that sector, remember. I can speak and feel their hard life,' Binay said. An uncle raised him after both his parents died. The uncle must have seen how smart he was, for he sent the boy to a state school for gifted children.

A crafts teacher there recalled how the youngster once came to class without materials. He quickly said he would find something, and returned lugging a broken desk to fix.

This habit of trying to fix things has often landed him in trouble. During the Marcos dictatorship, Binay, who was by then a human rights lawyer, was jailed 10 times.

As mayor, he was charged with graft for giving the poor used coffins, which the moneyed had used before cremations. The court cleared him.

Now a breath away from the presidency, Binay said he intended to redefine his office.

'The image of the vice-president as a spare tyre, looking up, waiting for a person to keel over, I think is wrong,' he said.

The constitution gives no line function or portfolio to the vice-president except that granted by the president. Aquino has offered Binay four other cabinet portfolios, but he refused them all. Instead, Binay said, he would be a working No 2.

'For example, if I have an idea, I will write to the department concerned,' he said.

The prospect of Binay becoming president has sent chills up the spine of the wealthy, who have seen how he has taxed the rich in Makati City and showered the poor with free hospitalisation, medicine, school books, coffins and movies.

In a way, he conceded, he had set up a welfare state in the country's financial district while he was mayor.

But Binay denied he was an urban warlord: 'I don't have the features and character of a warlord. I don't have people killed or who kill for me.'

He said he believed in being a strong leader.

What could get in the way of his ambition, though, are the long-held but unanswered allegations that Binay enriched himself in office.

According to an investigative report by Newsbreak magazine, in 1988 his declared family net worth was only 2.53 million pesos, but by 2008 it had ballooned to 44 million pesos (HK$7.37 million) in declared assets and an estimated 80 million pesos in undeclared land holdings, although his earnings as mayor totalled only about five million pesos.

Binay denied he took 'commissions' from building projects.

He said: 'The problem with us Filipinos is that anything negative on the life of a local government official we believe as gospel truth. You can't construct your own house, you must live in extreme poverty - that's the ideal government official.'

One Makati resident said he still wanted Binay to be president someday, as commissions are the norm.

'But while other mayors keep 70 per cent, Binay takes only 30 per cent,' he said, 'and he really has done a lot for us.'