MAKATI MAYOR A THORN IN PRESIDENT ARROYO'S SIDE

MANILA
, December 6, 2005
(STAR) (AFP) To the poor of Manila's Makati City mayor Jejomar "Jojo" Binay is a saint. To President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) he is a political thorn in her side who prompted one newspaper headline writer to say recently "GMA hates your guts, Jojo".

Widely criticized a few months ago for allowing opposition parties to hold anti-government rallies in his city, bringing the financial heart of the country to a standstill, Binay admits he is not the President's greatest fan.

Despite allegations of graft hanging over him Makati's mayor maintains he has no case to answer and his supporters say the allegations are politically motivated.

"I'm a street fighter," Binay says. "My opponents forget I am from the streets. I was born poor ... what I have achieved I have done so through hard work."

Appointed by former President Corazon Aquino in 1986 he has taken a near bankrupt municipality and turned it into one of the country's wealthiest cities.

Makati City today boasts the head offices of some 400 of the country's leading corporations, the country's stock exchange, 472 banks, 1,832 financial institutions, 149 insurance companies and 86 foreign embassies and consulates.

Not to mention the five star hotels, upmarket shopping malls and some of the country's most exclusive housing enclaves.

Last year the city collected 6.666 billion pesos (123 million dollars) in revenues compared with 310 million pesos in 1987.

It also boasts some of the country's best public schools and health facilities.

On the surface Makati gives the impression of a first world city but tucked away from the bright lights is Makati's dark side where thousands of poor live in shacks, surviving day-to-day off the streets.

Critics remark that for all his populist rhetoric, Binay operates as an old-time autocrat, using the poor hordes who are beholden to him to quash any opposition. Even street peddlers must tow the Binay line or risk losing their permits to operate, they say.

Known by his detractors as "Binay's army" these are the people who give the opposition their numbers on the street of Makati when called upon in return for a few pesos and the promise of free food.

The suggestion amuses the 63-year-old mayor as he surveys his domain from the helipad perched on top of the new city hall building.

"An army? They are just poor people trying to improve their lives and voice their frustrations. That is why they take to the streets ... we still live in a democracy."

As a close friend and ally of former president and film star Joseph Estrada he remained loyal even after Estrada was deposed in a popular uprising in 2001 which saw Arroyo assume the presidency.

Binay's modern council offices are equipped with the latest in telecommunications and computer equipment which make the offices of the country's senators and congressmen look old and decrepit.

Asked if he harbors higher political ambitions such as the presidency Binay smiles and says: "This council has a constant revenue stream, it is efficient and well managed. Why should I give all this up for something that is not efficient or well run?

"Anyway, it is a matter of destiny. Some people are destined for higher office and others are not. For the time being I am happy where I am."

Binay's day starts at 6 am where he can be found on the streets talking to his constituents, not the rich but ordinary men and women such as taxi drivers and street vendors.

"It is important to get a feel for what people are thinking," he says. "You can't get that from sitting in an office all day, you have to have your feet on the ground.

"This is where many of our political leaders fall down ... they don't know what the people are thinking."

Orphaned at an early age, Binay supported himself through law school shunning the business world for what he calls the "parliament of the streets".

A human rights lawyer, he was jailed by Marcos, but after being released he joined the street protests that eventually brought the dictator down.

As a young boy Binay would walk the streets of Makati barefoot collecting slop for his uncle's backyard piggery and looked after his fighting cocks.

The young Binay worked as many jobs as he could find so he could continue his studies. A product of the country's public school system he put himself through university earning a degree in political science and law.

He could have gone to the private sector but he went back to his roots setting up a modest legal practice and more often than not giving free legal advice and help to the poor of Makati.

Binay says the secret of his success is that "we implement programs ... we don't talk about them.

"I don't see myself as an elected official as such but as an administrator. We run the council's business much the same way as a corporate executive runs his business."

With a resident population of some 471,000 the city swells to more than four million every day as people flock into the offices and shopping malls from the 13 cities and three municipalities that make up the Manila metropolis.

Asked how he gets on with those at the top end of town ... the country's business and ruling elite Binay said: "I made it clear from the very start. I told them: 'I won't dip my fingers into your businesses but in terms of governance leave it to us'."

Binay faces criminal charges over the illegal use of the Makati Coliseum for cockfighting and over a 662 million peso (12.2 million dollars) graft and plunder case filed following reports by the Commission on Audit.

But despite his critics -- and Binay has a lot of them -- Makati City is one of the few local government authorities in the country that is virtually self-funding.

All residents have free medical insurance, health services and education.

Education has been one of the city's biggest success stories. All schools are fully equipped with computers with an average of one computer for every two students.

The drop out rate in elementary school of 0.20 percent is miniscule compared with the national average of seven percent and in high school it is 4.8 percent compared with 13.10 percent nationally, according to education department data.

All students attending Makati University are subsidized by the city and all students have text-books and work books -- a luxury that is denied many students attending public schools throughout the country.

"While the system may be falling down in other parts of the country we strive to give our kids the best education we can. That's why we place so much importance on computer skills as this is now the name of the game," he said.

Most of the city's departments are fully computerized and much of the city's business is done through computer, quite an achievement considering most of the country's ministries are drowning in a sea of paper and paper files.

Makati's success, however, has made it a magnet to the country's poor seeking work and the benefits of free education and healthcare.

Living in squalid conditions, often along filthy creeks, under bridges and along the main Manila railway line, no one knows how many squatters live in Makati.

Having been poor himself Binay feels a certain empathy with the poor of Makati.

"You can't blame the poor wanting to try to improve their lot. There is nothing in the provinces for them that's why they come to Manila thinking they can find work ... its not easy, not in this country."

Binay says he will not restrict people coming to his city and seeking the benefits offered.

"Everyone who lives here and meets the residency requirements -- rich or poor -- are entitled to the benefits this city has to offer," he said.

All residents of Makati have to be a registered voters with the Commission on Elections.

But Binay adds: "We have no intention of issuing residency cards or IDs ... Makati isn't a totalitarian state."


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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