Typhoon Haiyan launches Philippines presidential campaign

By Jonathan Manthorpe
November 22, 2013.

When aid arrived this week in the Philippines’ Capiz region devastated by typhoon Haiyan, some of it came in tasteful blue bags decorated in prominent white letters with the name of Vice-President Jejomar Binay and adorned with his official logo of office. Social media in the Philippines went viral with criticism of Binay, calling him “epal” – someone constantly trying to draw attention to himself.  A stream of bitter messages accused him of using the horror of the typhoon, which has killed at least 5,000 people, to further his ambitions to succeed President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino in elections in due in mid-2016.

Binay has retorted that the donations were made by a businessman friend, that he knew nothing about his name on the bags, and that the social media campaign is a conspiracy to undermine his candidacy for the presidency. Even so, Binay’s is the most blatant example of the drive for self-promotion and kudos tainting the relief efforts for the estimated four million people affected by the typhoon, which is known as Yolanda in the Philippines. However, there is no doubt that Filipinos, who always have a healthy scepticism of the abilities of politicians and government, are judging the responses by their leaders to the disaster with the 2016 presidential elections very much in mind.

The popularity of President Aquino, which has been unassailable since his election in 2010, has for the first time dipped below 50 per cent. The public perception is that he is out of touch with the suffering of the people after a politically disastrous visit to the typhoon-hit town of Guiaun a week ago. Aquino avoided touring the worst hit areas, preferring to sit under an awning with several of his ministers and to berate local officials for failing to respond adequately to the humanitarian crisis. Then he cut the visit short to fly back to the capital, Manila, where the Supreme Court had ruled that presidential discretionary funds, frequently the target of accusations of corruption, are unconstitutional.

Aquino’s popularity has also suffered from the public perception that responses by both government departments and the military have been confused and inadequate. Interior Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas is the main target for this criticism, even though his department is not the one primarily responsible for the relief effort. This plays significantly into the campaign to succeed Aquino in 2016. Roxas has for months been portraying himself as the heir apparent to Aquino to lead the Liberal Party in the presidential election against Vice-President Binay, head of the opposition United Nationalist Alliance. But despite the social media campaign accusing Binay of distasteful opportunism, he remains highly popular, and at the moment Roxas appears to have suffered most in the unannounced presidential contest.

It is not just domestic politics that is being affected by judgements of the response to the typhoon. Filipinos and people in the other countries of Southeast Asia and the Far East are looking at the international response to the disaster and deciding which countries are dependable friends in crisis. As in the relief response to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004, the swift and unstinting efforts by the United States and Japan to bring relief to the victims in the Philippines have boosted the standing of both the Washington and Tokyo governments.

The U.S. has sent nine C-130 Hercules cargo planes, 18 helicopters and over 5,500 troops and Japan is sending over 1,000 members of its self-defence forces. Together, these contributions have become the hub of the efforts to distribute food, medical attention and temporary shelter to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the typhoon. It has also brought into focus what an inadequate institution the Philippines’ military remains despite a modernisation effort in recent years. The Philippines Air Force has 30 Hercules aircraft, but only three are operational.

The speed and efficiency of the U.S. response is most significant for President Barack Obama’s standing in the region, which has been under review among Asians for some time. Several factors have raised questions about his dedication to the region, including his decision not to attend the October summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum. This left the regional leadership field open to China’s new president and Communist Party boss Xi Jinping. He took full advantage of Obama’s absence to boost Beijing’s “soft power” influence by portraying China as the benevolent friend of its neighbours. Beijing’s response to Typhoon Haiyan has, however, largely undermined that diplomatic victory.

China is in the midst of a sometimes dangerously confrontational dispute with the Philippines over ownership of islands, islets and reefs in the South China Sea. This appears to have driven Beijing to offer a paltry $100,000 to Manila for disaster relief. This is equal to the amount offered by Vietnam, itself a victim of typhoon Haiyan after it hit the Philippines. But Beijing scrambled to up its donation to $2 million after it became known that China’s initial offering was dwarfed by the $2.6 million being given by the charitable foundation of the Sweden-based global furniture and household furnishings manufacturer IKEA.

© Jonathan Manthorpe 2013