Philippine vice president aims to widen foreign ownership

By Rosemarie Francisco and Manuel Mogato
Philippine Vice-President Jejomar Binay gestures during a Reuters interview in his office at Coconut Palace in Manila September 21, 2015. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

By Rosemarie Francisco and Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay on Monday vowed to amend the constitution to widen foreign ownership of businesses, create more jobs, and spur growth in the Southeast Asian economy if he wins next year's presidential elections.

A former human rights lawyer, Binay, 72, is the oldest and most experienced politician among the presidential hopefuls. Along with his wife and son, Binay's family has ruled Manila's financial district for nearly three consecutive decades.

Besides Binay, who is leading a coalition of small opposition groups, those eyeing the presidency include former Interior Minister Manuel "Mar" Roxas, who was endorsed by President Benigno Aquino III, and first-term senator Grace Poe.

"We have to revisit our constitution, among other things," Binay said, regarding the 40-percent limit on foreign control of most businesses. "We have to get out of that 60-40 arrangement."

Binay said he was still studying the right limit for foreign control, even as he promised to honor state contracts with the private sector, such as in infrastructure.

He also supports cutting income and corporate taxes that rank among the region's highest and altering the land reform law to give farmers more subsidies.

He also wants to step up irrigation to boost rice output so that the country, once the world's largest rice buyer, can export the grain within three years.

Binay consistently topped surveys for the 2016 presidential race until June, when Poe overtook him.

A year-long Senate investigation into allegations that Binay and his family illegally amassed wealth hurt his poll ratings, analysts say. He has denied wrongdoing, saying the allegations were meant to discredit him.

Binay declared a desire to run for president, which he said was born out of a childhood dream to be famous, early in his six-year vice presidency, giving him a campaign advantage.

"They cannot do in eight months what I have already done. I have traveled to three-fourths of the Philippines," Binay told Reuters at his office at Manila's Coconut Palace, a mansion built by former first lady Imelda Marcos for a visit in 1981 by the late Pope John Paul II - who deemed it too opulent to use.

Marcos' son, Ferdinand Jr. or "Bongbong", is among Binay's top three choices as his vice president for next year's polls. Binay hopes to finally pick his running mate this week.

As a young lawyer, Binay was jailed for opposing martial law imposed by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. But a possible team up with Marcos' son in next year's polls showed it was time for the country to "move on" from past hurts, he said.

He also supports the grant of bail to former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, detained in a state hospital on plunder charges, saying she was not a flight risk.

Binay wants the country to be a member of the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) because it will spur more investment and employment. But he said he would defend the Philippines' rights over portions of the South China Sea.

"Sovereignty is non-negotiable. We will protect our interest in the West Philippine Sea," he said.

The Philippines has a dispute with neighbor China over territorial claims in parts of the South China Sea, including some areas of the Spratly Islands.

It has taken its case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, but China has declined to take part.

(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)