Pampanga politics

Pampanga is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s bailiwick, the only province in all of Luzon where she actually won in the 2004 presidential election.  GMA did not grow up here, nor does she have a good command of the language, but the province regards her as its most illustrious daughter. Her father, the late President Diosdado Macapagal, a poet, zarzuela actor, and orator, remains a revered figure among Kapampangans.

This is also the home of the president’s most trusted political lieutenants – politicians like Senator Manuel “Lito” Lapid and his son, the incumbent governor Mark Lapid, and provincial board member Lilia “Baby” Pineda and her controversial husband, Rodolfo “Bong” Pineda, Central Luzon’s reputed “jueteng” czar.  Ms Arroyo’s eldest son, Mikey, started his political career as vice governor to Lito Lapid. After one term, he won handily as congressman of the second district, and now he is seeking re-election virtually unopposed.  Bong Pineda is known to be his biggest backer.

Until the late 1960s, Pampanga politics was practically the private preserve of the landed and the educated.  The highest position accessible to humble folk like Ms Pineda and Sen. Lapid would have been the headship of a small barangay. The dominant political parties of the time – the Liberal Party and the Nacionalista Party – would have scoffed at the political ambition of a movie actor or of a suspected jueteng operator.

The emergence of a cash-based economy and the rapid spread of the mass media in the intervening years permanently altered the terrain of provincial politics.  Recruitment to elective public office has become a free-for-all, with the decisive advantage going to those who have unlimited cash or mass media popularity.

Lito Lapid first tested the political waters by running and winning as vice governor.  Three years later, he became governor, carving out a mythic role for himself as a fearless rescuer of stranded residents at the height of the mudflows that devastated the province.  In 2001, following the May Day riots that threatened the Arroyo presidency, Lapid became Ms Arroyo’s reply to the residual mass appeal of deposed President Joseph “Erap” Estrada.  Recognizing his value as a popular symbol, Ms Arroyo recruited him into her senatorial slate for the crucial 2004 election. Today, Lito Lapid sits securely as a senator until 2010, even as he has joined the mayoralty race in Makati City in a bid to dislodge the popular opposition leader Jojo Binay.

Baby Pineda, a former buko vendor, started out as a councilor and moved on to become a 3-term mayor of Lubao, Ms Arroyo’s hometown.  After serving her final term, she won a seat in the provincial board, while her son, Dennis Pineda, succeeded her as mayor of Lubao. Today, Baby is running for governor; her son Dennis is seeking re-election as Lubao mayor, while Dennis’ wife, Yolly Pineda, is running for mayor in the neighboring town of Sta. Rita. One cannot fail to be moved by the democratic symbolism of these truly phenomenal careers.

Not everyone, however, agrees that the rise to political power of the Lapids and the Pinedas has been good for Pampanga.  An assertive middle class has grown tired of the revolving door of juetengsponsored corrupt public officials who have ruled the province. The reign of the Lapids is particularly noted for its lack of any coherent plan for the province and for its total disregard of the rudiments of good governance.  It is chiefly associated with the indiscriminate quarrying of lahar, and the failure to collect the right taxes on the millions of tons of gravel and sand taken out of the province every month.

Today, the revolt against the leadership of the Lapids is led by no less than the Pineda couple, which provokes thoughtful Kapampangans to ask if anyone seriously believes that the future of Pampanga could possibly lie with Baby and Bong Pineda. This skepticism centers on the public image of the elusive Bong Pineda  – the street-smart operator who has figured in nearly every congressional investigation of illegal gambling in the country but has never been charged, who enjoys a reputation as a king-maker of sorts and as a personal friend of the president no less.

Bong Pineda is known to have built and demolished countless political careers, but the feat that he supposedly takes special pride in was ensuring the victory of his kumadre, Gloria, in the 2004 election. A fascinating account, contained in the sworn testimony of Michaelangelo ‘Louie’ Zuce, nephew of the notorious Comelec official Virgilio Garcillano, shows how this was accomplished.  Zuce testified that Pineda’s wife, Lilia, was the lady he saw distributing envelopes containing money at two dinners hosted by President Arroyo at her La Vista home four months before the May 2004 elections. Zuce says that apart from himself, the other recipients of this largesse were Comelec officials from various regions of the country.   Both Ms Arroyo and Ms Pineda have denied giving money to anyone, but the persistence of this issue has only enhanced Bong Pineda’s reputation as a power player.

Pampanga politics looked hopeless at the beginning of the year when the fight for the governorship loomed as an exclusive match between two well-funded GMA allies – Mark Lapid and Baby Pineda.  But the entry of a third figure in the person of Catholic priest Fr. Eddie Panlilio has changed the whole picture. This charismatic cleric is running on the assumption that the only antidote to cash is conscience.  I would have argued that reason is.  But given the political realities of Pampanga today, perhaps he is right.

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