The return of traditional politics in Pampanga

From the moment we first beheld the unique magic of people power in 1986, we have scanned the political horizon for signs of its recurrence. The possibility that it will appear again gives us eternal hope. Its unpredictability, however, keeps us guessing when and in what form it will happen again. Its elusiveness tells us that while it can catalyze reform, it doesn’t linger long enough to form the basis for enduring change.

What we don’t realize is that for every euphoric moment that people power brings, there is a corresponding price that we pay whenever we are unable to build on its foundation—cynicism and despair. Every letdown weighs so heavily on those who trust in its redemptive powers that they lose their taste for long struggles.

Nothing perhaps illustrates this cycle more vividly than the debacle that followed the extraordinary rise to political power of the Catholic priest Eddie T. Panlilio, who, in 2007, ran as an independent candidate for governor of Pampanga, offering himself as the alternative to the two entrenched dynastic forces of traditional politics in the province—the Lapids and the Pinedas. The Commission on Elections declared him the winner by a very slim margin in that three-cornered fight. His improbable victory, which the mass media romanticized as a small version of Cory Aquino’s iconic run against Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, was reversed by the same Comelec a few months before the election of 2010.

When the Comelec ordered Panlilio to turn over his office to Lilia “Baby” Pineda, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s long-time friend, no people-power outrage exploded in his behalf. In the almost three years he served as governor of Pampanga, “Among Ed” had managed to alienate most of his followers. The latter saw a side of him they did not notice before—a self-righteousness that is given to preaching rather than to listening. His aura as someone anointed by people power vanished so quickly that soon the staunchest of his supporters were joining his enemies in filing cases against him.

When they saw that his own leaders were deserting him, his enemies began bombarding him with cases and petitions that virtually made it impossible for him to govern. Having entered the provincial government with no other elected official by his side to help him wage the arduous struggle for reform, he found himself beleaguered by a provincial board and a mayors’ league that could not see anything positive in what he was doing. Instead of reaching out to them, he, in turn, became more hostile toward them, seeing their attacks as a confirmation of their moral bankruptcy.

Panlilio’s archenemy, Lilia Pineda, the wife of Bong Pineda, Central Luzon’s alleged king of “jueteng,” marshaled all her forces and kept the pressure on to prevent his reelection in 2010.  Even as she waited for the results of the electoral protest she filed, her group, known as “Kambilan,” launched a recall campaign against the sitting governor that produced more than 200,000 signatories. This far exceeded the percentage required to bring the process to its logical end—the unseating of the incumbent and the holding of a new election.

As anyone could see, the forces of traditional politics were busy organizing, while the adherents of reform were kept occupied parrying the blows that came their way. Pineda treated all this as a dress rehearsal for the decisive return bout in 2010, a presidential election year. She knew, as a veteran politician, that the presidential contest could shape the outcome of local contests. Panlilio entered the gubernatorial race of 2010, not as a reelectionist, but as someone who had been wrongly declared the winner in the previous election. He had, by this time, all but lost the support of his middle-class base. His candidacy would have been dismissed as inconsequential had he not been designated head of the Liberal Party, whose standard-bearer was the popular Benigno S. Aquino III.

But, not even P-Noy’s phenomenal dash for the presidency could help revive the spirit of people power that swept Panlilio into office in 2007. While P-Noy took Pampanga by a huge majority in 2010, Panlilio trailed Pineda all the way in the gubernatorial race. For every vote he received, Pineda got two.

As a Kapampangan himself, P-Noy wanted to alter the terrain of Pampanga politics during his presidency so as to diminish the pernicious hold of the Arroyo-Pineda alliance on the province. But he could not go very far in Pampanga as long as Panlilio remained his main organizer. On the other hand, prominent figures like former San Fernando Mayor and now Representative-elect Oscar Rodriguez were hesitant to challenge the political and economic clout of the Pinedas. The 2013 elections proved them right. Pineda won almost 80 percent of the vote. But more telling as an indicator of the retreat of people power was the number of votes that Among Ed received—a measly 125,407 votes. This was substantially less than the 242,367 votes he got in 2010.

Pineda felt secure enough in her post that, rather than wait until the end of her term, she positioned her son Dennis for succession by fielding him as her candidate for vice governor. Yet, like a pragmatic politician of long standing, she knew how to play her cards. She dropped her Lakas-Kampi affiliation, and ran and fielded candidates under the banner of her local group, Kambilan. She supported P-Noy ally Rodriguez against a former staunch Arroyo ally, Aurelio “Dong” Gonzales Jr., in the congressional race of Pampanga’s third district.

That is how traditional politics sustains itself over the long haul.

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