The May 2019 elections saw the endgame for long-serving local leaders whose family names had somewhat become synonymous with the local posts they held. Ending their long run were a crop of leaders—new or with new ideas to offer—who promised change and a new brand of leadership.
CHANGING OF THE GUARDS IN MANILA
Among the young leaders who unseated a political giant is Isko Moreno of the City of Manila. Moreno—born Francisco Domagoso— won over former President and reelectionist Mayor Joseph “Erap” Estrada.
Moreno and Estrada had been allies in the past. They were running mates in 2013, when Moreno won his third term as vice mayor and Estrada, his first term as mayor. They parted ways in 2016, with Estrada running for reelection and Moreno going for a Senate seat.
During the campaign period, both Estrada and Moreno focused on the need to address lingering problems in Manila. Among these are garbage disposal, unemployment, poverty, and traffic. Estrada vowed to take on these problems, even as he stressed how he was able to make Manila a safe and peaceful city. Solving Manila’s remaining problems, Estrada said, will add to the legacy he will leave to the city.
Meanwhile, Moreno offered himself as an alternative leader for the national capital. By presenting himself as Batang Maynila, Moreno highlighted two important things: his being young and a true Manileño.
Moreno openly opposed Estrada’s plan to reclaim parts of Manila Bay as part of development efforts, saying it would be wiser to reinvigorate the old business districts of Binondo and Escolta, as well as develop part of Paco into a modern business hub. He also assured Manileños that he will block alleged plans to involve a private firm in the development of Manila Zoo and the plan to build a gymnasium at Arroceros Forest Park, the last remaining patch of green in the city.
In the end, Moreno triumphed over Estrada by over 147,000 votes, in the process becoming the city’s youngest ever mayor. Incidentally, Estrada was not the only one from his clan who tasted defeat at the polls. His sons JV Ejercito and Jinggoy Estrada failed in their senatorial bids. Meanwhile, his daughter Jerica Ejercito was also unsuccessful in her bid to become a councilor in the 4th District of Manila. His granddaughter Janella Ejercito also lost the mayoralty race in San Juan.
A NEW LEADER FOR PASIG
Elsewhere in the metro, another young leader also dealt a member of a political clan a major political setback. Vico Sotto, a 29-year-old first-term Pasig City councilor, frustrated reelectionist Mayor Robert “Bobby” Eusebio’s bid to extend the Eusebio clan’s 27-year reign. From the time Bobby’s father Vicente became mayor in 1992, they have not relinquished city hall to non-family members. Bobby’s mother Soledad and his wife Maribel had also been the city’s local chief executive.
At the outset, Sotto lagged far behind Eusebio in voter preference surveys. As election day neared however, his numbers grew.
Even with his show business background— and his being related to well-known politicians—Sotto chose to rely on his own personal qualifications. He presented himself as a serious alternative to Eusebio, thus the campaign slogan “Iba Naman.” The slogan also pertained to his fresh take on politics, including an aversion to the traditional way of campaigning. He rejected the idea of too much fanfare and instead focused on delivering his message centering on the need for a new leader, for change in the way the city is run.
Unlike traditional politicians, Sotto did not make grandiose promises. He did identify problems such as poverty, corruption, and prevalence of a culture of fear. These and other problems he intends to solve through universal health care, affordable housing, education, participative governance, and transparency.
On election day, the electorate chose change over continuity, giving Sotto a winning margin of over 87,000 votes. This gives the millennial mayor the next three years to make a difference in the lives of over 755,000 Pasigueños.
Sotto’s campaign received an unexpected boost when President Rodrigo Duterte endorsed his candidacy. Still, Sotto stands pat on his decision to stick with Aksyon Demokratiko instead of jumping ship. “We need to go beyond ‘yellow’ vs. DDS. As a mayor, I will support good programs and remain issue-based,” the new Pasig mayor said.
A CLASH IN CEBU
The midterm elections saw a historic clash in Cebu City, with reelectionist Mayor Tomas “Tommy” Osmeña and Vice Mayor Edgar Labella as main protagonists.
Labella went up against a titan in the world of Cebu politics. Osmeña is the grandson of former President Sergio Osmeña Sr., and the son of former Senator Sergio Osmeña Jr. His elder brother Sergio III was a three-term senator. In all, Tommy had served Cebu City for about 30 years, either as city mayor or congressman.
Although already also a seasoned politician—he became city councilor in 1998 and eventually became vice mayor—Labella does not have Osmeña’s political pedigree. He, however, has a solid background as lawyer and man of integrity.
While the two candidates agreed on the need to solve the city’s perennial problems, they diverged on how to approach these. With regard to traffic for instance, Osmeña focused on his achievements with regard to infrastructure, which he said has lessened the problem. Labella presented a comprehensive plan to solve the problem, one that involves nearby localities. While Osmeña cited bureaucratic problems as the cause of delays for various projects, Labella emphasized the need for a new leadership to solve the city’s woes.
Labella offered a consultative, collaborative, and team-oriented style of leadership. He presented the chance for Cebuanos to have a more cautious, prudent, and deliberative leader. He has been known as a consultative leader, willing to listen to the people’s sentiments before deciding on issues. He also presented to the people the chance to have a healthy leader who could take on the rigors of public service.
Labella’s campaign focused on whether the people wanted the old or the new. The electorate chose the former, and ended an era in Cebu City’s political history.
A MASSIVE UPSET IN MAKATI
Since 1986, the position of Makati City Mayor has become synonymous with the family name “Binay.” Family patriarch Jejomar Binay, appointed as officer in charge in 1986, went on to become a five-term mayor before becoming vice president in 2010. His wife Elenita and son Junjun each served one term, while daughter Abby—former three-term Congressional Representative of the 2nd District of Makati—is currently on her second term as mayor. Another daughter, Nancy, is on her second term as senator.
After failing to capture the presidency in 2016, former Vice President Binay launched a political comeback by way of Makati’s 1st Congressional District. One now-familiar figure stood in the way, however—Romulo “Kid” Valderama Peña—who served as vice mayor and acting mayor.
Peña is neither a neophyte politician nor a stranger to the Binay brand. He was at one time a Binay ally. He started from the bottom—as barangay chairperson of Valenzuela, Makati. He became vice mayor in 2013, which put him in the position to serve as acting mayor from July 2015 to July 2016, when Junjun was barred from performing his duties as mayor. Peña lost to Abby in the 2016 mayoral contest.
Although waging an uphill battle, Peña’s candidacy steadily gathered steam. What his team lacked in machinery and resources, they made up for in hard work and resourcefulness.
Binay’s campaign, analysts say, was adversely affected by the much-publicized rift between Abby and Junjun, who contested the mayoral post. This resulted in emotional baggage and lack of focus in the elder Binay. Peña, on the other hand, had much less baggage to carry.
In a close contest, Makatizens of the 1st District cast their lot in the younger Peña. Slim as his victory was—he won by just over 5000 votes—he proved to be a giant slayer just like other young politicians who made their mark in Metro Manila.
DRAGON SLAYER IN DINAGAT
One leader who has been wearing the “dragon slayer” label for the past six years is Dinagat Islands’ new governor, Arlene “Kaka” Bag-ao. She has been the nemesis of members of the Ecleo family, which has ruled Dinagat since 1967, when it was still part of the province of Surigao del Norte. Her latest “victim” is Benglen Ecleo.
Bag-ao first came to national prominence for being a human rights lawyer. She served the cause of the marginalized and oppressed—farmers, women, laborers, and the urban poor. She served as counsel for the Sumilao farmers who marched from Mindanao to Manila in 2007 to fight for their right to own land.
Bag-ao entered Congress in 2010 as Akbayan partylist representative. In 2013, she defeated former mayor Gwendolyn Ecleo for Dinagat Islands’ congressional seat, earning her the “dragon slayer” label. She won reelection in 2016, this time against former governor Geraldine Ecleo.
Despite her earlier victories against members of the Ecleo clan, some quarters still considered Bag-ao’s chances in the last elections as being very slim. However, she had planted some seeds years before, when she served as caretaker of the congressional district in 2012 because Congressman Ruben Ecleo Jr. was facing legal problems. She took the opportunity to show how government can work for the people by using resources wisely.
Bag-ao is not averse to the title “dragon slayer” but points out that the enemies are not members of any political clan. She claims that the real dragons that have to be slayed are poverty, inequality, and underdevelopment.
AN IMPORTANT REMINDER
The victories of Mayors Isko Moreno, Vico Sotto, and Edgar Labella; Congressman Kid Peña; and Governor Kaka Bag-ao signal not only a change in leadership in their localities. It is also a reminder for those in positions of power that just as the electorate have the power to give them the mandate to lead, so do they have the power to revoke such mandate when a better alternative comes along. — RAMIL FARIÑAS AND GODFREY T. DANCEL