Can Kiko beat Manny?

July 7, 2010

Fel V. Maragay
Manila Standard
July 7, 2010

After Liberal Party bigwigs chose Senator Francis Pangilinan as the administration party’s candidate for Senate president, the next question is whether he can gather the majority of 13 votes needed to catapult him to the powerful post.

Senator Franklin Drilon, party chairman, was perceived to be the stronger aspirant for the third highest position of the land because of his political savvy, intellect and track record. But he graciously gave way to Pangilinan because he did not want  any crack in party unity.

Drilon has already served as Senate president twice—in 2000 and from 2001 to 2006.  He practically knows everything about the workings of the chamber and dealing with his parliamentary peers like the palm of his hands.

Ironically, his previous stint at the helm of the Upper Chamber became a liability in his rivalry with Pangilinan.  Now on his second term as senator, Pangilinan has nurtured the fervent ambition  to take a crack at the Senate presidency in the last three years of his term.

Like an older brother with a big heart, Drilon gently told his younger party mate: “You can have it. No problem.” Other LP stalwarts, led by President Benigno Aquino III, were one in saying that Pangilinan should be given a chance.

Even during the last elections, Pangilinan had already set his eyes on higher goals.  He wanted to run for vice president but was left with no choice but to set aside this ambition when the Noynoy Aquino-Mar Roxas tandem was formed.  He had to content himself with being the campaign manager of the LP’s 12-man senatorial team during the polls.

In the race for the Senate presidency, Pangilinan will be pitted against Senator Manuel Villar of the Nacionalista Party. Villar already had his turn to occupy the position from 2006 to 2008, but he now wants to reclaim it after his humiliating defeat in the May 10 presidential election.

As a presidential candidate, Villar found himself the object of stinging attacks from his political opponents, especially on the C-5 controversy and the alleged manipulation of the sale of stocks of Vista Land owned by his family. He is bent on making a grand comeback and sees the Senate presidency as a vehicle to clear his name, which he said “is the most important thing” to him.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile insists that he is not joining the Senate leadership fight and he is aligning with the LP to support its candidate. Being a pragmatist, Enrile knows that the LP, being the party in power, has all the advantages to assert dominance and seize control over the Senate. But he has a number of loyalists in the chamber who wish to see him retained in his position. Undoubtedly, the veteran lawmaker from Cagayan has steered the affairs of the Senate smoothly, resulting in an impressive harvest  of  approved legislative measures.  He has enhanced the prestige and respect for his office by safeguarding the independence of the Senate and by dealing with internal conflicts among the senators with shrewdness and statesmanship.

It is no wonder that Senator Edgardo Angara, head of a five-man bloc of senators, says Enrile should not be counted out in the leadership contest. Angara, who is next to the 86-year old Enrile as the most senior member of the chamber, says: “Everyone has an equal chance for the Senate presidency. The principal qualification we are looking for is someone who will uphold the dignity and independence of the institution.  One who will lead a reformist agenda and someone who will not just criticize for the sake of criticism.”

In wooing the support of his colleagues, Pangilinan is proving to be a tenacious and eager-beaver aspirant. He has practically approached all his non-LP colleagues but was cautious to exclude Villar’s hard-line allies from his backroom talks.  He knows that it would be futile to seek the support of the Nacionalista senators because they are already committed to vote for Villar.

Pangilinan made it a point to show up at the oath-taking of re-elected Senator Jinggoy Estrada on the evening of June 24 at the 309 building on Shaw Boulevard, Mandaluyong City. It was like hitting two birds with one stone. Senate President Enrile was also there —as inducting officer. Both Enrile and Estrada belong to the Puwersa ng Masang Pilipino.  By the time the mediamen left the occasion at past 11 p.m., Pangilinan was still in a huddle with Jinggoy and his father, former President Joseph Estrada. We later learned that Pangilinan had stayed at Jinggoy’s induction party up to almost midnight.  He also attended the oath-taking of another re-elected colleague, Ramon Revilla, Jr. of Lakas-Kampi, a the Esplanade within the Mall of Asia grounds in Pasay City four days later. He stayed at the affair up to the wee hours of the evening.

While Pangilinan has been very visible and accessible to the media, the opposite is true of Villar.  Since his defeat in the presidential derby, Villar has disappeared from public view.  Because of this, there is a lot of skepticism whether he is serious in his bid for the Senate presidency.  The truth of the matter is that he has not issued any categorical statement that he is running for the position. However, Angara has  confirmed that Villar has already talked with his group that also includes  Juan Miguel Zubiri, Loren Legarda, Revilla and Lito Lapid.

It is Villar’s staunch allies, notably Senators Alan Peter Cayetano (NP secretary general) and Miriam Defensor-Santiago (People’s Reform Party), who have been saying that the senator from Las Piñas and Tondo is indeed in the running.  In media interviews, Cayetano and Santiago have been stressing the importance of putting the Senate under opposition hands to ensure an effective checks and balance between the Executive and Legislative branches.

Santiago has boasted that Villar has the upper hand in the Senate battle. At one point, she claimed that he had the numbers to clinch the post.  But it appeared that she was just saying this to fill the propaganda void from the Villar camp.  Actually, at this point, Villar can count on the support of not more than seven senators on his side—himself, Alan Peter Cayetano, Pia Cayetano and Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. of NP, Santiago, Legarda (Villar’s running mate in the May elections) and Joker Arroyo. However, Arroyo has discreetly refrained from making any public statement on which candidate he is casting his lot with.

Perhaps, still trying to recover from the trauma caused by the loss of his presidential bid, Villar tries to stay away from the glare of publicity.  But in doing so, he has become a virtual recluse.  He seems to suffer a phobia for social events.  He was conspicuously absent at the oath-taking of President Aquino at the Quirino Grandstand, Rizal Park on June 30.  Before this, he was a no-show at the oath-taking of two victorious party mates, reelected Sen. Pia

Cayetano and newly-elected Taguig Mayor Lani Cayetano, wife of Alan Peter Cayetano. But he made it a point to witness the oath-taking of his son who was elected congressman of Las Piñas.

When Pangilinan emerged as the LP bet for Senate president,  newsmen tried to get Villar’s reaction.  But there was a deafening silence from his side.  His former campaign spokesman, ex-Cavite Rep. Gilbert Remulla, declined to respond in the absence of any word from his principal.  None of the senators allied with Villar answered phone calls and text messages from the media about the looming Pangilinan-Villar match. Up to this writing, the Villar camp has not yet lifted the media blackout.

If we are talking of who among the contenders have the numbers, it difficult to say who is ahead. Pangilinan is sure of the votes of the LP senators, Drilon, Ralph Recto and Teofisto Guingona III, as well as the administration’s “natural allies”—Serge Osmeña III and Francis Escudero. He is confident of getting the support of Enrile and members of his bloc—Estrada, Gregorio Honasan and Vicente Sotto III.  But Estrada, Honasan and Sotto have apparently not given up on persuading Enrile to make a fresh bid for the post.  Only if and when Enrile makes a final decision that he is not running will they switch their support to Pangilinan.

Pangilinan is also banking on the support of Panfilo Lacson and Antonio Trillanes. But  Lacson is still in hiding abroad to evade arrest in connection with the Dacer-Corbito murder case. He is supposed to come home before the opening of the 15th Congress on the fourth Monday of July. Lacson is in danger of being thrown into prison upon his return unless he can convince the courts to withdraw the arrest warrant. The courts have rejected the petitions to allow Trillanes to attend Senate sessions and meetings while the coup d’etat and rebellions charges against him are being heard.  Enrile said arrangements are being made to allow Lacson and Trillanes to cast their vote in the election for Senate president. But that will happen only if the courts will allow it.

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