Sunday, January 13, 2008

Gov. Ed Panlilio is Inquirer’s Filipino of the Year 2007

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 01/13/2008

MANILA, Philippines -- “Among” Ed Panlilio, priest turned plain-dealing prophet of hope, is the Inquirer’s Filipino of the Year for 2007.

The governor of Pampanga, according to Inquirer sources, is facing a do-or-die struggle with the 3 Rs of no-holds-barred political resistance—recount, recall and ‘‘requiem.”

The first refers to the election protest his closest rival in the May 2007 polls filed against him; the third to the death threats he has received. The second is an unusual and rarely used tactic in Philippine politics—a recall petition to remove him from office, which his political enemies are poised to file as soon as the one-year condition is met.

All three offer proof that the almost miraculous election victory of Panlilio is a silver dagger thrust at the heart of the vampire known as transactional politics—and the vampire is fighting back.

His victory and the improbable campaign that made it possible will be studied by election strategists and political analysts for a long time to come. His practical but principled approach to governance, which includes both directing the work of idealists and carefully diagnosing festering ills before prescribing a cure, is both exemplary and empowering.

Not least, his first months in office are a showcase of effective executive action.

In the most dramatic turnaround he has engineered, lahar quarrying fees have jumped from less than P30 million during the last full year of his predecessor, Gov. Mark Lapid, to almost P120 million in his first six months in office.

For all these—his inspiring election victory, his surprising political savvy, his initial success despite great difficulty—the Inquirer names Gov. Ed Panlilio as 2007’s Filipino of the Year.

The choice reflects the sporadic outbreak of optimism that brightened an otherwise bleak year. Many other harbingers of hope emerged out of the political darkness: Chief Justice Reynato Puno inaugurated a new era in judicial statesmanship by leading the Supreme Court in hosting an unprecedented summit on extrajudicial killings and in launching extraordinary new legal remedies; the Sandiganbayan special division trying deposed President Joseph Estrada on plunder convicted him on two of the four charges, reaffirming the primacy of the rule of law in a well-reasoned and highly convincing decision; the first three Filipino women to climb Everest did so on their first attempt, thrilling a grateful nation; not least, the Overseas Filipino Worker continued to labor in other countries at great personal cost, helping through regular remittances to stabilize the entire trillion-peso economy.

Any of these icons of inspiration would have richly deserved being named Filipino of the Year. But Inquirer editors ultimately chose “Among Ed” Panlilio, in part because the hope he embodies is found where despair is deepest: politics, in the age of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Panlilio, 54, has left an indelible impact on national politics in another, altogether unforeseen way. He exposed the distribution of cash gifts—bundles of cash, contained in paper bags—that took place in Malacañang last October.

In truth, Panlilio did not so much expose the cash gifts handed out to governors (and, as it turned out, also to congressmen) as admit that he received his share: P500,000, handed to him by Bulacan Gov. Jon-Jon Mendoza, who also received the same amount in the same kind of paper bag.

Both governors said they received the money in good faith, and assumed it came from government funds and were to be used for barangay projects.

But the simple act of confirming receipt of the money ignited a political firestorm. Malacañang and its political allies issued many contradictory statements—disavowing any knowledge of the cash gifts, claiming to know their true source, or creating implausible versions of the circumstances.

If the controversial Pulse Asia survey conducted later in October is any gauge, the firestorm quickly consumed much of what was left of President Arroyo’s political reputation. That month, a plurality of voting-age Filipinos thought Ms Arroyo was the most corrupt President in history, outranking even the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It may well be that that dismal finding can be traced directly to Panlilio’s disclosure.

This may help explain the intense animosity many Pampanga local officials feel toward Panlilio, many of whom are closely identified with a President who is a favorite provincemate. But the priest-on-leave’s candor did not start it. It started when Panlilio dared to throw his social worker’s hat (and his parish priest’s soutane) into the ring. His upset win hurt the political forces allied with former Provincial Board Member Lilia “Baby” Pineda, the wife of alleged ‘‘jueteng” lord Bong Pineda—they were headed for a victory over Lapid, the lackluster reelectionist incumbent, before Panlilio’s entry galvanized the so-called middle forces in Pampanga.

The animosity deepened when Panlilio took his anticorruption platform seriously. When he revamped the lahar quarrying fees collection scheme, he antagonized not only the political forces allied with the Lapids but also many of the local officials who, judging from their incomprehensible reaction to the new arrangement, must have benefited from the old one too.

It is already a part of political lore that Panlilio did not, in fact, intend to run for governor. When he, together with many of his provincemates, realized in 2006 that the looming choice for governor was stark—it was either Mrs. Pineda or the young Mr. Lapid—he joined a concerted effort to look for a third candidate. The group’s objective was to persuade eminent Kapampangans, including former Cabinet secretaries and university professors, to offer their provincemates an alternative.

But while the search was begun in optimism, it eventually ran into the depressing reality of Philippine politics. Entrenched political dynasties, the politics of personality, deep-rooted patronage watered by the irrigation systems of jueteng and quarrying fees: The race for Pampanga governor seemed to be over even before it started.

With such long odds, the search looked destined to fail. In the end, Panlilio heeded the call of like-minded citizens and offered himself, reluctantly, as the alternative.

It was not an easy decision. To run for public office, Panlilio needed to go on leave from the priesthood. For someone who has been a priest since 1981 and parish priest of Santiago Apostol church (in Betis, Pampanga) since 1998, the suspension of one’s priestly faculties was a wrenching, almost impossible, sacrifice. Finally, a few days before filing his certificate of candidacy, Panlilio met with his superior, Archbishop Paciano Aniceto of San Fernando, and asked for and received a dispensation.

The rival political camps had extensive political networks and even (both parties claimed) the tacit support of Ms Arroyo. Lacking both the money and the network, supporters of the third way in Pampanga had yet an abundance of idealism. Volunteers multiplied; donations started to pour in.

What had started as a search had metamorphosed into a movement. Kapampangans from around the world spread the word. Politicians in Metro Manila took special notice. Four of the country’s top election lawyers crossed political lines to offer their services to Panlilio, for free.

The race was tight, violent and dirty. But the groundswell of support for Panlilio that began the day he filed his certificate using a “kariton” helped carry the day. With 219,706 votes, a mere 1,200 over Pineda’s 218,559 and only 9,000-plus over Lapid’s 210,875, the Commission on Elections declared him the winner.

His victory made him the first priest to be elected governor in the country’s history. It also inspired many Filipinos, not only in Pampanga or throughout the archipelago but even those among the OFW diaspora, that the light of hope can shine even in the blackest night.

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