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Aquino turf remains very much Danding Cojuangco’s

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DANDING COJUANGCO AND PRESIDENT AQUINO

TARLAC CITY—With two of the most influential political personalities in the country coming from Tarlac, how are local alliances in the province shaping up?

It is still President Aquino’s home turf as Tarlaqueños await his confirmation of local candidates. But Tarlac remains very much the political nest of Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr., the President’s uncle and Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) chair emeritus, as can be seen from the composition of local candidates in the May 13 polls.

True to the marching orders of Mr. Aquino to abide by the partnership forged by the Liberal Party (LP) and the NPC, an almost unified slate for the two parties took form in the province, with the equity of the incumbent as the guiding principle.

Thus what was formed was an LP-NPC partnership dominated by the NPC. Of the 18 mayoral seats in the province, 14 are held by the NPC and all of these mayors are seeking reelection. In these areas, the LP did not field a candidate.

Contentious areas

Other contenders in these towns belong to the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino (PDP), a party associated with Mr. Aquino’s uncle and former Tarlac Rep. Jose “Peping” Cojuangco Jr.; the Lakas party led by Vice Gov. Pearl Pacada; and the National Unity Party (NUP), which has candidates only in the third district led by Rep. Jeci Lapus.

The remaining three towns and the capital city are the most contentious of the lot. The towns of Sta. Ignacia and Victoria are declared “zona libre” (free zone) as there is no LP-NPC coalition there. The incumbent mayor of Sta. Ignacia, lawyer Saklulu Enrado, is the only LP mayor in the province but the NPC fielded Francisco Mangahas as its candidate there.

Victoria is led by reelectionist Mayor Candido Guiam III, an NPC member, but no less than President Aquino asked former Councilor Rex Villa Agustin, whose family are old Aquino allies, to run for mayor again. Villa Agustin lost to Guiam in the 2010 race.

Victoria is the hometown of reelectionist Gov. Victor Yap and his sister, Rep. Susan Yap-Sulit. The two, who belong to the NPC, are closely allied with Guiam.

In Concepcion, hometown of the Aquinos, the incumbent mayor, Noel Villanueva, is ending his last term and is running for representative under the Nacionalista Party. The NPC did not field a candidate in Concepcion but the LP fielded a full slate, led by lawyer Jay Castro.

In Tarlac City, incumbent Mayor Gelacio Manalang belongs to Lakas and the LP-NPC sent in a coalition ticket led by LP district chair and former Mayor Genaro Mendoza.

In all, 557 candidates are vying for 197 various posts from representatives down to members of the Sangguniang Bayan (town council). Of these candidates, four are running unopposed: Rep. Enrique “Henry” Cojuangco (first district), provincial chair of NPC who is seeking his second term; his son, Enrique “Kit” Cojuangco Jr., a political neophyte who is running for vice governor; Gerona Vice Mayor Holden Sembrano; and reelectionist Mayantoc Mayor Iluminado Pobre Jr. All are NPC members.

Even as big names in Philippine politics are behind the LP-NPC partnership in Tarlac that supports the candidacy of Yap, the top provincial post is not without contenders.

Leaving her current post as vice governor is Lakas candidate Pacada, the former national president of the Board Members League of the Philippines and a staunch supporter of Gilberto “Gibo” Teodoro Jr., the Lakas candidate for president in 2010. Teodoro lost to his cousin, President Aquino, three years ago.

Last to join the fray is Dr. Isabel Cojuangco-Suntay, second cousin of President Aquino. Her mother is the sister of Danding Cojuangco. Cojuangco-Suntay is running as an independent and it is her sudden candidacy that sowed confusion to Tarlac’s electorate.

With very limited organizational support, Cojuangco-Suntay was not seen at first as a strong contender. She, however, has joined forces with Lapus.

For Pacada, this year’s election must be fought because Lakas needs a leader. She says she needs to stand her ground, being the highest elected official of her party in Tarlac, because Lakas has not forged a coalition with other parties.

On March 16, President Aquino was scheduled to bring the Team PNoy senatorial candidates to his home province and was also expected to confirm the local LP-NPC coalition. The rally was set at the Ma. Cristina Park in front of the provincial capitol but this was cancelled a day before the event.

This cancellation further bolstered speculations in the province that he is yet undecided on his gubernatorial candidate.

What created the confusion then? Speculations that the President is going for his cousin, Cojuangco-Suntay, instead of abiding by the LP-NPC partnership, went abuzz after the filling of the certificates of candidacy in October. Many believe that Cojuangco-Suntay enjoys a certain closeness to the President as evidenced by his presence in events that she had organized.

In October and December last year, President Aquino was guest of honor during the launching of the “Hardin ng Lunas” project and the Belenismo sa Tarlac awards night. Both were organized by Cojuangco-Suntay.

While Mr. Aquino never mentioned anything about politics in his cousin’s events, to many, his very presence spelled a difference.

This speculation is bolstered by the fact that in 1997, when President Aquino ran as representative of Tarlac’s second district, his first as a political candidate, his closest contender was now Governor Yap.

This was the year when Yap’s father, the late Rep. Jose Yap, a close friend and ally of Mr. Aquino’s father, Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., and former Rep. Peping Cojuangco, moved to the other side of the Cojuangco clan and joined the NPC, chaired by Peping’s estranged cousin, Danding Cojuangco.

The older Yap ran and won for governor against then reelectionist Margarita “Tingting” Cojuangco, wife of Peping. The younger Yap lost to now President Aquino.

Despite the popularity of Mr. Aquino’s parents, the fact that the son of slain former Senator Aquino and former President Corazon Aquino ran in his home turf with an opponent was something that Tarlaqueños, however, cannot forget.

But Governor Yap, who is seeking his last term this year, says everything was part of their growing up and maturing as leaders of the province. He says he respects the partnership forged by the parties and holds with high respect the trust they gave him.

Tipping point

In a fellowship luncheon with NPC and civil society members in November, Danding Cojuangco said the NPC would support the Aquino administration, which was why the partnership between LP and NPC was forged.

“I did not ask anyone to run but I would endorse people who could help our province. My candidate for governor is Vic Yap,” Danding told his party mates and guests.

“I don’t want Tarlac to be filled with my relatives,” he added.

As to why he had to choose his own brother, Henry, as representative of Tarlac’s first district, Danding said: “Instead of other people, I’ll support my brother. It was a real bad experience when I nurtured someone and then he left us.”

Even as he did not name that person, many believe Danding was referring to his estranged nephew, Teodoro.

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