SURIGAO CITY (MindaNews/18 May)–Dubbed by the local media as the “Dragon Slayer,” Akbayan Rep. Arlene “Kaka” Bag-ao finally punched a hole to the well-entrenched political dynasty of the Ecleos, a family name synonymous to Dinagat Islands.
Hers was a political fight maybe likened to the biblical battle between David and Goliath, where the “small unknown fighter” toppled down his giant enemy using a sling.
Bag-ao, concurrent caretaker representative of Dinagat Islands, won the congressional race against Gwendolyn Ecleo, the youngest daughter of Ruben Ecleo Sr., founder of the Philippine Benevolent Missionaries Association (PBMA), with a margin of 3,246 votes.
She got 25,615 votes against Ecleo’s 22,369.
Bag-ao’s total number of votes was actually higher than PBMA’s “default leader” and matriarch, Gov. Glenda “Mommy Glen” Ecleo, who garnered 23,385 votes. The Ecleos ran under the Nacionalista Party.
Ecleo defeated her daughter Geraldine “Jade” Ecleo in the gubernatorial race. She is on to her second term for Dinagat province that was created in 2006.
Geraldine teamed up with Bag-ao under the Liberal Party in going against her own family who has ruled Dinagat Islands for four decades.
“I think it is also good that Jade is an insider. She has the integrity to talk about her family because she is part of the family,” Bag-ao earlier said in response to a query that Geraldine is still an Ecleo and she, Geraldine, would be conflicting her position against political dynasties.
Bag-ao has become the anathema in rallies involving the PBMA, a group largely considered a cult. The “Orange Team” of the Ecleos during the campaign period maligned her as a “thief, whore and bag-ang (molar teeth).”
In her speeches witnessed by MindaNews five days before Monday’s election, Bag-ao said she knew about the personal attacks and character assassination “but I cannot be angry, I really am not angry because in the first place, there is no truth to it.”
Dubbed as the “Team Yellow,” Bag-ao said she leaves it to Geraldine to respond to the mudslinging hurled by the Ecleo camp against her (Bag-ao) during the campaign period.
At the height of their miting de avance, a supporter of the Ecleo camp, identified as Ric Cabral, took the stage and fiercely attacked Bag-ao’s character for about an hour.
But the attacks apparently did not deter voters to choose Bag-ao.
A head teacher from Libjo, where Bag-ao slightly edged Ecleo (3,630 and 3,596 votes, respectively), said that Bag-ao won because she “did something in so short a time” contrary to the decades-old rule of the Ecleos where basic services were reportedly poor or at worst dismal.
Libjo is considered a bailiwick of the Ecleos.
The teacher, who only identified herself as “Mel,” said she voted for Bag-ao “like most teachers she knew” because the activist-lawmaker gave a clear platform to address the nagging poverty in the province.
In an earlier interview, Bag-ao said that through the P137.4 million Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or pork barrel fund released last December, more than a month after she assumed as caretaker representative of Dinagat Islands in October 2012, P5 million was infused to the Caraga Regional Hospital in Surigao City for the immediate medical assistance of Dinagat residents.
Three thousand scholars were enrolled at the Surigao del Norte State University (SDNSU) and other schools while road and bridge constructions connecting the towns of San Jose and Loreto are ongoing, she said.
The PDAF was also used to purchase six 4×4 utility vehicles worth P1.5 million each, which include a Mitsubishi Montero, Toyota Hilux and Fortuner sports utility vehicles.
She used the PDAF to also purchase 77 units of multi-cab patrol vehicles costing P275,00 each, which were distributed to various barangays in the district.
The PDAF release was criticized as a “political patronage” since Bag-ao, an Akbayan partylist representative whose party mates are also holding key positions in national government, could use this to her advantage.
The Ecleos saw that as her biggest advantage against them.
San Jose town Mayor Alan II Ecleo said in an interview on Tuesday, after the proclamation of her mother Glenda and brother Benglen as governor and vice governor, respectively, that Bag-ao’s edge was her “wide network.”
“Well she is the incumbent (caretaker of the legislative district) and she has a wide network at her disposal,” Allan II said.
Benglen also earlier voiced similar criticisms through Facebook, that Bag-ao is using the “money of his brother,“ the dismissed lawmaker and PBMA Supreme Master Ruben Ecleo Jr., who was convicted for murder and graft charges, for her political interest.
Dinagat, which is synonymous to the Ecleos and the PBMA, is considered the biggest source for “bloc voting” in past electoral exercises in Surigao del Norte.
Before its separation from the mother province in 2006, politicians raring to win the elections covet the PBMA vote.
The bloc vote of the PBMA, estimated at 63,000, could easily sway the results in favor of whoever gets the blessing of the Ecleos.
But the recent elections, however, showed a different scenario, “swaying away” from the so-called “one voice, one leader” bloc voting of the PBMA.
Alleged vote buying on the part of the Ecleos took place in some towns that ironically are identified as Ecleo bailiwicks: San Jose, Dinagat, Cagdianao and Libjo.
In Libjo, Bag-ao posted a slim margin of 34 votes over Gwendolyn Ecleo, at 3,630 and 3,506, respectively.
Geraldine Ecleo, who ran and lost against her mother Glenda in the gubernatorial position, alleged that her mother’s camp spent millions of pesos to buy votes, ranging from P500 to P2,000 per voter.
“I worry because how will they get the money back,” she said.
Fr. Almario Ramada, Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) chair in Surigao del Norte, said on Tuesday they received reports of vote buying in Dinagat town allegedly by the Ecleo camp.
On the other hand, the Ecleo camp, through Benglen, accused Bag-ao’s camp of resorting to harassment and violence against PBMA members in the town of Loreto to ensure a wide margin.
Loreto is Bag-ao’s hometown. She won there and also in the municipalities of Libjon and Tubajon.
In the four other towns considered strongholds of the Ecleos, Bag-ao mustered enough votes to win the congressional race. (Vanessa Almeda/MindaNews)