ANALYSIS: Zubiri vs Acosta: Two faces of a campaign

The congressman's mother, Mayor Socorro Acosta, reports said, was also struggling, although no figures were available as of this writing. The only bright side to the Acosta family's electoral bid is the impending victory of Maria Lourdes Acosta as successor to her brother's current position. Her closest rival, controversial former elections commissioner Virgilio Garcillano, has conceded.

Congressman Acosta's defeat, his first since becoming a provincial board member in 1995, has cast doubts on his family's ability to influence the future of politics in the province. It could even be that their primary concern now is just to consolidate their continued hold of the first district, if only to contain Zubiri's plan to efface their names from the political map.

But whatever plans the Acostas may have drawn after May 14, the fact remains that Nereus only has himself to blame for his debacle at the polls. He was mentally prepared for the skirmish, but his troops were in disarray and unable to match the opponent's well-oiled machinery and seasoned foot soldiers. He also forged the wrong alliances with the wrong people (for example, Valencia City Mayor Jose Galario Jr. who is being portrayed by his detractors as a rogue chief executive), a factor which Zubiri exploited to the hilt. The net effect was that the lawmaker was forced to play a defensive game despite a string of issues he had lined up against the governor.

Acosta started his campaign by projecting himself as a serious reformist. He promised to bring about changes to a provincial government which he claimed to have mismanaged and squandered public funds allegedly resulting in huge loans and deficits. He cited in particular the buyout three years ago of the foreclosed Bukidnon
Resource Company, a tomato paste processing plant in Manolo Fortich town. The plant has remained idle until now, he stressed.

The legislator also claimed that Bukidnon has accumulated big deficits forcing it to obtain loans which have reportedly reached 600 million pesos. Zubiri countered that the province's outstanding loan is only around 200 million pesos. He added it is being used to build big, state-of-the-art hospitals and that it is being paid regularly.

Acosta further accused Zubiri of afflicting the people of Bukidnon with the "cancer of money politics." The former was referring to the governor's reputation of being a lavish spender during elections.

Zubiri merely shrugged off the charge, saying the law allows candidates to spend up to a certain limit.

The lawmaker also criticized as self-serving Zubiri's manner of implementing the health care system under PhilHealth. He pointed out that the PhilHealth cards distributed to indigent beneficiaries bear the image of the governor. "Klaro nga gigamit sa pamolitika," (It's a clear case of politicking) he would tell his audience during campaign sorties.

Moreover, Acosta never failed to use the proposal to divide Bukidnon into two provinces (House Bill 3312) as a political weapon against Zubiri. He always emphasized it as a design to strengthen the sugar magnate's control of local politics. "Dili kontento sa usa ka gingharian, magtukod pa gyud og laing gingharian." (Not content with one kingdom, he wants to build another.)

His strong opposition to the proposed division of Bukidnon earned for Acosta the support of BUTRIDCE (Bukidnon Unified Tribal Development Council of Elders), an organization that claims membership from the seven tribes of the province. The same group actively campaigned for his gubernatorial bid.

Zubiri responded by enlisting the support of the Indigenous Peoples' Provincial Consultative Body, which is composed of known tribal leaders. He also enumerated the scholarships and other good deeds he has done for the Lumad.

The governor did not stop at parrying Acosta's blows. He took the offensive by citing charges of graft and corruption filed against his opponent. As expected, he mentioned the alleged transfer of congressional funds to NGOs purportedly controlled by the Acostas. He also accused the lawmaker of having benefited from the fertilizer fund scam which implicated former agriculture undersecretary Jocelyn "Jocjoc" Bolante. Acosta refuted both charges.

Zubiri added that Acosta has no decent infrastructure projects to show off in his nine years as congressman. The latter denied the governor's allegation. Aside from citing certain physical projects that he had implemented, he claimed that a good portion of his "pork barrel" went to scholarships in order to build "social capital," a statement that made Zubiri blurt out a sarcastic "what do you mean social capital?"

Zubiri intensified his attacks against Acosta by insinuating that the latter might have stashed congressional funds in Thailand. The congressman is married to a Thai national.

Indeed, the campaign has so degenerated into exchanges of accusations and counter-accusations that both candidates eventually found themselves resorting to name calling and mudslinging. In the confusion of battle, however, it is difficult to determine who started what.

The charges hurled by both protagonists against each other may have some truths in them. But what mattered in the end was the level and reach of machinery, which is vital in local elections. Clearly, Acosta was at a disadvantage in this aspect. Zubiri has the support of most mayors and other local officials and fielded a complete lineup for all positions at stake.

In addition, observers say Acosta's cerebral style of campaigning could have worked against him. Even a source close to him confided that he would often remind the congressman to adjust the content of his speeches so as not to alienate his mostly "masa" audience. Most people also find him too formal and academic. While these are not essentially negative traits, they do not conform to the Filipino voters' traditional perception of a politician.

Acosta's style is in direct contrast to Zubiri's gift of common touch. By design or habit, the governor finds it easy to blend with all kinds of people he comes in contact with. He walks or travels without bodyguards, eats in carenderias, and gives anybody a friendly tap on the shoulder or a hug.

Of course, issues should be the primary considerations in electing leaders. But in the absence of a politically mature electorate – and mature politicians – that would be asking for the moon. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno / MindaNews)