Notes on Bukidnon politics: Zubiri's greatest nightmare

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/05 January) — When Bukidnon Gov. Jose Ma. R. Zubiri Jr. announced his plan to rejoin the Liberal Party, his political vehicle in 1987 as candidate for the province’s third congressional district, he was just being consistent with his reputation as an astute politician. It did not matter that just a couple of days before the announcement, he had declared support to administration bet Gilbert Teodoro. The governor, who is now on his last term and is running for vice governor, is anxious of maintaining a firm hold on local politics, which mainly relies on the outcome of the May 2010 elections. A sure way to do that is to be close to whoever gets to sit in Malacanang. And LP standard bearer Sen. Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III is likely to give the other aspirants a sound beating if the surveys are to be believed.

Zubiri justified his plan by holding mock polls among local officials where Aquino and his running mate Sen. Mar Roxas emerged as the overwhelming choice. But as it turned out, the exercise simply validated the prevailing public sentiment in favor of Noynoy. [It’s an entirely different matter how he would fare in the coming months.] Negotiations for his transfer to the LP, along with other incumbent local officials in the province, failed to hurdle a major stumbling block – former Bukidnon First District congressman and now LP senatorial bet Nereus Acosta.
Acosta and Zubiri had locked horns in the 2007 elections, a contest marked by heated, at times nasty, verbal tussles. Zubiri’s camp accused Acosta of maligning the governor’s son, Juan Miguel Zubiri, in the Internet which allegedly caused his dismal performance at the polls. The younger Zubiri was eventually declared the twelfth placer in the 2007 senatorial elections over Koko Pimentel of the opposition. On the other hand, Acosta, his mother and sister were routed, further cementing the sugar baron’s image as kingmaker. Zubiri’s only setback then was his failure to unseat Second District Rep. Teofisto Guingona III, who is now also on the LP’s senatorial lineup after bolting the Nacionalista Party. In 2004, Zubiri also failed to foil Guingona despite fielding a veteran politician, the late Warlito Tilanduca, a lawyer-accountant who was congressman from 1992 to 2001 and a former mayor of Malaybalay.

Thus, from 2007 and until recently, all was going well for the Zubiris. Until President Corazon Aquino died, somehow changing the complexion of this year’s general elections. Almost overnight, the public eye shifted to Noynoy as an alternative to the other contenders obliging Roxas to postpone his own ambition for the highest office of the land. And as soon as the Social Weather Stations released survey results which showed Noynoy leading the pack the LP found its house full of defectors (read opportunists), some coming from the ruling Lakas-Kampi.

Zubiri and his herd would have been among the defectors, if not for Acosta and his [Zubiri’s] own flawed approach. Sources alleged the negotiations failed because the governor had insisted on his own terms and was unwilling to give substantial concessions. For instance, he reportedly refused the proposal to field Socorro Acosta, Nereus’ mother, as the common candidate for the First District. Instead, Zubiri suggested having the elder Acosta appointed as regional director of the Department of Education in the event of an Aquino victory. Even the most naïve observer could sense that this arrangement will work in Zubiri’s favor regardless of who wins as president in May 2010. Unfortunately for the governor, as LP vice chairperson for Mindanao and one who has not changed political affiliation since becoming a provincial board member in 1995, Acosta exerts considerable influence on the party’s decision-making.

Zubiri’s tack brings to mind talks that have become public knowledge that in case Vice Gov. Alex Calingasan wins as governor he will step down after six months so that Zubiri can get back the governorship. In return, Zubiri will lobby for Calingasan’s appointment as agriculture undersecretary. But that would create problems for Calingasan if the next president refuses to take Zubiri in his fold.

In reality, Zubiri is facing problems other than the complexities spawned by the likelihood of an Aquino presidency. In the First District, his protégé, Rep. Candido Pancrudo, is being challenged by Socorro Acosta and Agriculture Undersecretary Jess Paras. Acosta was a congresswoman from 1987 to 1998 and mayor of Manolo Fortich from 2001 to 2007. Paras, a businessman from Cagayan de Oro City, is said to be close to First Gentleman Mike Arroyo. In short, resources will never be a problem for him.

In the Second District, Zubiri handpicked Malaybalay City Mayor Florencio Flores Jr. for the congressional race even if another party member, Board Member Roland Detecio, got the nod of most local officials in the district. Flores’ strongest rival is former vice governor Winefredo Agripo, an aide of Rep. Guingona. Yet while Flores may be capable of matching his opponent’s resources and machinery, Valencia City, Agripo’s home base, has more voters than Malaybalay and is historically known to be loyal to its sons and daughters. Detecio, who has a following in Valencia, could have been the ideal candidate against Agripo. But since the proverbial die has been cast it will be a battle between Zubiri’s vaunted charisma and his rivals’ determination to diminish the governor’s control of local politics. Meanwhile, Detecio had to cry silent tears at having been jettisoned at the eleventh hour.

However, aside from dealing with the “Valencia Factor”, Flores has to find ways to deal with the biggest issue that his opponents are likely to use against him: the unfinished P250-million Malaybalay public market project. At present, only one of the three buildings planned for the market has been completed even if the contract for their construction was extended for at least nine months. A commentator in the church-run radio station dxDB has repeatedly touched on the controversy in his weekly program. And while other city officials should also explain why the project has failed to meet the deadline, the greater responsibility lies on Flores as the local chief executive. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen how the issue will impact on his candidacy for Congress.

In addition, Flores’ decision to align himself with Zubiri might have frustrated groups and personalities in Malaybalay that dislike the idea of having a Zubiri as mayor, in particular Malaybalay City Vice Mayor Ignacio Zubiri who is seeking the mayoralty post with Councilor Victor Aldeguer as his running mate. Many months before, there were talks among influential, long-time Malaybalay residents to form a common slate against Ignacio, the governor’s nephew. Apparently, though, the plan is now all water under the bridge, as Flores, a key element, was drawn to a different current.

The plan – for some, a vision – to fill Malaybalay’s officialdom with descendants of native inhabitants was not just idle talk. Signs were rife that it was supposed to be a movement, but one which may have to be sidelined at the moment. In fact, in a Christmas gathering in one of the city’s populated suburbs one could notice that all the politician-guests were scions of known Lumad leaders coming from different political parties. Yet, with the local populace now dominated by migrants who have no sentimental link to the city’s past, forging a solid Lumad vote may not be enough to stop Ignacio Zubiri in his tracks. Only one thing is sure: the turnaround by Flores, who had vouched the idea of running for vice mayor with Councilor Bob Casanova as his mayor, has made things easier for the current vice mayor.

Still, the governor had greater reasons to worry about – Aquino’s consistently good performance in the surveys. To be more precise, he’s not worried about Aquino but on two men who are likely to influence the would-be president: Acosta and Guingona. This is his greatest nightmare. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)