COMMENTARY: Battle of political titans in the 2022 polls looms in GenSan

GICALE, Rwanda. (MindaNews / 17 April)  – General Santos City is no stranger to epic electoral contests. In fact, sensational and emotion-laden electoral contests had already happened twice in this southernmost tip of the country.

The first was when the late Antonio “Toning” Acharon, who was then, a prisoner, ran for mayor of General Santos City against the late Priscilla Chiongbian, wife of the then millionaire congressman, James L. Chiongbian; and, the second was when Lita Nunez, a university teacher, was pitted against Luwalhati Antonino, wife of another millionaire congressman, Adelbert W. Antonino.

But in the forthcoming 2022 local elections, a different type of an epic electoral battle is looming in the political horizon of General Santos City. This time, it would no longer be a proverbial David-Goliath political duel, but a political battle between and among political titans; all nurture a passionate desire to trounce each other.

The whole nation and the world will soon witness a grand electoral collision between and among influential, powerful and moneyed electoral parties, namely, the Ronnel C. Rivera Movement (RCR-M) headed by incumbent three-termer City Mayor, Ronnel C. Rivera, the People’s Champ Movement (PCM) under the baton of Senator Manny Pacquiao; and the Achievement for Integrity Movement (AIM), under the auspices of former City Mayor and Congressman Adelbert W. Antonino.

What brings about the looming Battle of Political Titans?

This looming electoral battle in General Santos City is dubbed by many local political analysts as the Battle of Political Titans because, for the first time in the city’s rich electoral life, contestations for local political power will be waged by local political parties which are all repositories of tremendous wealth, power and influence.

This three-cornered fight is triggered when Senator Manny Pacquiao had, lately, decided to unceremoniously severe his political ties with incumbent City Mayor Ronnel Rivera, and to join forces with two known stalwarts of AIM, former Congressman Pedro Acharon, Jr. and Vice Mayor, Loreto “Tonton” Acharon.

Acharon, Jr. had served as city mayor of General Santos City for three terms and as a member of the House of Representatives, representing the then first district of General Santos City and South Cotabato, also for three terms. It should be noted that, General Santos City is now a single legislative district through the behest of then Congressman Acharon.

Let me state at this juncture that as far as the race for congressman is concerned, it may become a four-cornered fight when Herbert Demos, a popular labor and human rights activist in this city, will decide to run for Congress in order to test the integrity of the electoral system; to determine strength of the labor vote; and to highlight the society’s systemic ills that are often sidelined in previous electoral campaigns.

Mayor Rivera has not issued any public statement about the unceremonious fall-out by Senator Pacquiao from their political alliance which existed for almost a decade. But he was reportedly angered by it. He considers that unceremonious abandonment of the political alliance by Senator Pacquiao to be “grossly disrespectful.”

Accordingly, Mayor Rivera’s anger made him even more determined and committed to secure electoral victory for his party in the forthcoming 2022 local elections. But, of course, this is easier said than done. Surely, the prime movers in the PCM and in the AIM are also in that same state of mind.

Before the split, the RCR-M-PCM alliance had actually a very strong electoral slate, generally believed to be capable of ushering itself to complete victory in the 2022 local elections: incumbent first district Congresswoman Shirlyn Banas-Nograles, for reelection as Congresswoman of the lone district of General Santos City; Jane Rivera, wife of incumbent City Mayor Ronnel Rivera, for city mayor; and Barangay Captain Lorelie Pacquiao, sister-in-law of Senator Manny Pacquiao and wife of Congressman Bobby Pacquiao, for vice mayor. As an added premium, City Mayor Ronnel Rivera had agreed to act as their campaign manager. This is now water under the bridge.  

Right after he abandoned his political alliance with Mayor Rivera, Senator Manny Pacquiao readily put up his own electoral ticket in General Santos City, which is mainly composed of Vice Mayor Loreto “Tonton” Acharon for Congress; Barangay Captain Lorelie Pacquiao for City Mayor; and City Councilor Franklin Gacal, Jr. for Vice Mayor.

Also, the political split triggered a new electoral arrangement in the RCR-M. City Mayor Ronnel Rivera will now be running for Congress; Rep. Shirlyn Banas-Nograles will be bidding for City Mayor; while City Councilor Lita Nunez will be vying for the position of Vice Mayor. With all factors considered, this electoral ticket is, unarguably, very strong.

With former City Mayor and Rep. Pedro “Jun” Acharon, Jr. and Vice Mayor Tonton Acharon now under the umbrella of the PCM, the AIM even become more relentless in the pursuit of its own power agenda. It decided to also put up its own strong local electoral ticket; this time, without the Acharons.

The succeeding efforts of Jun Acharon to prod the AIM leadership to officially forge a political alliance with the PCM was to no avail, and had finally gone kaput. The AIM leadership, still composed of younger generation of leaders, has decided to maintain its political presence in the city as a prelude to a complete political comeback in the years to come.

If former Congresswoman and Mayor Darlene Magnolia Antonino-Custodio would again refuse to reenter the electoral arena in General Santos City, the AIM would be fielding her mother, former Rep. and former Chair of the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA), Luwalhati Antonino, as its candidate for Congress; with the owner/founder of the Brigada Group of Companies and Chairman of the General Santos City Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GSCCCI), Elmer Catulpos, as its candidate for city mayor; and with former mayoralty candidate, Jay Omila, as its candidate for vice mayor.

With the above political developments, the Battle of Political Titans is really bound to happen in the 2022 local elections. Let us discuss why it is dubbed by political analysts here as the “Battle of Political Titans (!)”.

AIM’s still strong and vibrant electoral machine

AIM ruled as a dominant party in General Santos City for more than 20 years. It has been able to maintain its vibrant electoral infrastructure and social base in the city, even after the combined forces of the Riveras and the Pacquiaos, with the aid of their “inexhaustible” campaign kitty, ousted Darlene Magnolia Antonino-Custodio from the position of City Mayor.

In fact, in the 2019 local elections, without holding rallies, AIM succeeded to secure the election of Tonton Acharon to the position of Vice Mayor and of four other candidates to the position of City Councilor in the city. Moreover, its electoral infrastructure and social base had delivered more than 85,000 votes to its candidate for City Mayor, Jay Omila, who was, then, a virtual unknown.

The founder of AIM, former Congressman and City Mayor, Adelbert W. Antonino, has been able to maintain and expand his economic empire even after the demise of his mother, former Senator Magnolia Wilburn Antonino. The Antonino Group of Companies, which includes the gigantic 17-storey building located at the center of Manila City, is now headed by former Congresswoman and Mayor Darlene Magnolia Antonino-Custodio, and it is still raking in a huge amount of money every fiscal year. Adel Antonino is still wielding great influence among the rich and the mighty thriving in the high pedestal of economic and political power in the country.

Thus, Adel Antonino, with his wife, former Congresswoman and former Chair of MinDA, remains capable of building a formidable electoral machine and of effectively running a well-oiled electoral campaign in General Santos City in the forthcoming local elections.

Moreover, AIM’s candidate for City Mayor, Elmer Catulpos, has a gigantic economic empire of his own. He is the founder-owner of the Brigada Radio and Brigada TV network which has established its various television channels and radio stations not only in General Santos city, but in the whole country, including Metro Manila. The Brigada TV-radio channel is number one in listenership in General Santos City and the whole of the SOCSKSARGEN area, following the closure of ABS-CBN-South Central Mindanao.

Recently, Elmer Catulpos is now hosting his own regular TV and radio program to beef up his popularity as a candidate for City Mayor in General Santos City.

In addition to these, Elmer Catulpos is also the founder-owner of Brigada News, a local tabloid, which is circulating not only in General Santos City, but the whole of Mindanao. It is the widely read local tabloid in General Santos City. It has strong following among the masses in the city because it uses simple Visayan dialect in its news, editorial and opinion pages.

Brigada has also expanded its business operation. It is now into pharmacy, department store and restaurant business, among others. It has already established its pharmacy and convenient store outlets in major economic centers in the whole country. The different lines of business of Brigada have already organized themselves into a business conglomerate known as the Brigada Group of Companies, which is now steadily expanding as a bullish business conglomerate in the country.

Moreover, AIM has a steady support of the powerful and influential General Santos City Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GSCCCI), following the commitment of its founder, Adel Antonino, not to put up any business enterprise which will compete against other local business enterprises in the city.

AIM is also being supported by the majority of the members of another influential and powerful business interest group, known as the Socsargen of Federation of Fishing and Allied Services, Inc. (SFFAII), an organization of different prime movers in the fishing industry in General Santos City. It is also serving as the host for the Annual National Tuna Congress (ANTC), with global fishing industry players as participants.

Thus, with the combined resources of Adel Antonino and Elmer Catulpos, there is no arguing that AIM is still a political force to reckon with in the 2022 elections.

The PCM’s “inexhaustible” financial warehouse

The electoral campaign arsenal of Senator Manny Pacquiao and its PCM cannot also be underestimated. He remains to be the second richest member of the Senate, next only to Senator Cynthia Villar, whose husband, former Senator Manny Villar is the country’s richest citizen. It was reported, however, that, while his net worth is high, Senator Manny Pacquiao’s cash position is steadily dwindling, with his businesses, allegedly, not in their healthy state of affairs.

Considering that his intangible assets do not earn as much as expected, the amount of taxes that Manny Pacquiao needs to pay annually is said to be taking a heavy toll on his liquid or cash resources. As of the present, Senator Pacquiao is still facing tax cases that involve an aggregate amount of a little less than P3 billion.

As of now, however, Senator Pacquiao appears to have an inexhaustible financial warehouse as indicated by his continual goods and cash distribution activities, not only in General Santos City and Sarangani Province, but also in many parts of the country. He is also reported to be engaged in welfare, scholarship, and housing programs using his personal monies.

Manny Pacquiao has also ready access to government logistics and resources as a Senator of the Republic. As a Senator, aside from his other perks, he is also entitled to, at the very least, P200 million amount of pork barrel every budget year. In fact, he is now involved in the implementation of programs and projects, which creates positive impacts on his politics.

Adding to the financial resources of the Pacquiaos are the pork barrel allocations of his brothers, namely: Congressmen Bobby Pacquiao and Ruel Pacquiao. Bobby Pacquiao, as a congressman representing the OFW Family Partylist, has a guaranteed pork barrel in the amount of, at least, P70 million per annum. On his part, Congressman Ruel Pacquiao, as deputy speaker in the HoR, is also entitled to a whopping amount of P700 million, in pork barrel, per budget year.

In fact, like Senator Pacquiao, since three months ago, Congressmen Ruel Pacquiao and Bobby Pacquiao has started to distribute, on an almost daily basis, relief goods, sometimes, comprising a sack of rice and pack of groceries for each and every individual, with an average number of 500 individuals per distribution activity. Their continual distribution activities cover not only the barangays in General Santos City, but also in Sarangani Province.

Additionally, if the boxing bout between Senator Manny Pacquiao and Lawrence Crawford will push through this coming June 2022 and the former is given a guaranteed earning of $40 million dollars – plus his share in the pay-per-view and the value of his consequential commercial endorsements – the Pacquiaos would surely have an enormous money to effectively run their respective electoral campaigns, provided, of course, that Manny Pacquiao would come out from that fight, still healthy and well.

Senator Manny Pacquiao has also his own radio station in General Santos City, called the Pacman Radio, which has its own throng of loyal listeners. It is also in this radio station where very popular announcers, like Anter Alcos and Jun Pulido, are connected.

The Riveras’ galactic economic empire

Finally, the electoral resources of City Mayor Ronnel Rivera and Congresswoman Shirlyn Banas-Nograles and the RCR-M cannot also be taken for granted.

On her own, Congresswoman Banas-Nograles is capable of raising at least P50 million for her campaign. Beefing up her personal resources, she is also entitled, as a member of the House of Representatives, to a pork barrel amounting to, at least, P70 million per budget year, which she now uses for projects and programs, which has a consequential impact on her bid for the position of City Mayor in General Santos City.

City Mayor Ronnel Rivera is supervising the disposal of more than a trillion-peso yearly budget of the city government. Part of this gigantic yearly budget is allocated for the allowances of at least 10,000 members of the barangay police and 12,000 members of the Barangay COVID-19 Control Force (BCCF). Mayor Rivera also earned the solid support of more than 4,000 regular and job-order employees in the city government because of the huge amount of year-end bonuses and allowances he extends to them from the city’s huge annual budget, year after year.

The big bulk of the city’s annual budget is also used for the city’s scholarship program and for hospitalization assistance for the poor which are now gaining accolades among the poor residents of the city. This money is also used, among others, for its continuing relief assistance operations since the pounding of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than all these, however, Mayor Rivera belongs to a vast family business conglomerate, known as the RD Group of Companies, which is regarded as one among the biggest business infrastructures in the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asian Growth Area or BIMP-EAGA.

The RD Group of Companies owns the second biggest fishing venture in the whole country with hundreds of state-of-the-art fishing vessels equipped with deep water radars, and mostly aided by helicopters which guide these fishing vessels to colonies of fishes. The RD fishing Ventures has business operations in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Papua New Guinea and Palau.

The RD Group of companies also operates a chain of giant fish canning factories in General Santos City, Pupua New Guinea, Brunei, Palau, Indonesia, Malaysia, and in some other countries. In fact, Rudy Rivera, the father of Mayor Ronnel Rivera, is serving as an Honorary Economic Ambassador of Brunei because he is the biggest investor in that country, owing to his various real estate, fishing and fish canning investments thereto.

The RD Group of Companies also exports its fresh, frozen and canned fish products to many countries in the world, like the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, the EU-member states, among others. It has also established local distribution outlets for its fresh, frozen, and canned fish products to cater to its domestic markets all throughout the county.

The conglomerate also owns chain of commercial buildings, hotels, resorts and restaurants in General Santos City, South Cotabato, Cebu City, Metro Manila and other parts of the country. It, in fact, it operates two hotels and resorts in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato, one located at the side of the lake and the other located in the lake’s center Island which it acquired recently. It has also a 37-storey building in front of the US Embassy in Manila.

The RD Group of Companies has also a chain of pharmacies, construction and fishing supply enterprises operating in General Santos City and in many localities in the country. It operates two fishing ports, various ice-plants in General Santos City and a big shipyard, engaged in shipbuilding business, in Sarangani Province. It also operates two hospitals in the city, and is intending to build a giant mall which is as big as Gaisano and SM, also in General Santos City.

The conglomerate has its own bank with branches in major economic centers in the country, and chain of pawnshops situated in almost all nooks and crannies in the whole country. This chain of pawnshops serves as a lending institution, a bill payment center and, also, as a “pera padala” network.

Moreover, City Mayor Ronnel Rivera is said to be capable of raising; at the very least, P500 million pesos from the thousands of suppliers of the RD Group of Companies and from its various business partners.

By itself alone, the RD Group of companies can deliver command votes of, at least, 30,000 for the candidates of the RCR-M.

Indeed, the 2022 local elections in General Santos City is one that the whole nation and the world must see. This is a must-watch election in 2022. When political titans collide, the effects could be volcanic, just like in the movies.

This election, however, would not surely be a case of “Ubusan ng lahi (!)” as the electoral tradition in General Santos City has never bordered on violence. But, believe me when I tell you that, based on the contexts through which it is birthed, the 2022 local election in General Santos City will surely be a case of “Ubusan nga Pera (!).”

Ang matira, ang matibay.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Ben Sumog-oy is the Action Officer of the In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement , General Santos City Chapter (IDEFEND-GenSan), Volunteer Head of the Para-legal Unit of the Sentro ng mga Progresibo at Nagkakaisang Manggagawa-SOCSKSARGEN (Sentro-SOCSKSARGEN) and of the Local Mass Struggle (LMS) Unit of Akbayan-GenSan]

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