Will Noynoy bag the Bicol vote?

If there is a best word to describe the way politics and elections is handled in the Philippines, it would be “tantiya”. The reasons include the facts that Filipino politics is personality-based, and statistics seem to be an alien subject even among political analysts. This is undeniable because even the Commission on Elections, the supposedly repository of electoral data, would dispose of the hardcopies of documents such as the election results every after five years. Hence, a student of politics will find it hard to lower his/her analysis down to at least the city or municipal level.

Another reason is that the Philippines lack published election studies and literature. Hence, researchers always have to start from scratch and “re-invent the wheel” unlike in “politically mature” countries where students and contemporary researchers have a prior study or studies to build on their assumptions and hypotheses.

To avoid the agony being experienced by the contemporary researchers, I am posting herein an article I wrote for select audience mainly from my former institute, the Institute for Popular Democracy, and campaign strategists of a national political party. The article was written last September 2009 and, hopefully, will be of use to those interested in understanding Bicolano politics.


Prepared By: Jay A. Carizo
Institute for Popular Democracy

If the presidential elections will be held today, Noynoy Aquino might score in a far second battling neck to neck with Senator Manny Villar in the Bicol Region. The reasons: (1) The Chiz Escudero factor, (2) the influence of the Leftist ideologies and the Hacienda Luisita issue, and (3) the failure of the LP to maintain its relations with the vote gatekeepers in Region V. This, despite the Cory Magic, which is expected to boost Noynoy’s presidential bid.

Even then, there are openings that Noynoy can use and maximize: The changing behavior of the politicians in the region and the changing vote intentions of the Bicolanos. These openings are what Presidential son, Datu Arroyo used to win the Congressional elections in Camarines Sur despite the claims that Bicolano vote is an opposition vote and that Bicolanos only support Bicolano candidates.

Describing the Bicol Vote

The Bicol Region is composed of six provinces namely: Albay, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Catanduanes, Masbate and Sorsogon. For 2009, it has 2.8 million registered voters more than half of which are from Albay (24.47%) and Camarines Sur (32.22%).

For a long time, the voters of the region have been known: (1) for voting for opposition or non-administration candidates, (2) for voting as a block, and (3) for delivering the votes mostly to fellow Bicolanos. These became the trademark of the Bicolano voters especially during the later half of the Marcos Administration to the period when a Bicolano named Raul Roco started vying for the presidency.

Indeed, despite the Martial Rule, Bicolanos defied the strongman Ferdinand Marcos by voting for candidates known to be anti-administration giving rise to the group of politicians known as the “Bicol Bloc” and the famous “Apat na Agila kan Camarines Sur” (Four Eagles of Camarines Sur) in the late 70’s and 80’s. In 1992, the same behavior made presidential aspirant Jovito Salonga the winner in the Bicol Region despite the odds of money and machine posed by his fellow contenders. Bicol also delivered a large share of votes for the failed bids of Raul Roco defying the odds of popularity of Joseph Estrada and Fernando Poe Jr., in the 1998 and 2004, elections, respectively; and the incumbency advantage as well as machine of sitting President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

The Bicol vote is usually mistaken as a factor of regionalism or ethnicity. The fact, however, is that it is primarily a product of government’s neglect to deliver the necessary social and economic services needed by the Bicolanos.

It should be noted that national as well as international interest in the region declined when abaca (Musa textilis) or popularly known as Manila hemp lost its relevance.2 The hemp, which was an industry in the region and earlier prized by Spaniards and Americans for twine and rope-making, was replaced by nylon and thus became obsolete. The Philippine Government did nothing, not even an assistance to those who were adversely affected. This, despite the fact the greatest beneficiaries of the abaca industry are the central government and select national officials who directly benefited from export of abaca and abaca products. The result, the lessening of trust to the national government.

Second, the region is also situated in a geographical location that is prone to typhoons and other calamities including volcanic eruption. As earlier infrastructure and other projects were exposed to, and usually destroyed by, these calamities, the national government would later place the region as a least priority in terms of budget allocation to “avoid the wastage of resources”. The same is true when it comes to the delivery of social and other services. The result, Bicolanos are forced to fend for their own survival. In the political context, this resulted to a culture of being independent from national patrons though a bit reliant on local ones. This eventually became the basis of the claims that Bicolano voters support Bicolano candidates.

The neglect as well as lesser prioritization of the region also provided a breeding ground for Leftist ideologies mostly from the national democratic tradition. For this, Bicol has been tagged once as a haven of Left extremists particularly of the New People’s Army. The presence of these groups influenced the Bicolanos to be critical and be always wary of the national government. This strengthened the behavior of the Bicolanos as oppositionists.

But just like Barack Obama’s battle cry that rocked the American vote, the Bicolano voting behavior also evolved as more and more clamored for change. As a result, when political stalwart Luis Villafuerte made “surumpay na tubo” as his battle cry in the 1980 elections, many responded and voted for the candidates affiliated with the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan of Marcos. “Surumpay na tubo” literally means “pipes connected with each other” and when taken in the context of politics refers to the idea of bringing the largesse from Malacanang to the Bicolanos through the President’s allies. But since this did not happen despite the overwhelming support of the Bicolanos for the Marcos ticket, all pro-Marcos candidates lost in the succeeding elections leading to the veneration of the Bicol Bloc, a group of Bicolano legislators during the Batasang Pambansa and the immediately preceding post-Marcos Congresses; and, the “Apat na Agila of Camarines Sur” composed of Rolando Andaya, Felix Alfelor, Edmundo Cea, and Luis Villafuerte. Villafuerte turned coat when Marcos favored another stalwart, Arnulfo Fuentebella, in his stead. Both the Bloc and the “Agilas” became the staunchest became the staunchest critic of the Administration representing the sentiments of the Bicolanos.

As history repeats itself, Bicol continued to be neglected after Marcos leading Villafuerte to revive the idea of “surumpay na tubo” on the 2007 elections. The result: the election of almost all candidates affiliated with President Gloria Arroyo especially her son, Datu, as Congressman of the First District of Camarines Sur; her economic adviser, Joey Salceda as Governor of Albay; Luis Villafuerte, the chairman of Arroyo’s political party, KAMPI, as Congressman of the Second District of Camarines Sur; and Edcel Lagman, the Secretary General of KAMPI as Congressman of the First District of Albay. Ironically, Villafuerte again left the President’s political party and resigned. Similarly, other political stalwarts in the region started either shying away from Malacanang or pronouncing statements that opens the door to the opposition. Example is Salceda who even called Arroyo as a “Lucky Bitch”.

Gains and Cleavages for Reforms

The change in the Bicolano voting behavior (as well as mental shift) opened up spaces and produced cleavages for reform albeit lacking the important variables such as direction and leadership. The congressional battle between presidential son Datu Arroyo and San Fernando Mayor Sabas Mabulo, for instance, revealed that many Bicolanos are tired of poverty and wanted some change to happen in their lives. The main difference is that the Arroyo voters want it the fast and easy way through the idea of “surumpay na tubo” while that of Mabulo wants it certain, albeit gradual using the model provided by Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo. Robredo was able to attain the reforms after more than a decade of social and institutional preparations.

The clamor for change is consistent and clear indications include the fall of the Imperials in Albay and the Espinosas in Masbate. The Imperials are one of the oldest and once the most powerful political clan in the region. In 2007, its patriarch, Carlos Imperial, lost by 10,000 votes to Al Francis Bichara, an emerging political clan in the province while Michael Imperial, the nephew, bowed down for the third consecutive time to Noel Rosal, the City Mayor of Legazpi. The Espinosas, too, are major political clan in Masbate who lost their significance after decades of ruling the province without contributing significant economic development according to some claims. The patriarch, Emilio Espinosa Jr., bowed to Olga Kho, in the gubernatorial bid while Ma. Lourdes Espinosa lost to Olga Kho’s husband, Antonio, in the Congressional battle for Masbate’s Second District. Like Rosal, the Khos are an upstart political family in Masbate.

Generally, the Region’s vote keepers may be the same but the entry of politicians who are non-clan members signal that the Bicol vote is also open to the idea of enabling newer entrants to win. Examples are: Brando Sael who defeated a member of the Estevez Clan in the vice gubernatorial fight for Albay; Liwayway Chato who defeated the Unicos of Camarines Norte in the congressional elections; and Joseph Cua who beat a scion of the Verceles Clan in Catanduanes. The problem, the choices are limited and new political entrants are only a few.

Another cleavage provided by the changing behavior is the increasing role and significance of the civil society and reform-oriented groups. The Arroyo-Mabulo fight clearly shows a fight between political machine and reform-oriented groups. In an alliance, the Andayas, Villafuertes and Alfelors lent their machines to Datu Arroyo. Coupled with money, the machine-dependent campaign won but the Mabulo campaign showed that the civil society and reform-oriented groups are already gaining ground in the Region’s electoral politics. There are even claims that if the members of these groups are voters in Camarines Sur’s First District, Arroyo might have lost his bid.

In addition, there are also gains that are not directly created by the voters but by the politicians themselves. This included the space opened in the local media and the cracks caused by the internal dynamics among and between clan members and allies.

In the provinces, the local media are usually controlled by the politicians. However, with the arrest of broadcaster Ariel Ayque for rape and the still unresolved murder of journalist, Rowell Endrinal, media practitioners are now thinking that politicians do not make good allies. In the end, when the interests of the media and the politicians collide, the two need to part ways. Ayque was allegedly left on his own by his politician-benefactor while Endrinal was killed for his advocacies against jueteng which, allegedly, was then managed by select politicians who were his friends. From time to time, this opening are being utilized, but not maximized, by reform-oriented groups.

The internal dynamics among and between clan members and political allies also create cracks that can be used as political spaces. The never-ending saga of Luis and his son, L-Ray, not only stirred questions among the voters on realpolitik but also created division in the clan’s political machine. Supporters are now divided between the father and the son and this may provide a gap that can be used for political maneuvering or filled-up by civil society groups for their reform advocacies. The same is true with the Andaya-Alfelor-Villafuerte Alliance which is now causing a big issue as Luis Villafuerte resigned from KAMPI and that Nonoy Andaya, the Secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, is planning to go back to his District (now occupied by the President’s son). This being so, Datu Arroyo’s political career is in limbo unless the original agreement – that Andaya will run for Governor and Alfelor for Vice Governor – will be followed. The problem, Alfelor already declared his intention to run for Governor and so is Villafuerte’s son, L-Ray; and that the proposed separate district for Arroyo did not materialize.

Noynoy vs. Chiz and the Cory Magic

In addition to the variables mentioned, another major factor that affects the possibility of Noynoy Aquino bagging the Bicol vote is Chiz Escudero, a native of Sorsogon Province. Local leaders are clamoring for Escudero to run and continue the dream of Roco for a Bicolano President. Businessmen and politicians from the region also pledged to support while political stalwarts like Villafuerte and Salceda made moves that can be interpreted as paving the way for supporting their fellow Bicolano.

The statement of support for Escudero is clearly shown in the result of the 2007 Senatorial Elections where he ranked first garnering 54% of the total votes cast. Aquino, meanwhile, ranked 9th with only 34% of the total votes cast. In-between is Manny Villar, another presidential contender for the 2010 elections, ranking 5th and garnering 38%.

It can be argued, though, that the “Cory Magic” is not yet factored in the results. But while this is true, the question as to whether the “Cory Magic” really applies in the Bicol Region remains debatable. Arguments negating the Cory Magic, though, are many. First, no major movements occurred in the region during EDSA I. Instead, what resulted was confusion as local officials only made a rigodon in the local posts. Second, the Cory Administration made no significant change in the lives of people of the region despite the appointment of Bicolanos in Cabinet positions. These include Joker Arroyo who was then the Executive Secretary. Region V remained in the low priority list thus stirring other Bicolanos like Gregorio Honasan to stage coup attempts. The Bicolanos even affirmed Honasan’s actions by delivering large share of votes in the latter’s bids for the Senate. In 2007, Honasan even edged Noynoy by almost 3% or an equivalent of almost 50 thousand votes.

The influence of the Left can also be factored in the arguments against the presence of the Cory Magic. As stated earlier, the Region has been noted to be heavily influenced by Left groups most of whom come from the ND tradition. High ranking members of ND groups like Bayan Muna and Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas are said to be dominated by Bicolanos and among the questions that they raise to stir the consciousness of the public is the sincerity of the Aquinos to institute reforms. For example, when Noynoy announced of the Aquinos are giving up on Hacienda Luisita, Willy Marbella, national officer of KMP, was among the first persons to issue a statement questioning the motive of Cory’s son. His allegations, Noynoy is just playing politics to win the presidential race. And this is gaining ground in the Region which is dominated by farmers and farm-workers. Hence, the continuing questions on the presence and impact of a Cory Magic.

Hopes and Ropes to Tie Loose Ends

In the article “Debunking the Myths of the Bicol Vote through the Lens of the 2004 Elections”, it was shown that the Bicol Vote is a thinking vote. It relies on platform, track record, endorsements and meeting the candidates which provide information cues. The vote is also not exclusive to Bicolano candidates but can also be given to those who know “how to deliver.” Chiz Escudero’s father, for instance, was at the bottom of the Bicol’s list of senatorial candidates because he did not deliver during his stint as a Secretary of Agriculture and as a Congressman of Sorsogon. The same with Lagman who also lost in a 1998 senatorial attempt because not all of the Bicolanos supported him. In simple terms, if Noynoy can prove his worth among the Bicolanos, there is a strong possibility that he can bag the Bicol vote in the 2010 presidential race. This is especially true now that some Sorsoganons are starting to compare Chiz and Villar in terms of projects delivered both personal and government-funded. Reports have it that Villar is distributing house and lots to select Bicolanos and he is also sponsoring a number of barangay-related projects including the uniforms of barangay tanods and health workers.

Concretely, Noynoy can do the following:

  1. If possible, convince Chiz as his running mate or at least Chiz’s endorsement if the latter is not running. The Bicolano senator has a large and almost solid following in the region which includes local leaders and businessmen who finances political campaigns.
  2. Maximize the spaces opened by the changing behavior of both the voters and politicians. This include getting the support of reform-oriented groups, civil society organizations, and media practitioners.
  3. Concentrate efforts on Albay and Camarines Sur. These are the large vote pockets that decide the Bicol vote. These provinces are also the centers of media outfits and the concentration of reform-oriented groups.
  4. Walk the talk – that is, lay down the ground for reform. This may include opening the avenues for the discussion of Hacienda Luisita thus debunking the notions of the KMP; and, initiating track records that could be used as bases for the 2010 campaigns.
  5. Revive the LP in the region. A number of LP members got lost with the division of the party into Atienza and Drilon wings. Most of these are still willing to go back to the party but are just shy to start the talks. The Alfelors, for instance, are among those that will be having political party problems especially if the Comelec will rule on the illegality of the merger of Lakas-NUCD and KAMPI. Historically, membership in the LP has been a family tradition only that this was broken due to the instigation of Luis Villafuerte for a grand alliance in the 2007 elections.
  6. Lastly, Noynoy needs a thorough political mapping of the region. This can facilitate the identification of reform-oriented groups, possible media outfits, and former LP members who can be tapped for help in the campaign. The mapping can also help identify second level vote keepers who really call the shots (and make significant impacts) during the election day and counting period. This is the secret of Joey Salceda why he got an overwhelming vote for his gubernatorial bid compared with the owners of the machines he borrowed.

1 September 19, 2009.

2Norman G. Owen, “Abaca in Kabikolan: Prosperity Without Progress”, in The Bikol Blend, Quezon City: New Day, 1999.


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