With less than a month before the election campaign period for local candidates officially begins on March 29, the gubernatorial race in vote-rich Pangasinan has become the most anticipated event this summer.
The contest is between Gov. Amado Espino Jr., who is seeking his third and last term under the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), and Alaminos City Mayor Hernani Braganza of the Liberal Party (LP).
Activities of both camps began a few days after the deadline for the filing of certificates of candidacy in October.
Braganza and his running mate, former Philippine National Police chief, Arturo Lomibao, have been going around the province conducting “peace and development” consultations.
Espino and his running mate, Vice Gov. Jose Ferdinand Calimlim, have continued their promotion of “Baruy Pangasinan,” a cultural-tourism caravan launched in 2011, in different schools of the province.
Political analysts say that for a province with 1.6 million voters scattered in 44 towns and four cities, a candidate’s political machinery and track record would be very crucial to win the race.
Records of the Commission on Elections show that NPC has fielded 43 mayoral candidates, with 28 of them running for reelection. In contrast, LP only has 29 mayoral candidates, three of them seeking reelection.
These figures simply indicate that NPC is better organized and has a well-oiled machinery in the province.
Prospero de Vera, a Pangasinense and director of the University of the Philippines’ National College of Public Administration and Governance, says the LP infrastructure in Pangasinan is “very weak and even nonexistent in many areas.”
“They don’t even have a [candidate for] mayor of note in the fifth and sixth districts. In the third district, the strong mayors are all in Espino’s corner. The NPC’s sway over the fifth and sixth districts is overwhelming,” says De Vera.
Adding to LP’s woes was Board Member Ranjit Shahani’s public announcement in October that he was supporting Espino. Shahani is an LP stalwart and Braganza’s cousin.
Then in January, former Gov. Victor Agbayani, LP provincial chair, resigned as Braganza’s campaign manager, saying in a news release that he was giving Braganza a free hand in running his own campaign.
Local radio commentators viewed Agbayani’s backing out as a “serious shakedown in the party’s local campaign, revealing as it does, and differences in leadership.”
But Agbayani later clarified that he remains solidly supportive of Braganza’s candidacy.
Dr. Perla Legaspi, former director of UP Center for Local and Regional Governance and later vice chancellor of UP Diliman, says a factor that could make a candidate win is performance.
Legaspi says voters usually go for someone “who performed well, someone who’s been tested.”
“People speak highly of Governor Espino because he is really a performing governor. He has done many things that were usually ignored by other governors,” says Legaspi, now program chair at the Lyceum Northwestern University graduate school in Dagupan City.
For instance, she says, Espino improved health services in the province, enhanced agricultural production and strongly promoted the province’s cultural development program.
“These are areas that were not seen by previous governors because they were too focused on infrastructure [projects], instead of services,” Legaspi says.
As a result, she says, Pangasinan has won many awards in local governance, including the most-coveted “Gawad Pamana ng Lahi” regional award from the Department of the Interior and Local Government.
“Can we say that of Mayor Braganza? Maybe, we should also look at his performance as mayor of Alaminos City,” Legaspi says.
But the mad dash for Espino and Braganza to get their names written on the ballot on May 13 has turned ugly.
In December, an LP member-mayor charged Espino with plunder in the Ombudsman. Last month, the National Bureau of Investigation filed murder charges against Espino and his close ally, Pangasinan Rep. Jesus Celeste.
Braganza also had his taste of plunder charges in January when a group of Alaminos City village chiefs filed a complaint in the Ombudsman.
Both camps denied the charges, saying these were “politically motivated.”
To Legaspi, the accusations against Espino were an attack to his moral ascendancy. “Obviously, they did not attack him on his performance as governor because he really performed well,” she says.
“But why are these issues cropping up only now? Why didn’t they come out before? It’s the timing that’s put into question here,” Legaspi says.
De Vera says the charges against Espino may have come “a little too late.”
“People [and local politicians] are still waiting with bated breath on what happens with these cases filed against [Governor] Espino. If the cases do not get traction, then the Espino camp’s assertion that this is just political harassment will be believable and will boomerang against the LP leaders in the province,” De Vera says.
Despite the charges against Espino, he is still the stronger gubernatorial contender, Legaspi says. “Governor Espino’s good performance seems to prevail [among the voters]. Besides, Governor Espino is already tested,” she says.
De Vera says being an incumbent is an advantage for Espino. “I don’t know where Nani (Braganza’s nickname) can mobilize the same level of resources as Espino’s,” he says.
With barely three weeks into the campaign homestretch, Braganza can only bank now on the support of the LP national hierarchy, including President Aquino.
Legaspi says that a presidential endorsement will help but it will not guarantee victory. “It’s because in our country, politics is still person-based. We look at politicians as they are and not as LP or NPC candidates,” she says.
She says a presidential endorsement will benefit more the senatorial candidates than local candidates.