Redemption or rejection?
Whether former Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri admits it or not, the outcome of the May 13 senatorial elections might prove crucial to his political survival.
A win would give him a fresh mandate, essentially closing that bitter chapter of his political career 18 months ago when fresh evidence of cheating surfaced and forced him to quit the Senate. A loss could validate an accusation by Zubiri’s nemesis, Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, that he’s a cheat.
But Zubiri, 43, who is running with the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), rejects the allegation. Winning, he said, would mean voters appreciate his track record and trust him to deliver on his promises. Defeat would simply mean that they trust other senatorial candidates more.
Whatever the case, he said he was campaigning with a clear conscience and wouldn’t lose sleep over a defeat.
“Win or lose, me and my wife, we’re gonna make baby No. 3,” he said, turning to his wife, Audrey, who was seated beside him during a visit at the Inquirer.
“I have a very young family. For me, politics is not an and/or game … It’s just a job that I have to do well. It’s not my life or the reason why I live.”
For someone who insists that family comes first, values like honesty and integrity count most, especially if the accusation is grave: The man of the house had allegedly cheated, depriving another man his due and quitting only when getting caught was inevitable.
Call him ‘gay,’ never a cheat
Such apparently is the narrative that plays out in Pimentel’s own Senate campaign in the administration ticket. Zubiri said his colleague was targeting “sympathy votes.” So bitter is Pimentel over the cheating episode that he quit UNA and jumped over to the other side. He said he couldn’t bear sharing the stage with Zubiri during the campaign.
Pimentel once told the Inquirer that Zubiri shouldn’t be referred to as a former “senator.” He never was in Pimentel’s book. Period.
Zubiri said he had no problem with that. Call him a former representative instead and that would be cool. Call him “gay” even, a rumor that purportedly began after he broke up with singer-actress Vina Morales. But never label him a cheat.
“That’s worse than below the belt,” he said. “It destroys your integrity and dignity as a person. That’s completely false, and people who know me know I’m a decent person.”
Against the advice of family friends and political allies, he said he decided to step down in August 2011 out of delicadeza (propriety). He knew, too, that if he stayed a minute longer, the allegation would hound him in the senatorial race two years later.
That “selfless” act, as Zubiri calls it, allowed Pimentel to serve less than two years of what should have been a six-year term. Pimentel sees it the other way: He was deprived of his four years in the Senate.
Zubiri claims both he and Pimentel were victims of massive cheating in Maguindanao during the 2007 senatorial election.
“It’s what I did to rectify the situation, and I think that should be the main point of the discussion,” he argued. “That was the most difficult political decision I have made in my life, but that was also the proudest moment in my life.”
No sitting politician in recent memory had ever done what he did. The natural option was to hold onto the post and wait till the poll protest dragged on until the next election and became moot.
Zubiri makes sure voters are reminded of this each time he climbs the campaign stage. Here was a man who said he didn’t “want to go to Church having to bow my head and be embarrassed to look into people’s eyes.”
By doing the unexpected in 2011, Zubiri feels he has kept his values intact.
“The legitimacy question is a very heavy accusation,” he said. “All the good work that you’ve done, all the records that show I passed so many laws, that I had a perfect attendance, that I helped so many people, that I had almost a thousand projects—all that is completely erased with one cloud of doubt in one’s mind that you shouldn’t be there in the first place.”
Zubiri downplayed the impact of the 2007 poll fraud issue in the current campaign, even if both he and Pimentel continue to raise the matter, albeit from two entirely different perspectives.
‘Let me try again’
The theme of Zubiri’s campaign is “second chances.” His campaign jingle is “Migz Mo,” taken from 6 Cyclemind’s “Trip.” But he occasionally sings Frank Sinatra’s “Let Me Try Again” during sorties after explaining his version of the election fraud story.
Between Pimentel and Zubiri, the latter seems visibly more at peace with the outcome of the election protest between them. While Pimentel is often combative and aggressive, Zubiri is more calm and reconciliatory, perhaps because he is seen as the one who had done the other person wrong.
Peace of mind is also a function of faith for Zubiri, a Marian devotee. “Insha’Allah” (God willing), he said he’d get a second tour of duty at the Senate. His prayer comes with the promise that “I’ll be a better public servant than I was before.”
But Divine Providence is not to be abandoned by actual work.
Socialized health program
“I’m banking on my track record and my platform of government to help me win this campaign,” said Zubiri, who boasts of having registered a perfect attendance since joining the House of Representatives in 1998 and later the Senate.
Zubiri promises to push for a nationwide “socialized health program,” where the poor would not have to worry about hospital bills and medicine. He claims to have done it in his home province of Bukidnon, and is confident it could be replicated around the country.