Imagine Aquilino ‘Koko’ Pimentel III in your face with charismaBy Cathy C. Yamsuan |Philippine Daily Inquirer
Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III has given a new meaning to his initials KP.
It now stands for “Kalaban ng Pandaraya” (Fraud Crusader), a moniker for his campaign against all forms of fraud that apparently stems from his bitter struggle to claim his Senate seat.
Pimentel unfurled before the Inquirer two strips of paper, each more than a meter long, which he said contained a list of complaints aired by ordinary Filipinos about the abuses they suffered.
The grievances were gathered at the start of the senatorial campaign, when Pimentel’s staff blasted messages on social networking sites asking people about the forms of “pandaraya” (cheating or fraud) they have to put up with that they wish to be addressed, if not stopped.
The reelectionist senator said the replies were a gold mine for future legislative bills.
From mundane concerns like fast taxi meters to years-old unsolved murder cases, the stories also gave him an idea for the “a.k.a.” “Kalaban ng Pandaraya.”
Pimentel ran for senator in 2007 under the Genuine Opposition backed by former President Joseph Estrada. He recalled “being feted like a rock star” along with other candidates running against the midterm Senate slate put up by the scandal-ridden administration of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Malacañang-backed Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri of Lakas was eventually declared the 12th placer, raising objections from Pimentel’s camp.
Both camps traded cheating accusations until Zubiri stepped down after consuming more than half of what was supposed to be Pimentel’s first term in the chamber. The Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET) declared Pimentel the real 12th placer in the 2007 senatorial race.
But before the SET could set things straight in August 2011, Zubiri delivered a dramatic privilege speech saying he was resigning out of “delicadeza.”
Pimentel said he knew early on that he was being targeted for cheating.
“When the Maguindanao provincial canvass came in, it was so noticeable because the numbers were really statistically [improbable],” he told the Inquirer in an interview by the poolside of Club Filipino.
“Voters in Maguindanao were 204,000. They said 197,000 voted. That was already impossible! And Migz was topnotcher, getting more than 195,000 votes? Were they saying that only around 2,000 voters did not go to the precincts out of the 197,000?” Pimentel asked, his voice rising a few decibels.
“Logic tells you that in one of the poorest provinces in the country with transportation problems, there was a turnout of 98 percent and Migz Zubiri gets 98 percent of those who voted? That lacks common sense,” he said in Filipino.
Pimentel insisted that Zubiri was aware of the effort to cheat at that time.
“He provided the legal defense [for the canvassers] at the provincial level. And at the national canvassing, even when the case was elevated to the Supreme Court, he was there to provide defense (dinepensahan niya),” he said.
The senator recalled Zubiri saying he visited Maguindanao thrice during the 2007 campaign period and insisting on the “real and true” results during media interviews that time.
When Pimentel sat as chair of the Senate electoral reform committee, he ran into a witness who confessed that before the 2007 polls, he delivered election paraphernalia to a Bukidnon warehouse reportedly owned by the Zubiris.
The testimony was aired live on national television, prompting Zubiri to rush to Pimentel’s hearing to deny the charge. Pimentel acknowledged Zubiri by describing him as “the former congressman from Bukidnon.”
Observers note, however, that Pimentel is still having a hard time moving on from the Zubiri episode.
He may not mention Zubiri’s name during his campaign speeches but many of his remarks onstage were obviously harvested from that experience.
Warning put to music
Take his “remake” of John Lennon’s signature song “Imagine.” Pimentel changed the lyrics into a musical warning against the dangers of poll fraud.
When the senator met the Inquirer editors on Tuesday night, Pimentel was asked to sing and he happily obliged.
“Imagine there’s no cheating
It isn’t hard to do
No cheating in elections
And no ‘Dagdag-bawas’ (Vote-padding and vote-shaving) too
Imagine all our leaders
Imagine there’s no cheating
Seeing what it can do
Our country is progressing
And all Filipinos, too
Imagine all the people
Living happily… hoohoohoohoohoo
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope on election day you’ll join us
Team PNoy sa ‘Tuwid na daan’ (Straight Path).”
“I never mention his name in my campaign but [Zubiri] said I started our word war, but I never did. That means he really wanted to start a word war. Even his reason for attacking me is wrong,” Pimentel said.
The senator noted that shortly after he began singing the song in sorties, Zubiri complained that Pimentel was unjustly picking on him.
In apparent retaliation, Zubiri accused Pimentel of “wife beating” on live television.
Initially, Zubiri said he and wife Audrey heard it personally from Pimentel’s estranged wife, the former Jewel Lobaton, whom Zubiri said is a close relative.
But after Lobaton issued a public denial, Zubiri said he “merely quoted her statement that she was a battered wife,” adding in a press release that spousal abuse could also mean “psychological, mental or verbal” transgressions.
“Pinagpipilitan n’ya na sinabihan s’ya (Zubiri is insisting that Lobaton told him so) but the person he is quoting denied him,” Pimentel said at dinner.
Single parent role
Pimentel’s new personal struggle is learning his new role as a single parent. The former couple agreed to share time with their two sons, aged 8 and 3.
At the Club Filipino poolside, Pimentel patiently explained to his elder son that his younger brother could not join him for a swim because Papa won’t be able to look after them personally.
His marital trouble spurred a question at dinner. Would Pimentel favor divorce?
“I am against divorce. My separation is de facto. I have not even [filed for annulment]. If we have divorce in the Philippines, I would have taken advantage of divorce,” he said.
Pimentel showed his “drop-down” lists of citizens’ complaints before Inquirer editors.
His Facebook query about which kinds of cheating people want to address got more than 900 responses while the one on Twitter received more than 300.
All unique and specific responses earned a line or two on the list.
“These grievances about poverty, lack of jobs… Some are also very specific about consumer issues. The bottom line is this—all forms of cheating and fraud are all about injustice,” he said.
Pimentel, so far the highest ranking public official to claim his position post-protest, has inadvertently lent his face to victims of injustice.
“When I became a senator, people would approach me and tell their stories. ‘Mr. Senator, we are victims of a scam…’ I realized there are so many forms of injustice,” he noted.
Months after his belated entry into the Senate rolls, Pimentel was elected president of PDP-Laban, the party that his father, Aquilino Jr., and Vice President Jejomar Binay nurtured through several administrations.
Hence, it was difficult for many kibitzers to reconcile the decision of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), where Binay is a stalwart, to accept Zubiri as a Senate bet.
Zubiri did not talk to Binay directly but to another UNA stalwart, former President Joseph Estrada, who later decided to adopt Zubiri as a candidate despite the congressman’s association with Arroyo.
Estrada even chastised Pimentel in public, telling the senator he has to “learn to forgive” as the ex-President has done to many of his political opponents.
Not with Migz
“I had an inkling that Migz was talking to the UNA. So when UNA’s Big Three (Binay, Estrada and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile) had a meeting, I personally told them I had an issue with Migz. I cannot run with him. In fairness to them, it was not a secret that I learned belatedly,” Pimentel said.
“When the decision came out that [the UNA] would accommodate the two of us, I reiterated that I cannot run with [Zubiri]. In fairness to them, they did not say they were choosing Migz over me. They said, ‘We will accommodate the two of you,’ and it was an arrangement not acceptable to me,” he added.
It doesn’t bother Pimentel that he does not have the same charm as Binay, Estrada or President Aquino.
Told that what he has is a certain bluntness, an in-your-face quality that puts off people, Pimentel blamed it on his stint as a professor.
“If charisma is a special circumstance of a person, then not everyone is born with it. Even the 12 candidates who will win [in May] would not all have charisma. Otherwise, it is not special anymore. Maybe two or three would have it but the rest won’t,” he explained.
Rather than developing charisma, Pimentel said he would be better off “improving the quality of life of Filipinos.”
President Aquino’s “Tuwid na daan” philosophy is taking root, he observed, but the struggle to make things better “will never end.”
“We are headed toward the proper direction but we also admit that the road is not yet perfect. There are small pebbles and imperfections, bumps and holes like those small, daily injustices suffered by the common man,” Pimentel pointed out.