DAGUPAN CITY—The joke going around this coastal city is that sari-sari stores will sprout like mushrooms after the May 13 elections because of the expected flood of grocery items that will come from the camps of its mayoral candidates, who both own shopping malls and supermarkets.
But the mood turns serious when one realizes that as Election Day draws closer, the face-off between reelectionist Mayor Benjamin Lim, who is running under the Nacionalista Party, and Vice Mayor Belen Fernandez, a Liberal Party candidate, has become more intense and impassioned.
Lim’s family owns the Magic Group of Companies, which operates malls and supermarkets in Dagupan and in neighboring provinces, while Fernandez owns the CSI Group of Companies, which also operates a chain of malls and supermarkets here and in northern Luzon.
Good and evil
“This is a fight between good and evil,” said Fernandez. “You have all seen his performance when he came back as mayor. The city government’s fund is still not properly managed.”
Lim first served as mayor in 2001 and was reelected in 2004. In 2007, he ran and lost for representative against then Speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. In 2010, he beat then reelectionist Mayor Alipio Fernandez Jr.
Vice Mayor Fernandez, on the other hand, has served as vice mayor for two terms. She was first elected councilor in 1995.
“This fight is also between who can really help the city and who will do what is right, and somebody who cannot,” Fernandez said.
Lim, however, saw the coming mayoral race as “a fight against an untested politician.”
“I’m fighting against… a business competitor. The difference probably this time is that in the several battles I have fought, I have yet to see somebody who has bad-mouthed me as viciously as this one,” Lim said.
Among the many irregularities, Fernandez said, the most glaring was the city government’s purchase of a property in Barangay Awai in San Jacinto town for P16 million that the city government eventually did not get to own. The property was supposed to be the site of a sanitary landfill project for Dagupan.
But Lim said the criticism and bad publicity he had been receiving for his programs and projects were but demolition jobs against him.
“I think if an opponent, just like what I have now, has nothing more to offer, she tries to destroy the man she would like to challenge,” he said.
“So when you talk about irregularity, it connotes that you are pocketing money, or you are corrupt, or you are benefiting personally from transactions that this government is entering into. Yes, they have filed cases against me but we have yet to see the outcome of these cases,” he said.
Fernandez said she is banking on her track record and the people’s trust. She also said she has the support of known political figures in the city, such as former Speaker De Venecia and former Mayor Fernandez.
She said she has initiated livelihood programs, such as the “Sari-Sari Store Fair,” sponsored sports and cultural workshops for the youth, held feeding programs and medical and dental missions, and launched the “Gulayan sa Barangay” and other pro-poor projects.
Lim said that he has done what he had envisioned in 2010 although people expected more. “We were hampered by the noncooperation of the majority of the city councilors in the last two years,” he said.
“But what is very evident is that we have given Dagupan a new hope for making it as a new developing metropolis,” he said.
Fernandez said running for mayor was something she did not desire. She said she could have just stayed in her comfort zone as a businesswoman.
But she said that after seeing the city’s problems, after talking to fishermen, who were displaced by the dismantling of fish structures in the city’s rivers, she decided to go for it.
“If I win, there’s only one thing I want to happen. I want to be a great mayor. I want that after my term, I will be loved by the people. And I will leave a benchmark for the next mayors to follow in the future,” she said.