SIDEBAR: Tacloban City

Politics & disaster a bad mix

DISASTERS USUALLY bring people together, but a few weeks after Yolanda, a video that seemed to highlight a political divide amid tragedy went viral.

In particular, it showed Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas III berating a sad-sack Tacloban City Mayor Alfred S. Romualdez, telling him in so many words that certain twists in political history would make helping his city a bit complicated.

Before the video made its appearance on YouTube, Romualdez had broken down in tears at the Senate, wailing over what he said was the national government’s refusal to help his city despite the devastating blow Yolanda had dealt it. Malacañang and Roxas were quick to refute his accusations, but then the video suddenly surfaced, and national officials were soon scrambling to explain the government’s side.

Romualdez and Roxas came to calling each other a liar. At one point, Roxas even challenged Romualdez to undergo a lie-detector test, but the latter declined to call the bluff.

The two would eventually make up in public. But nearly a year later, in November 2014, Romualdez would figure in another verbal joust with a national official: former Sen. Panfilo Lacson, then still the presidential adviser on rehabilitation and recovery in the Yolanda-ravaged areas.

Lacson’s remark that the rehabilitation work in Tacloban City was “below par” prompted Romualdez to call for his resignation. The mayor said the comment was made “in bad taste,” adding that it would be better for Lacson to “reach out to LGUs (local government units)” and “not pick fights” with them.

Tacloban City, with a population of over 220,000, is the center of education and commerce in Region VIII or Eastern Visayas. Unfortunately, when Yolanda struck, it had struck Tacloban hard.

According to the Tacloban City Social Welfare and Development Office, the super typhoon exacted statistics most tragic in the city: 2,474 registered deaths – or more than a third of the estimated total 6,000 casualties – 633 missing, and 2,279 bodies “processed by the National Bureau of Investigation.”

To some observers, the Aquino administration’s seemingly irritated way of dealing with Romualdez looked like it had something to do with Tacloban being the only opposition bailiwick in Leyte province. For sure, it’s a theory that hews close to Romualdez’s accusations. And while Roxas and Malacañang have repeatedly protested that it isn’t so, the fact remains that there is no love lost between Romualdez and Roxas and his political party. Or, for that matter, between Romualdez and President Benigno ‘Noynoy’ S. Aquino III.

Romualdez is a nephew of former First Lady and now Ilocos Norte Rep. Imelda Romualdez Marcos, who in turn is the widow of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. To this day, the Aquino family believes it was Ferdinand Marcos who masterminded the 1983 assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr., Noynoy Aquino’s father.

Tacloban is the Romualdezes’ ancestral hometown. It was no surprise then that in the May 2013 elections, Romualdez won as the city’s mayor, trouncing Florencio Gabriel ‘Bem’ Noel, who had served three terms as an An Waray Party-list representative before trying out a run for chief executive of Tacloban.

Officially, Noel vied for the mayoralty seat still under the An Waray banner, but he had also been adopted by the Liberal Party of Aquino and Roxas as candidate. LP operators in Tacloban were reportedly ordered by the party’s national headquarters to go all out for a win by Noel, who was said to be a close friend of the Aquinos. For all that, Noel ended up with just 21,401 votes against Romualdez’s 26,474.

The LP’s candidate for Tacloban vice mayor was as unlucky; Jose Arvin Antoni garnered only 19,006 votes, which proved to be no match for independent candidate Jerry Yaokasin’s 26,234.

Much earlier, in the May 2010 elections, the supposed Aquino magic had also failed to mesmerize the voters in Tacloban. Noynoy Aquino secured only a third of the total votes cast in Tacloban for the 10 presidential candidates in those polls. He was bested by ousted ex-president Joseph Ejercito Estrada, who snared 41 percent of the total votes cast for president in the city, or some 31,901.

Performing far worse was Roxas, Aquino’s running mate, who drew 19,849 votes, or just 25.86 percent of the votes cast in Tacloban for the 10 candidates for vice president. That translated to just one in four votes in the city backing Roxas’s bid. By comparison, Estrada’s second, Jejomar ‘Jojo’ Binay, who would eventually win as vice president, packed in 48,271 votes or 62.90 percent of those cast in the city – over twice that received by Roxas.

Still, it could well be that the butting of heads between Tacloban and Malacañang officials are more the result of frazzled nerves and fatigue than anything else. After all, Praveen Agrawal, Country Director in the Philippines of the World Food Programme, note that some issues, and especially disasters, “cut across political party lines.”

“When calamity hits, it does not look at political parties, religion, ethnicity,” he points out. “I would hope that a crisis like Yolanda should (have people) rise beyond that.” – With additional reporting by Earl G. Parreño and Rowena F. Caronan, PCIJ, January 2015


“Christian Aid funded this project/report as our contribution to the interest of the public’s right to know how the Yolanda funds are managed and used, and that the findings and recommendations are meant to feed into the policy discourse on Republic Act No. 10121 (The Philippine Risk Reduction and Management Plan of 2010) review and the Yolanda budget process.”