March 2007
New Political Dynasties

Power shift looms in Cebu politics

THE Provincial Capitol, seat of government in Cebu. [Photo by Alecks P. Pabico]

CEBU CITY — This bustling metropolis in central Philippines used to be the heart of Osmeña country, the home of a political clan that at one time even managed to wield power from within Malacañang. But in the last two decades, a new family has been gaining considerable political ground in Cebu province. For the past few years, it has also been widely perceived to have Malacañang’s ear. This May, three of its members are seeking public office, and many are betting all three will win their respective electoral contests.

A sweep by the Garcias in May would signal a tectonic shift in Cebu’s political landscape and could establish them as the province’s premier political family. Indeed, the ascendance of the Garcia clan would not only highlight the continuing waning dominance of the Osmeñas in local, if not national, politics. It may also herald the Garcias’ assumption of the role the Osmeñas have traditionally performed: that of deciding the political fate of Cebu, which rivals Manila in economic importance.

For now political observers like Dr. Resil Mojares still think the Osmeñas remain the most dominant family in Cebu. But Mojares says that it would be interesting to see how far the Garcias will go.

That may start getting evident this May. Leading the Garcia clan in the possible election juggernaut is Gwendolyn or ‘Gwen,’ who is seeking reelection as Cebu governor. The 51-year-old governor’s immediate predecessor was her own father, Pablo ‘Pabling’ Garcia Sr., who bowed out of local politics in 2004 after serving as governor for three terms. No formidable challenger has come forward to contest the governorship, which makes it likely for Governor Garcia to chalk up yet another electoral victory — assuredly more comfortable than the last one — for her second consecutive three-year term. (Outgoing Rep. Antonio Yapha yesterday filed his certificate of candidacy for governor to challenge Gwen Garcia. — Editor’s note)

Aside from the governor, clan patriarch Pabling is coming out of retirement to run as congressman in Cebu’s second district. Gwen Garcia’s younger brother Pablo John, who serves as her consultant at the Capitol, is also eyeing the congressional seat their father held from 1987 to 1995 in his erstwhile turf, the province’s third district.

Political observers say the possibility of all three Garcias winning their respective electoral contests, though tough, isn’t remote. The 81-year-old Pabling has the edge over a less seasoned opponent, Carmiano Kintanar, who is determined to make an issue out of the ex-governor’s age. An incumbent provincial board member, Carmiano Kintanar is the cousin of Rep. Simeon Kintanar. Now on his third consecutive term, Simeon Kintanar is already barred from seeking reelection and has not declared his intention to seek any position in May.

Pabling’s youngest son is expected to face rough sailing in his bid to become representative of the third district where the undefeated Rep. Antonio Yapha, who is likewise on his last congressional term, is fielding his wife to replace him. The Yaphas, like the Kintanars, enjoy the backing of Cebu’s preeminent political clan of old — no other than the Osmeñas, and in particular former Senator John Henry ‘Sonny’ Osmeña, the Garcias’ most bitter critic. But Osmeña may have already expended his political luster when he failed to win a Senate seat in 2004, ignominiously losing in Cebu and barely making it to 12th place in his own precinct in Camputhaw.

The Garcias, meanwhile, are close to Malacañang, which guarantees privileged access to continued state patronage. Pabling himself does not deny this, although he also says, “This is also true with other leaders in Cebu.”

In her frequent visits to the province, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has not kept secret her feelings about how she is more at ease with Cebu and its political climate, punctuating this with “a strong province…a model for a strong republic” compliment. Many political observers have read this with the assumption that Arroyo owes her controversial 2004-election victory in part to the Garcias. But Pabling Garcia, who was then Lakas-CMD provincial chairman, rejects the allegations of massive cheating that attended the elections in the province. He argues that despite the bickering among local administration candidates, they all threw their support behind Arroyo while the late Fernando Poe Jr. did not have a serious candidate at the local level to campaign for him.

LIKE ALMOST anywhere else in the Philippines, clans or dynasties have long dominated Cebu in every sphere of political life — be it town, district, or province. Local families, says British political scientist John Sidel, have entrenched themselves for decades at the municipal level by combining their proprietary wealth with the discretionary powers of the mayor’s office and the state patronage made available by congressional and provincial politicians. At the provincial level, however, Sidel singles out the Osmeñas for remaining the one dynasty at the center of politics in the whole Central Visayan island province throughout most of the last century.

Location map of Cebu courtesy of Wikipedia

Sidel attributes the longevity of multigeneration dynasties, notably the Cebu City-based Osmeña clan, to their ability to maintain alliances with urban commercial interests and to build a political machine centered in the provincial capital that also radiated out into the province. Beginning with family patriarch Sergio Osmeña Sr. who went on to become President of the Commonwealth from 1944 to 1946, the Osmeñas, says Sidel, enjoyed preeminent status in Cebu by using their “close ties to the urban commercial elite in the city, office-based discretionary powers over the local state apparatus, and linkages to national-level patrons in Manila.”

Following in his father’s footsteps, Sergio ‘Serging’ Osmeña Jr. served variously as Cebu provincial governor, Cebu City mayor, congressman of Cebu’s second district, and senator, but failed in his presidential bid to boot out Ferdinand Marcos in 1969.

The Osmeña family’s fortunes began to wane when Marcos imposed martial law in 1972, but third-generation members have been able to revive a modicum of dynastic clout in the post-Marcos era. Serging’s son, Tomas III, is Cebu City’s incumbent mayor, and has already previously won three, including two successive, terms. Another son, Sergio III (Serge), won a Senate seat. A nephew, Emilio Mario ‘Lito’ Osmeña, became governor from 1988 to 1992, though he was unsuccessful in his bid for the presidency in 1998. Another nephew, Sonny Osmeña, was elected congressman and later senator. Sonny Osmeña’s son, John Gregory (John-John), occupied the vice governorship during Pabling Garcia’s last term but placed third to Gwen Garcia and Celestino Martinez Jr., the former congressman of the province’s first district, in the tightly fought 2004 three-way gubernatorial race.

Of present-day Cebu politics, lawyer and political commentator Frank Malilong Jr. remarks, “We used to have an emperor (referring to Sergio Sr.). But now, the province is controlled by several kings who rule over their respective little kingdoms.”

SERGIO Osmeña Sr. benefited from U.S.-era political innovations that brought local, landowning elites to the stage og national politics through the creation of a national legislature. [photo courtesy of Lopez Museum]

Cebu’s six rural districts serve as political and economic spheres of influence over which the following political families have continued to hold sway:

  • the Gullases in the first district in the near south;
  • the Kintanars in the second district in the west (though the Abineses are still very much around);
  • the Garcias who consider the third district at the southern end of the province their bailiwick (though John Osmeña served as congressman for one term);
  • the Martinezes in the fourth district in the far north;
  • the Duranos in the fifth district near north; and
  • the Ouanos in the sixth district with the first class, highly urbanized city of Mandaue as center.

As Malilong sees it, nobody has as yet staked a claim to the title of quintessential leader of Cebu in the sense of a Sergio Osmeña Sr. Apart from being perennially wracked by disunity, the modern-day members of the Osmeña clan, he says, are also content with just managing their respective fiefdoms, like Tomas Osmeña who is seeking a third term as Cebu City mayor. Add to this the lack of worthy heirs as in the case of John-John Osmeña, who, says Mojares, “did not amount to (anything) much.”

But Malilong does acknowledge that the ascendant Garcias, of all the political clans in Cebu, are better positioned to steal the thunder from the Osmeñas. Originally from Dumanjug town in the third district, the Garcias are now trying to annex the second district with Pablo Sr. running for congressman there.

SERGIO Osmeña Jr. Failed in his bid for the presidency in 1969, but the Osmeña myth — and the family’s capacity to project themselves as defenders of democracy and agents of modernity — lives on. [photo courtesy of Lopez Museum]

HOW THE Garcias have come into their own to rival the Osmeñas’ political influence is a neat lesson in contemporary politics, as they belong to what Mojares regards as an interesting segment of political leaders in the province: “middle-level both in terms of wealth and political position, often professions-based, whose appeal draws from their being well educated, successful lawyers, managers, etc.” Not rooted in landed elite families, these upwardly mobile “professional politicians,” as Sidel refers to them, are successfully replacing the scions of these traditional landowning families mainly through the construction of political machines.

For sure, the Garcias are not among Cebu’s wealthiest families — at least not in the top 20 — although Gwen Garcia declared a net worth of P92 million on the year she assumed office. Mojares argues that family or personal wealth is not the most important factor in political success so long as the clan has access to government resources, the local business community’s support, political skills, and networks. In Cebu, he says, among such political clans and personalities have been the early Rama and Kintanar families in southern Cebu, the Gullases, the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Marcelo Fernan, Raul del Mar, and now the Garcias.

“They don’t have a significant power base of their own compared to kingpins like the Osmeñas and the earlier Cuenco and Durano families,” explains Mojares. “They are positioned as junior allies or, you might say, consiglieris of such dominant figures as Marcos (as in the case of Gullas) or the Osmeñas — a connection that facilitates their advancement to positions where they can begin or are able to break away and challenge their patrons.”

GARCIA patriarch, former Gov. Pablo Garcia Sr., returns to politics, eyeing a seat in Congress to represent Cebu’s second district. [Photo by Alecks P. Pabico]

This was the case with Fernan, a longtime Osmeña lawyer who, once he became chief justice, eventually challenged Lito Osmeña. This, too, was the case with Pabling Garcia, who was a Lito Osmeña protégé when he first ran for governor, even though by then he had been in politics for years. A successful and brilliant lawyer, Garcia wound up in politics through his association with politicians who were his clients, including the Duranos, who were known Marcos allies. He held various posts as Dumanjug town councilor, Cebu Provincial Board member, and vice governor until the imposition of martial law. In 1978, he ran for assemblyman in the interim parliament as part of Marcos’s Kilusang Bagong Lipunan ticket, which was beaten badly by the opposition coalition Pusyon Bisaya.

Unlike most of Cebu’s traditional political clans, however, the Garcias emerged as a political family only after 1986, when other family members decided to take their chances in the political arena at the behest of their patrons, the Osmeñas. With Pabling sitting as member of the 8th and 9th Congress from 1987 to 1995, his nephew Alvin Garcia (son of his late elder brother Jesus Garcia Sr., Sun.Star publisher), a non-politician, was handpicked by Tomas Osmeña to be his running mate in 1988. Alvin was vice mayor for two terms until 1995. He was elected mayor for two terms from 1995 to 2001.

Under the Ramos administration, Alvin’s brother, Jesus Garcia Jr., was also appointed secretary of the Department of Communication and Transportation (DOTC) from 1992 to 1996 while Winston Garcia, one of Pabling’s sons, was Cebu provincial board member from 1992 to 1995 and became top honcho of the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS). Both reportedly landed their appointive posts due, in no small measure, to Lito Osmeña.

Succeeded by daughter Gwen as Cebu governor, and now seeking a congressional seat along with his youngest son, Pabling Garcia resists the “political dynasty” tag. “No, we are not,” he insists. “It just happened that this situation is obtaining now. These two districts will be vacated by their respective congressmen by June 30 of this year. Both of us feel that we can better represent these districts not only in bringing their voice to Congress but also in bringing benefits to them from the national government.”

Gwen Garcia is even more emphatic: “One bad Garcia in office is too much, but a number of sincere, competent and qualified Garcias who are truly serving the public is too little.”

YET TO some like political science professor Ricky Poca of the University of San Carlos, there are indications that the Garcias are heading toward establishing a dynastic rule in Cebu. Poca points to the recent formation of the One Cebu Party, which has allied itself with President Arroyo’s party, the Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino (Kampi), in time for the upcoming local elections. The creation of a new local political party was necessitated by the filing of three separate bills in Congress to carve out three new provinces — Oriental Cebu, Cebu del Sur, and Cebu del Norte — from the towns in the districts of three outgoing representatives, all of them the Garcias’ political rivals: Rep. Clavel Asas-Martinez of the fourth district, Kintanar, and Yapha.

GOV. Gwen Garcia inspecting the construction of the new Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in Bgy. Kalunasan, Cebu City. [Photo courtesy of Cebu Provincial Government]

Gov. Gwen Garcia is strongly opposed to any gerrymandering of the province and has even coined a term for what her family regards as a “selfish and greedy” act: Sugbuak, a contraction of Cebu’s native name, Sugbo, and buak, which in Cebuano means to divide or break apart. In fact, protecting the territorial, historical, social and economic integrity of the province has been made the “cornerstone” of the One Cebu Party’s election campaign. The governor even declared that among the senatorial candidates, the party will support only those who would sign a covenant to oppose Cebu’s division.

Sugbuak has turned out to be an extremely unpopular issue not only among Cebu’s local officials and political leaders, but also with the business sector, civil society, and even the Roman Catholic Church. As such, it has provided Gov. Garcia the perfect vehicle on which to consolidate her political base in the province and hence stabilize her fragile hold on power.

Garcia, after all, became governor on the strength of a mere 7,000-vote lead. She had no support from congressional and mayoral candidates, most of whom cast their lot with eventual third-placer John-John Osmeña. But she won in almost all the districts, though the margins were not huge especially in the third and sixth districts. The bulk of her support came from the grassroots, courtesy of barangay officials who owed her father a debt of gratitude for the financial assistance they received regularly from him (as governor) for their projects.

Her father’s ordeal of having to fend off his rivals’ political assaults during his last two terms — primarily dealing with an uncooperative provincial board — must have been a painful memory for the governor, who was Gov. Pabling’s consultant on systems promotion and development, and financial affairs. Once she took her oath of office, Gov. Gwen lost no time reaching out to form alliances with local leaders and political wards, abiding by her father’s dictum of drawing not a line to divide, but a circle to unite. Pabling himself says his family does not nurture or hold grudges. “As long as we can serve the people better,” he says, “we make no distinctions as to how they voted in the last election.”

In this regard, Malilong thinks Gwen Garcia has done even better than her father, taking good care of the barangays not only by pouring money into the usual infrastructure projects — road asphalting, setting up water systems, rural electrification — but also visiting them and calling regular barangay council meetings. “She pampers them like they are her children,” he says.

Even the former governor acknowledges that his daughter is the better administrator. “For one thing,” he says, “she is more active in visiting the municipalities and cities.” He also believes that Gov. Garcia has done more in the three years she has governed the province compared to his nine years.

If the older Garcia feels that way, it’s because Gov. Garcia is able to devote more time to her development plans, having won over to her side erstwhile adversaries like Vice Gov. Gregorio Sanchez Jr., who was Martinez’s running mate in the 2004 elections, and most of the Sangguniang Panglalawigan members and town mayors from rival parties.

For the coming elections, she has also formed alliances with the Duranos (fifth district), Rep. Eduardo Gullas (first district), and Rep. Nerissa Soon-Ruiz (sixth district). Though not part of One Cebu, two powerful political blocs in the province — the Barug Alang sa Kauswagan ug Demokrasya (Bakud), the Duranos’ political party, and the Alayon Party headed by Gullas — have expressed support for Garcia’s reelection bid.

CRITICS AND allies alike, with the possible exception of Garcia arch-nemesis Sonny Osmeña, his brother Lito, and militant groups, concede that the governor works hard and manages the province well. Apart from infrastructure projects, she has embarked on a major policy shift in the delivery of health services by upgrading Cebu’s hospitals into viable economic enterprises, and giving out health insurance. The province claims to be number one among local government units in the country in the number of poor families covered by PhilHealth. The governor has committed to an automatic renewal of the PhilHealth cards every year for as long as she is in office.

THE Cebu International Convention Center, said to be the fitting crown to Gov. Garcia’s achievements in her first term in office. [Photo by Alecks P. Pabico]

Garcia’s focus on Cebu’s economy has made the province number one in gross assets, equity and total income in the whole country. One year after she assumed office, Cebu posted a 15.74-percent growth in net income, and an unprecedented surplus of P2.1 billion. From 2005 to 2007, Cebu has also continued to register low annual per capita poverty threshholds, ranking 71 among 79 provinces. For 2007, this means that Cebuano families consisting of five members should earn a combined monthly income of P13,015 to meet their most basic food and non-food needs, as compared to provinces in Luzon like Cavite, Batangas, Bulacan, Pampanga, and Rizal which require P16,887 to P18,058 to sustain an “economically decent” lifestyle.

The Gwen Garcia administration is also known for the P515-million Cebu International Convention Center (CICC), site of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit held last January. But while many see it as a fitting crown to the governor’s achievements, Lito Osmeña thinks otherwise. Criticizing the governor for doing what the private sector can do, he says the national government should have spent for the CICC. “What business do Cebuanos have in helping the national government, when we are already a colony of the national government?” he asks. “Cebu contributes twice as much to the national government as the national government spends back on Cebu.”

In any case, many say the governor partly inherited her governance and political skills from her old man, and she has been honing these since her days as consultant on economic development for the Ormoc City government. Garcia was also previously married to Eufrocino Codilla Jr., former Ormoc councilor and son of incumbent Ormoc congressman Eufrocino Codilla Sr. But it was more as her father’s consultant that Garcia gained experience in local politics. Pabling even allowed her to sit in various Capitol committees and at times presided over meetings — for which she was later criticized for performing more as an executive assistant than an adviser.

“She knows her politics,” says Poca, who welcomes the governor’s dynamic governance and display of political decisiveness. By that, he means Garcia’s tough demeanor, especially compared to previous governors like Eduardo Gullas, now congressman, and her own father Pabling, who were rather conservative, cautious, less aggressive and less confrontational.

“She gives the impression that nobody can monkey around with her programs, unlike her father, who is an old-school politician whose weakness was that he could not say no as firmly as Gwen does,” adds Malilong. “That is her strength.”

Her flaws, however, include a bad temper. The governor has been known to berate local officials in public and, often, using gutter language. One academic who asked her to make an accounting of the province’s funds during a planning session received a vicious tongue-lashing instead. Department heads who do not attend meetings also get a very public scolding. And where her father would be more respectful and careful about statements against the Osmeñas, Gov. Garcia has been the exact opposite. Only recently, she issued scathing comments against Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña, with whom she had butted heads over lots owned by the province that are currently occupied by city residents.

Not that her flare-ups will hurt her — and her family’s — political future. Mojares, for one, says that voters seem less worried about concentrating power in a few and more interested in the promise of a unified leadership. And when Gwen Garcia became governor despite the odds in 2004, it somehow validated her father’s claim that as far as Cebu politics is concerned, they are the family that matters. Should three Garcias win in May, there may no longer be any doubt about that.