(Part 1 of a special report on the feud between 2 political families of Ilocos Norte.)
Nothing spells election season better than a congressional investigation.
This time, the howling winds of the so-called Solid North have signaled that the 2019 election season has set in—putting a provincial political battle royale squarely in the corridors of national power.
Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos now faces arrest by the House of Representatives because of an investigation started by Ilocos Norte Rep. and House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas, her provincial political rival who also happens to be the second most powerful man in the Lower House.
If the arrest pushes through, Fariñas will accomplish what countless critics of the Marcoses since they left the Palace in 1986 have failed to do—put a Marcos behind bars.
Fariñas filed House Resolution 882, which asked the committee to look into how P66.4 million from the provincial excise tax funds were used to purchases buses and mini-trucks through cash advances instead of public biddings.
Six officers of the provincial government of Ilocos Norte have been cited for contempt and ordered detained within the chamber's premises for their continued refusal to cooperate on the ongoing probe on the alleged anomalous purchases of vehicles.
The House of Representatives Committee on Good Government has also issued a subpoena for Marcos to appear in the hearing.
On the surface, the House panel's investigation starting last May on the alleged misuse of Ilocos Norte’s tobacco excise taxes is Fariñas's own anti-corruption effort, but to say that cleaning house is its only agenda would be wrong as it targets his family's rival for provincial political hegemony—Governor Imee Marcos and her family.
In an interview, political science assistant Prof. Ranjit Rye of the University of the Philippines said the House is "exercising its mandate which is to do oversight, and also to investigate..."
"It was well within its powers but people have to clarify this investigation is supposed to be in aid of legislation and so in the exercise of their duties and responsibilities, they undertook this investigation and it has, of course, evolved into what it is now," he noted.
Gov. Marcos, however, condemned the Ilocos Six's detention as "early politicking" and said ordinary employees be spared from the "naked use of power."
"Malayo pa ang eleksyon. Itigil na natin ang kahibangang ito," she said in a statement.
In an interview with ABS-CBN Laoag on Friday (June 23), Marcos elaborated on what had long been just whispered about in the corridors of power as rumors.
In 2019, Imee Marcos and Fariñas will be constitutionally barred from seeking reelection in their current offices, leaving them to pursue other positions or members of their families to pursue their current positions. Fariñas' daughter Ria and Marcos’ son Matthew are incumbent provincial board members and rumored to be possible gubernatorial candidates.
Fariñas is himself rumored to be a gubernatorial candidate while both he and Marcos are rumored to be possible senatorial candidates. Fariñas has himself been rumored to be up for a possible Cabinet position or an appointment to the Ombudsman once Conchita Carpio Morales retires next year.
Marcos said the underlying motive behind the inquiry is Fariñas' desire to dominate local politics.
"Ang isyu dito local. Sana bukas na ang eleksyon para matapos na yan. Ito ang ipagtatapat ko, patalawanennak (papaalisin ako ni Rudy) sa first district dahil nakarehistro ako dito. Dapat din, umalis mga anak ni Bongbong sa Laoag. Gusto lahat umalis sa first district para si Ria (anak ni Rudy) na ang tatakbo sa pagka congressman," she said.
"Kung ganun at pahihiyain tayo ay talagang tatakbo na tatatakbo ako sa congressman sa first district, kung hindi ma-appoint sa pagka Ombudsman (si Rudy)," she added.
Marcos said her brother is also eyeing a possible electoral bid for the position of governor if his protest in the 2016 vice-presidential election result does not pan out.
"Ang sabi naman ng kapatid ko (Bongbong) na kung hindi pa maayos ang kanyang protesta (sa pagka-bise presidente), tatakbo na rin sa pagka gobernador," she said.
The governor maintained that the proper venue for accusations of corruption is a trial court or the Ombudsman.
"Ito ay pang local lang na pulitika. 'Wag naman sanang gamitin ang Congress laban sa maliit na probinsya. Kung laban ito ng local sa pulitika, pag usapan. Kung ganun lang, laban na kung laban," she said.
Rye noted that while the investigation is legitimate, nothing is as it seems since local politics is also a factor in the inquiry.
"Talagang that underlies, the dynamics ng local politics that underlies this, talagang it has found its way into the legislative work. I think this is not just one case. I think all over the country, nakikita mo yung dynamics ng congressmen. Nagre-realign, nag i-investigate, nagco-consolidate, naglilipat ng partido, nag uundertake ng investigation against potential rivals," he said.
Political science Assistant Professor Jean Franco said: "Yes, definitely it’s [related to 2019 [polls]."
Rye added, "I think there is a legitimate need to investigate the misuse of tobacco funds but the rhetoric that has come out of it is unnecessary and reflects the rivalry that is happening at the local level."
"Malaking impluwensiya ang 2019 in what's happening today. May legitimate basis to investigate, yun nga lang people have to understand it’s investigation in aid of legislation. This is not a court."
IMEE TO SKIP NEXT HEARING
On June 23, Governor Marcos told provincial media that she will skip the next congressional hearing upon the advice of her brother, fearing she may be detained by the Lower House.
Marcos reiterated this in her interview with ABS-CBN, adding her mother has also advised against her appearance.
Fariñas has not returned requests for comment. He is currently on overseas travel in New York City.
The House Committee on Good Government warned Marcos that they will order her arrested if she skips the hearing and disobeys the subpoena. The committee has voted to issue a subpoena to Marcos to appear and explain the transactions to Congress on July 25.
"It's up to her if she will not attend. We are consistent in our stand that if she does not attend the hearing, we will issue a warrant of arrest for her," House Committee on Good Government chairman Johnny Pimentel said in a text message.
Marcos, however, had already written the committee as early as May 16, explaining that there was nothing improper or irregular with the transactions.
"Purchases labeled as irregular, in fact, complied with all applicable laws and mandated government procurement and bidding procedures, and were duly authorized by the Sangguniang Panlalawigan. Cash advances and disbursement of funds, including the liquidation thereof, were compliant with relevant rules, regulations and circulars. Most importantly, the purchases labeled as irregular underwent proper audit and post-audit examinations by the Commission on Audit, which found no irregularities in the transactions," she wrote.
Gov. Marcos also stressed that the use of "such language as misuse and irregular…tends to convey bias and oppression, of prejudging a subject of inquiry before any inquiry is done, which renders the inquiry vulnerable to allegations of abuse of authority and even political persecution, or at the very least, propelled by interests other than the greater public interest."
BARANGAY CAPTAINS SPEAK UP
Several barangay captains have also spoken up about the vehicle purchases. The provincial capitol also issued a press release defending the transactions.
"Hindi na dapat iniimbestiga ito 'pagkat nagagamit naman namin ito sa bukid, sa pagbubuhat ng mga produkto at sa paghahatid sa palengke. Parang farm equipment na rin ito," said Barangay Captain Angelo Bayudan of Ver, Dingras.
"Hindi ko naman masasabing nasayang ang pondo, 'pagkat nagagamit naman namin sa pagsasaka," he added, also mentioning Gov. Marcos' provision of cement for constructing a farm-to-market road from Barangay Ver.
Nestor del Castillo, Punong Barangay of Barangay Sta. Ana, Solsona, shared: "Sa ngayon, abala kaming nagbibilad ng mga inani naming mais, at sa katunayan ay malaking tulong ang sasakyang ito."
Angel Bryan Arellano, chairman of Barangay Elizabeth, Dingras, added: "Nakikita naman na napunta ito sa mabuting proyekto at nakakatulong ito sa mga taong bayan."
Mr. Michael Velasco, manager of the Bacarra Zanjera Irrigators, Inc., said the multicabs have been very useful in delivering produce to retailers.
"Kung kami ang concerned, in regards sa multicab na binigay nila, malaki ang naitulong nito sa mga magsasaka 'pagkat napadali ang pagbebenta ng kanilang ani," he said.
The Fariñases and the Marcoses have long had a love-hate relationship throughout the province’s fabled history, which they have alternately dominated throughout the years.
At one point, both of them belonged to the Nacionalista Party (NP).
In 2016, Marcos and her running mate, who is also her cousin, Angelo Barba, ran unopposed under the NP.
With 19 candidates running unopposed, Ilocos Norte was fourth among provinces with the most number of unopposed candidates in 2016. All 19 unopposed candidates ran under NP. Aside from the governor-vice governor tandem of Marcos and Barba, seven mayoral and 10 vice-mayoral candidates ran unopposed in the province.
But with the election still about 2 years away, the landscape remains unpredictable. Rye said: "It’s very hard to predict in the Ilocos [Norte] case because they use substitutes."
"For the last 10 years, they have been fighting a proxy war substituting family members. They don't normally make decisions till the last minute, but definitely the competition is really between the 2 strong families and while the Marcoses have the upper hand at the local level, the Fariñases are trying to build their base and strengthen their base."
"If they can get a strong case of corruption in court and prevent Imee from running, that will be an avenue for opening for the Fariñas political clan, but definitely, clan politics plays some role in what’s happening now."
What is sure though is both the Marcoses and Fariñases will be consolidating their bases for provincial domination, Rye said.
"Both Gov. Marcos and Cong. Fariñas in my view will be consolidating their base in Ilocos. The big fight is going to be in 2019. Their families are going to be competing against each other head on. I don't see prospects for either one moving up. For them, [it’s the] same, like the Game of Thrones, they are going to ensure their families continue to control the localities, municipalities, and congressional districts they already have," he said.
"We have to understand the families are expanding. The Marcos family, quite a number of them are going to run in 2019."
Another possibility in the future is Imee Marcos setting her sights on the Senate.
"I think there’s a significant opportunity for Imee to go up as senator," Rye said. "I'm not certain for [former Sen.] Bongbong Marcos given his protest; or a national position or an opportunity may be opened to him."
"At the local level, given that context, I think Imee Marcos may run for senator. There’s a possibility she could, which is why resolving this case at the House is very important because this is a case that’s tantamount to plunder if proven and may have an impact as far as the Marcos family’s political prospects are concerned.”