Blessed with natural resources and a rich culture, Laguna is a picture of abundance. It is surrounded by mountains and embraces the Philippines’ largest lake, the Laguna de Bay, which is a source of living for the towns and cities around it.
Many tourist spots dot the province, including the house of Philippine national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, and other historical landmarks. Millions of tourists also flock to various resorts all over the province, which is often dubbed the “resort capital” of the country.
Today, the province is home to modern industries. Automobile companies and electronics firms have set up shop in several cities, propelling the province’s economic progress.
Laguna is the 7th richest province in the Philippines in terms of income and the 4th in terms of assets, according to the Commission on Audit’s (COA) 2011 financial report.
But that’s not the entire story.
Rich, poor districts
|Laguna is home to the country's largest freshwater lake, the Laguna Lake, also the source of livelihood for many families. Photo by Rem Zamora for ABS-CBNnews.com
Based on annual incomes, much of the economic prosperity is enjoyed only by the 1st and 2nd districts of the province, where most of its highly urbanized cities are located.
In 2011, seven cities and municipalities in the 1st and 2nd districts had a total income way higher than that of the 23 towns in the less developed 3rd and 4th districts, according to the COA report.
Moreover, the richest towns in the 1st and 2nd districts—Calamba, Binan, and Sta. Rosa—each had incomes higher than that of all towns combined in either the 3rd or 4th district.
“You can see the disparity as far as economic growth is concerned,” says Dr. Aser Javier, associate professor at the College of Public Affairs and Development in the University of the Philippines-Los Banos. “The municipalities that cover the 1st and 2nd districts have incomes which are very extremely far from what the incomes are from the local governments in the 3rd and 4th districts.”
This vast inequality, Javier says, is among the challenges those seeking to lead the province must confront.
In the May 2013 elections, two incumbent officials are battling for control of Laguna.
‘Villain turned protagonist’
From the paintings on the grounds outside the provincial capitol in Sta. Cruz to tarpaulins all around the province, Gov. Emilio Ramon “ER” Ejercito’s face is everywhere. There’s no denying that Laguna is his territory.
After 9 years as mayor of Pagsanjan town, he rose to become Laguna’s highest official in 2010.
A movie actor like his father, George Estregan, and uncle, former President Joseph Estrada, Ejercito used to appear in films as villain. Now, he says, he is the protagonist in Laguna politics.
“I may be a villain in the movies,” he once told a crowd in Sta. Rosa. “But in reality, I am your guardian angel.”
Ejercito says his interest in politics was nurtured by his background, coming from a “family of public servants.”
“Our advocacy is to show the people that our government is truly a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” says Ejercito, who’s running under the United Nationalist Alliance.
He has received several awards for leadership, including the Top 10 Mayors of the Philippines Award, the 2003 Local Government Leadership Award, and Excellence in Local Governance.
“When I was mayor of Pagsanjan, I woke up a sleeping giant,” he says.
Ejercito says one of his biggest accomplishments was increasing Pagsanjan’s income by attracting more investors and tourists, something he says he has replicated in the whole province during his first three years as governor.
According to data from his office, Laguna’s provincial income has increased from P1.7 billion in 2009 to P1.9 billion in 2012.
|Enjoying a picnic at the Sampaloc Lake with Banahaw in the background, just two of the many tourist attractions in the province. Photo by Fernando Sepe Jr. for ABS-CBNnews.com
Ejercito’s challenger in the polls is the current congressman from Laguna’s 4th district, Rep. Edgar San Luis of the Liberal Party.
While lauding Laguna’s economic progress, San Luis says many towns are still left out, especially those in his district.
San Luis became a lawmaker in 2007 and was reelected in 2010. He entered politics years after resigning from his job as president of the state-run television station RPN 9.
He says he aims to change Laguna’s situation, drawing inspiration from his father, the late Felicisimo San Luis, who was Laguna’s governor for more than 30 years.
“I was still an innocent child when I saw my father work as governor and was exposed to his public service,” San Luis says.
Like his father, he says he will bring government closer to the people.
“I have the time,” he says. “I will bring the government close to the barangays, especially the poor places, and give them the opportunity to compete with the more prosperous ones.”
Although they were never rivals for the same position in the past, Ejercito and San Luis have always been on opposing sides in politics.
The 2013 elections have raised tensions between them to a higher level.
(To be continued)