MANILA -- Opposition senatorial candidate Gary Alejano sought to charm voters at a fish port with a politician's go-to weapon: a big smile on his face, but touching a battle scar on his nape, the former Marine sniper is reminded of his fight against the misdeeds of those in power.
The burly 46-year-old congressman, who cheated death after he was shot near the head 19 years ago, now finds himself in his most difficult battle yet, going against President Rodrigo Duterte, who remains popular midway into his 6-year term.
Alejano seeks to replicate the success of his Magdalo brother and former cellmate, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, who won in the 2007 elections from behind bars. But the situation at that time was different, with then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo languishing in popularity polls due to alleged corruption and poll fraud.
"Pag gising ko, sa isip ko, patay na ako kasi wala akong naramdaman, wala akong narinig… Ang naisip ko lang, dalhin ko lang iyung katawan ko sa highway. Hindi ko naisip mabubuhay pa ako," he told ABS-CBN News, recalling the day he was shot during a gunfight with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Maguindanao province.
(When I woke up, I thought I was dead because I was numb and I couldn't hear anything... My focus was to get to the highway. I never thought I would live.)
The father of five and incumbent Magdalo party-list congressman faced charges before military and civilian courts for two failed uprisings against Arroyo. In Congress, he sought to impeach Duterte over the President's drug war.
“Kung ano ang prinsipyo na tinatayuan ko, tinatayuan ni Senator Trillanes, ay doon namin kinuha kung saan kami nagsimula noong panahon na tumayo kami sa isang corrupt at mapang-abuso na gobyerno ni Gloria Arroyo,” he told a crowd gathered at the Navotas fish port.
(The principles that I stand for, that Senator Trillanes stands for, we draw them from where we started: during the time that we stood up against a corrupt and abusive government under Gloria Arroyo)
'MOST DIFFICULT' BATTLE
Halfway into the 90-day campaign Alejano ranked 28th to 30th with 12 Senate seats up for grabs, according to a Feb. 24 to 28 Pulse Asia poll. Roughly a third of the respondents said they were "aware" of him.
Trillanes was outside the winner's circle in opinion polls before the May 2007 midterm vote, ranking 22nd to 24th some 3 months prior to the polls. But he pulled off a surprise, placing 11th with 11 million votes.
But the political situation is markedly different this time around under strongman President Rodrigo Duterte.
Strapped for cash, the Magdalo group is waging its "most difficult" campaign yet, said Alejano. Businessmen, fearing a "shakedown" from government have refused to donate, he said.
Local officials are wary of organizing campaign sorties for the opposition out of fear that they will end up in the government’s so-called "narco-list." News outlets are also under pressure to minimize coverage of the opposition slate Otso Diretso, he said.
"We’re not fighting presidents personally. We’re fighting for this country. We feel that we have a responsibility to stand up for the country," Alejano told ABS-CBN News.
In 2007, Trillanes "represented anti-Gloria sentiments" to the electorate, said journalist Ellen Tordesillas, who covered the Magdalo group extensively.
Trillanes was the spokesman of the Magdalo, a band of several hundred junior officers of enlisted men who booby-trapped the Oakwood luxury apartments on July 27, 2003 to protest alleged corruption in the military under Arroyo.
Eight months after Trillanes' election win, the Magdalo, including Alejano, walked out of their rebellion hearing at a Makati City court and laid siege on the Manila Peninsula hotel. But that too failed to unseat Arroyo, who went on to become congresswoman, and later, Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Trillanes's Senate bid had the backing of some businessmen and lawmakers, including then Sen. Jamby Madrigal, who paid for some of his ads, Tordesillas said.
The detained rebel soldier also enjoyed support from civil society groups, former University of the Philippines President Francisco "Dodong" Nemenzo Jr., and film producer Lily Monteverde, who hosted fund-raising events for Trillanes.
"Parang bayanihan talaga noon," Tordesillas said of Trillanes’ campaign. It also helped that journalists jostled for interviews with Trillanes from behind bars.
(It really seemed like a bayanihan effort.)
ARROYO FACTOR MISSING
The public was "more disposed" to believe Trillanes because Arroyo was unpopular, compared to Alejano, who is opposing Duterte, political analyst Ramon Casiple said.
A Pulse Asia survey in 2007 showed that Arroyo was considered the most corrupt Philippine president by 42 percent of respondents. She tallied a negative 11 net satisfaction rating in September that year in another opinion poll by the Social Weather Stations.
In contrast, Duterte has a "very good" net satisfaction rating of +66, according to a Dec. 16 to 19 SWS poll.
"You attack a popular figure, you run the risk na iyung nagsasabing popular si Presidente, malaki ang possibility na hindi ka bobotohin, unless mapabago mo iyung isip nila, meaning nakumbinsi mo sa mga atake mo na tama," said Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
(You run the risk that those who say he’s popular will not vote for you, unless you can change their minds, meaning convince them that your attack is right.)
"Perception game ang eleksyon e. Hindi iyan usapin kung totoo o hindi ang sinabi mo; kundi ang mga tao ba, lalo na iyung botante, naniwala ba. In this case, uphill battle iyan for Congressman Alejano," added Casiple.
(The election is a perception game. It’s not a matter of whether what you say is true or not, but whether or not the people, especially the voters, believe you. In this case, that’s an uphill battle for Congressman Alejano.)
Alejano attributed his survey performance to a “marketing issue.”
"How can they (voters) support me if they don’t know that I’m running? Awareness is very expensive. Sinisipagan na lang namin ang campaign," he said.
"Sa kampanya, tini-treat namin siya as trabaho, service to the country. Gigising kami ng alas-5, late sa gabi, okay lang. Walang arte, punta kami sa mga public market," he added.
(We just work hard at the campaign. We treat it as work, service to the country. We wake up at 5 a.m., we come home late, it’s okay. We’re not fussy, we go to public markets.)
Alejano, in his Navotas sortie, would offer a handshake when the crowd hesitated to approach him, entering a carinderia when its diners did not rush out, stepping over basins full of fish to reach harried vendors.
FROM 'NO MAN’S LAND'
Alejano, the third in a farmer and a teacher’s brood of 5, was born in 1973 in Sipalay, Negros Occidental, considered by the military at that time as “no man’s land” due to the presence of the communist New People’s Army.
Growing up, Alejano said he served as altar boy, accompanying priests to Masses in mountain communities.
Alejano studied electrical engineering at the University of Cebu for 2 years before taking the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) exam in secret.
His mother, he said, did not want him to be a soldier. She only learned that her son was accepted to the PMA when test results were published in the newspaper and sent to their home, he said.
With the help of a South Korean martial arts group, Alejano said he went to Manila for the first time to take his physical exam for PMA admissions.
Alejano and Trillanes belong to the PMA "Marilag" Class of 1995, but were not particularly close as cadets. "Probinsyano ako, sila from La Salle… Hindi naman sila mayaman na mayaman, pero tubong Maynila," Alejano explained.
(I’m from the province, they’re from La Salle. They weren’t that rich, but they grew up in Manila.)
FARMER AND POLITICIAN
Alejano’s wife Minerva, was pregnant with twins, their first-borns, during the Oakwood mutiny. She went into premature labor on the second month of his detention, he said.
In detention, Alejano engaged in organic farming and composting with worms to earn extra cash. He also studied public administration through the University of Philippines Open University.
The Magdalo secured amnesty under former President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, also an Arroyo critic, who assumed office in 2010. Alejano later won a seat in Congress.
Waging battles on the streets and in the legislature, Alejano said he became wary of opportunists.
"Ang realization namin, marami sa politico, they don’t want to join the battle but they are much more than willing to join the victory parade," he said.
Alejano described his relationship with Speaker Arroyo as "civil." He has also played basketball with Arroyo’s youngest son, former Camarines Sur Rep. Dato Arroyo.
The May elections will be a test of the Magdalo’s relevance, said Alejano.
"Puwede naming sabihin na relevant kami, pero sabihin ng tao na you’re done. Then we will just die a natural death. Iyun din ang usapan namin sa kulungan, tumakbo si Trillanes," he said.
(We can say that we’re still relevant, but the people could say that you’re done. Then we will just die a natural death. That’s the same thing we agreed on in detention, when Trillanes ran.)
"Pag tumakbo ka, ‘pag natalo ka, edi pahinga na. Ganoon din kami, tumatakbo kami, ito ang aming tayo, kung ayaw nila sa amin, so be it," the lawmaker said.
(If you run and you lose, then just rest. It’s the same with us, we’re running, saying this is our stand; if you don’t like us, so be it.)