Tolentino banks on ‘Duterte magic’ in fresh Senate bid

Dharel Placido, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 03 2019 06:25 AM

Tolentino banks on ‘Duterte magic’ in fresh Senate bid 1
Former presidential political adviser Francis Tolentino guests on DZMM's Ikaw Na Ba Senatorial candidates' interview, January 15, 2019. Fernando G. Sepe Jr., ABS-CBN News

MANILA – As the campaign season kicked off on Feb. 12, a truck blared around the streets of San Fernando City in vote-rich Pampanga with the sound of President Rodrigo Duterte's voice as he praised Francis Tolentino. 

Following a heartbreaking loss in 2016, Tolentino may have found in a still popular president the key to winning the polls as he takes another shot at a Senate seat this year.

When he launched his first senatorial bid, Tolentino ran as an independent candidate and did not enjoy the endorsement of the incumbent – a key campaign component which could have sealed his victory – because of a falling out with the then ruling Liberal Party led by then President Benigno Aquino III.

“[Now I have] the support of the President. Now I’m able to explain my platforms, unlike before where I have no avenue,” Tolentino told ABS-CBN News.

“The difference now is in the structure of my campaign. In 2016, I ran as an independent. I never had the support from local government officials.”

Tolentino is part of the ruling party PDP-Laban and is also being endorsed by Duterte’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, who is chairperson of the administration-backed slate Hugpong ng Pagbabago.

UP political science professor Aries Arugay said that aside from Duterte’s endorsement, Tolentino now enjoys the additional campaign machinery that can be provided by the administration, something an independent candidate does not have.

“That’s important because in the end, you don’t just need an endorsement, you need a machinery. If he’s boasting [about] it, he’s communicating that ‘it would be very weird if I lose again,’” Arugay told ABS-CBN News.

That he had launched the most expensive senatorial campaign in 2016 – shelling out P199 million from contributions and personal funds – undoubtedly added to the anguish Tolentino felt after learning he was only one spot shy from winning a seat in the upper chamber.

Tolentino believes he was cheated of the last spot in the 2016 Senate race to accommodate then administration-backed candidate, former Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.

De Lima is currently in jail over drug charges which she maintains is political persecution, a result of her fierce opposition to the war on drugs and other policies of the president.

Now, De Lima is almost always the subject of Tolentino’s ridicule in the campaign trail.

“Nadaya po tayo ni De Lima noon. Natulog lang po ako ng 11:30 p.m., [pagdating ng] 2:30 a.m. number 13 na ako. Pareho kami ng sinapit ni Bongbong Marcos,” Tolentino told the crowd during a campaign sortie in Vigan, Ilocos Sur last Feb. 18, referring to the former senator who lost in the close vice-presidential race in 2016.

(We were cheated by De Lima back then. I just slept at 11:30 p.m., by 2:30 a.m. I was already number 13. Both Bongbong Marcos and I share the same fate.)

Marcos, son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, has a pending electoral protest against Vice President Leni Robredo, the leader of the opposition. 

“Kaya nanghihinayang ako, doble pagod na ako, eh si De Lima lang naman nagpapa-manicure lang tuwing umaga.”

(I really regret it because I had to exert twice the effort while De Lima was just getting her nails done every morning.)

Tolentino, nonetheless, acknowledged the capabilities of De Lima, a veteran election lawyer who also served as human rights commission chief and justice secretary in the past administrations.

“I have a wider experience. I used to be a mayor, add to that my executive experience in the MMDA (Metropolitan Manila Development Authority) and my legal background,” Tolentino said.

“Senator De Lima is also good, but I have a deeper background in environmental law.”

The Senate Electoral Tribunal dismissed Tolentino's electoral protest against De Lima last month after he withdrew the plea. The tribunal also found no proof of irregularities that led to his defeat. 

DISASTER GUY

Aside from being tapped for political advise to the President, Tolentino also served as the point person in disaster response during his time in the administration.

Tolentino said he could have also contributed to policy-making on disaster preparedness and response had he snagged a seat in the upper chamber in 2016.

“In the field of environmental law, which is still a very gray area as far as the Philippine law is concerned and is rarely discussed, the experience of some are lacking, no offense to them,” said Tolentino.

“I could have contributed something to the issue on the West Philippine Sea. I’m a public international lawyer… On the issue on Manila Bay and mining, I could have done something there.”

Tolentino banks on ‘Duterte magic’ in fresh Senate bid 2
President Rodrigo Duterte presides over a situation briefing with members of his Cabinet and local officials at the Cagayan Provincial Capitol in Tuguegarao City on September 16, 2018 to discuss disaster response in the aftermath of Typhoon 'Ompong.' Also in photo are then Presidential Adviser for Political Affairs Francis Tolentino and Special Assistant to the President Christopher Lawrence 'Bong' Go, both of whom are contenders in the senatorial race. Karl Norman Alonzo, Presidential Photo

Tolentino is also banking on his experience as long-time mayor of major tourist hub Tagaytay City and chairman of the MMDA. Like Duterte, who for years led Davao City, Tolentino was appointed in 1986 by then President Corazon Aquino as officer-in-charge of Tagaytay, marking his debut in the political scene.

“We can mentor other local government units, especially those struggling to step up from 3rd class on the creative utilization of their resources,” Tolentino said.

While Tolentino can boast of his experience as a Tagaytay mayor, his failure to provide a lasting solution to Metro Manila traffic might prove to be a baggage for the aspiring senator, said professor Ela Atienza, chair of the University of the Philippines political science department.

“He sells himself as someone who has experience. I think he should capitalize on that. But some people might notice his failures as MMDA chairman,” Atienza told ABS-CBN News.

It was during Tolentino’s time that the government had to tap the Philippine National Police Highway Patrol Group to manage traffic in clogged EDSA.

Tolentino banks on ‘Duterte magic’ in fresh Senate bid 3
Metropolitan Manila Development Authority Chairman Francis Tolentino joins MMDA employees and staff in a boodle fight on his last day of office and announces his resignation from the agency. ABS-CBN News/File

For Tolentino, however, being an MMDA chairman was not all about solving traffic, as he touted his other accomplishments as the head of the agency during the Aquino administration.

“Metro Manila is not just [about] traffic. Metro Manila is density. Metro Manila is urban blight. Metro Manila is flood. Metro Manila is urban poverty. Metro Manila will showcase the need for mass housing,” he said.

He said that during his stint as MMDA chairman, so-called “imperial Manila” was able to reach out and help in the provinces during times of calamity.

Under Tolentino, the MMDA also organized the first metro-wide earthquake drill in preparation for a potential major earthquake that could kill thousands and destroy a large number of structures in the capital. 

Such simulation has since been held regularly. 

WILL HE MAKE IT THIS TIME?

More than these credentials, however, Tolentino is banking on Duterte’s popularity to catapult him to the Senate.

He believes Duterte’s endorsement will spell the difference between his 2016 and 2019 Senate bids, as he is going against a long roster of reelectionists and old names in Philippine politics.

“Ang pagkakaiba ngayon, mayroong machinery so you have PDP-Laban, Hugpong. Dati, wala akong ganoon. Independent ako, although I placed 13, [with nearly] 13 million votes,” he said.

(The difference now is I have the machinery, so you have PDP-Laban, Hugpong. Before, I did not have those. I was an independent candidate, although I placed 13, with nearly 13 million votes.)

Tolentino banks on ‘Duterte magic’ in fresh Senate bid 4
President Rodrigo Duterte attends the PDP-Laban Proclamation and Kick-off Rally in San Jose Del Monte City, Bulacan on February 14, 2019. Joining the President on stage are former Bureau of Corrections chief Ronald dela Rosa, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, former Special Assistant to the President Christopher Lawrence "Bong" Go, Sen. Manny Pacquiao, and former Presidential Adviser on Political Affairs Francis Tolentino. Karl Norman Alonzo, Presidential Photo

Tolentino added that the campaign machinery would “overcome” what he lacked in 2016 when he lost the last Senate spot to De Lima.

“Malaki ang tiwala ko na napakalaki ang tulong ng endorsement ni Mayor Digong,” Tolentino said, referring to Duterte’s nickname.

“I will rely mostly on the endorsement, the backing of the President and his goodwill.”

Tolentino slipped in the latest Pulse Asia survey on senatorial preferences, placing in the 15-17 range, outside the winner's circle, from reaching the 10-16 slot in March

He lost 12.9 percentage points, from 35.7 percent of respondents saying they would vote for him in the March survey to 22.8 percent in the latest poll. 

Whether Tolentino’s prediction will happen or not, only results of the May elections will tell. 

But what’s certain, UP’s Arugay said, is that a win for Tolentino would be an indication of his closeness to Duterte, who has so far weathered allegations of authoritarianism, and the effectiveness of the administration’s campaign machinery. 

“If Francis Tolentino wins, it only means he is very near the Dutertes. Because if you notice, in the last few slots, not all of Duterte’s endorsed candidates will likely make it. Ibig sabihin may galawang mangyayari, may matutulak palabas (That means something might happen and some will be pushed out of the winners’ circle),” Arugay said.

“Duterte’s political coalition is composed of concentric circles. It has an inner circle, and an outer circle. More likely than not, those who will not make it to the ‘Magic 12’, even with presidential endorsement or Sara Duterte’s endorsement, will tell you how far really they are from the Dutertes.”