MANILA – He has only one wife and is not afraid to admit that he knows how to pray the rosary or recite the "Hail Mary."
Zajid “Dong” Mangudadatu, incumbent representative of Maguindanao’s second district, is entering the Senate race for the first time, and he does not want to be identified foremost as a Muslim, but as a Filipino.
“The issue here is not about religion – [whether] you are a Muslim or a Christian. The issue here is whether we need a Muslim Filipino who can help our country, especially in its peace efforts,” Mangudadatu told ABS-CBN News.
A successful bid for the 43-year-old lawmaker and Maguindanao native would make him the first Muslim to secure a Senate seat in over two decades.
The last Muslims to serve in the upper chamber of Congress were Mamintal Tamano and Santanina Rasul, who ended their terms in 1992 and 1995, respectively.
University of the Philippines Diliman political science department chair Ela Atienza said the institutional design of the Senate, whose members are elected nationally, has made it hard for Muslim candidates to seal a victory.
“His handicap really is that the playing field has really disadvantaged Muslim candidates from the very beginning,” Atienza told ABS-CBN News.
Thus, Muslim candidates like Mangudadatu have to calibrate their image to make themselves more appealing to voters in the predominantly Catholic Philippines, said UP political science professor Aries Arugay.
“They need to transcend [their Muslim] identities. But if they do not use their Muslim identity, they could be accused of being untrue to their identity. That poses a dilemma,” Arugay told ABS-CBN News.
In campaign sorties, Mangudadatu would always speak of “breaking the barriers” between Muslims and Christians, echoing campaign pitches of Muslim candidates in the recent past like Catholic-educated Nariman Ambolodto in 2016 and Yasmin Busran-Lao in 2010.
“If there is no barrier, there is no discrimination. I think people would live in harmony. We are all of the same God after all,” he said.
Being one of a few candidates to hail from Muslim Mindanao in the senatorial polls, Mangudadatu has positioned himself as someone who has deeper knowledge of the conflict situation in the region.
He said President Rodrigo Duterte tapped him to run for the Senate not only to represent the Muslims but also to share his knowledge of the political and security landscape in the restive region.
“He wanted someone he can task to mediate between rebel groups and the government,” Mangudadatu said.
In campaign sorties, Duterte would always talk about how Mangudadatu and his family “were never a part of the group who raised a howl and went into a rebellion.”
As someone who grew up in a conflict-ridden region, Mangudadatu said he does not want future generations to experience what he went through as a child.
“I was 6 years old and my older brother Ibrahim and I were selling ice pops. Then we encountered this group of men who took all of our products and paid us with a grenade,” he said.
“Because of the conflict, our parents were forced to bring us to Davao City where I finished high school and college. This is why I know the Christian culture, because I grew up in a Christian area.”
Mangudadatu said he wondered why the President asked him to run for the Senate when his brother, outgoing Maguindanao Gov. Ismael “Toto” Mangudadatu, was more prominent.
Esmael’s wife died in a massacre in November 2009 as he was about to file his certificate of candidacy to challenge Andal Ampatuan Jr. in the 2010 Maguindanao gubernatorial race. The massacre left 57 other individuals dead, including 32 journalists.
“I actually endorsed my brother, Gov. Toto Mangudadatu, and my uncle, [Sultan Kudarat] Gov. Pax Mangudadatu, but the President declined,” Mangudadatu said.
“I asked, why did you choose me when Toto is more famous. Why me? He said, ‘No, you know more.’”
Mangudadatu said that about a year before the elections, Duterte asked him to go around the country and introduce himself to the public.
“Sometimes people could not help but say negative things about Muslims,” he said.
“I am working on destroying the negative connotations about being a Muslim. I want to tell the everyone that we are all Filipinos and we should unite.”
RICH GOVERNOR IN A POOR PROVINCE
Mangudadatu admitted he has already spent at least P50 million in personal funds to raise public awareness about him.
He is one of the richest lawmakers in the current Congress, having a net worth of about P240 million, according to his 2017 statement of assets, liabilities and net worth.
He, however, downplayed this fact even as he represents one of the poorest provinces in the country, where over half of the population live below poverty line.
“Even before I became a politician, I was a businessman. We have been supplying fish to major cities in Mindanao for 20 years,” he said.
Mangudadatu, son of the late Buluan, Maguindanao Mayor Pua Mangudadatu, also shrugged off criticism about his family’s grip in Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat politics, as he disagreed with a study from the Ateneo School of Government correlating “fat” political dynasties and poverty.
Aside from his brother Esmael and uncle Pax, Mangudadatu’s brother Freddie is also active in politics, serving as mayor of Mangudadatu town in Maguindanao.
Mangudadatu’s sisters-in-law Lorena and Zihan serve as mayors of Buluan and Pandag towns in Maguindanao. Another sister-in-law, Dahlia, serves as vice-mayor of Pandag.
Freddie and Bai Mariam Sangki Mangudadatu, the incumbent mayor of Datu Abdullah Sangki town in Maguindanao and wife of Sultan Kudarat Rep. Suharto Mangudadatu, are vying for Esmael's current position.
Mangudadatu said that armed conflict, not his ruling clan, is the main reason why poverty is pervasive in Maguindanao.
“We are elected by the people, chosen by the people…If the people do not like us, why did they vote for us?” he said.
“If a vice mayor and mayor cannot agree on issues, then development will be stifled.”
‘ELECTION IS A GAMBLE’
Unlike his fellow candidates in ruling PDP-Laban who are already known political brands, Mangudadatu is a newcomer in the national political scene.
Being a two-term Maguindanao lawmaker, Mangudadatu said he is banking on the help of his fellow lawmakers as well as the network of his political family in his Senate bid.
He said he is also optimistic that a Duterte endorsement would catapult him to the upper chamber.
“The so-called ‘Duterte Magic’ would be very effective because 70 to 80 percent of Filipinos believe in our President,” he said. “Without the endorsement of the President, things will be hard for us.”
But have these been enough?
With just days left before voters head to polling stations, the odds are stacked against his favor.
Mangudadatu has yet to break into the winners’ circle in pre-election surveys.
In the latest Pulse Asia survey conducted April 10-14, Mangudadatu only placed in the 19th to 23rd spot, barely moving in rank since the official campaign period started in February.
Mangudadatu has downplayed his poor showing in the surveys.
“The Philippines is too big. We have 7,000 islands. How do they conduct these surveys?” he said.
For the lawmaker, there is no more turning back after he has poured so much time and other precious resources for his first stab at a Senate seat.
“Elections is a form of gambling. You have to gamble,” he said.