MANILA -- By the time Senator Cynthia Villar got down from her luxury SUV, thousands in one of the Philippines' largest villages already had their fill of hot lugaw (rice porridge) before listening to how she rose from ice candy vendor to billionaire businesswoman and politician.
The wife of the Philippines' richest man, Manuel Villar, who is poised to top the May 13 senatorial elections, suited up for the campaign as "Mrs. Hanepbuhay," a successful mother and entrepreneur. Anything that comes after this vote, she said, will be determined by "destiny."
"Sabi ng Tatay ko noon, lahat ng leader na magaling magpakain, malakas sa tao, kaya dapat magpapakain ka din," said Villar, referring to her father, former Las Piñas City Mayor Filemon Aguilar.
(My father said, leaders who are good in feeding people win the favor of voters, that’s why you have to feed them as well.)
Likening public service to homemaking, the 68-year-old Villar said: "Ang tingin natin sa kapaligiran natin, sa bayan natin, sa bansa natin bahay pa rin natin. Pinapangalagaan natin."
(We look at our surroundings, at our nation, as part of our home. We take care of it.)
Speaking to ABS-CBN News before she got on her campaign stage in Bagong Silang, Caloocan at nightfall, Villar said she has so far mounted 1,932 livelihood projects and 1,855 farm schools nationwide.
AIMING FOR THE GUT
In her 6 years as senator, Villar authored or pushed for legislation to fight cartels that jack up prices of garlic and other produce and strengthen protection for consumers against "lemon" cars.
Most recently, she pushed for a law that put tariffs on imported rice in place of import quotas, aimed at bringing down the cost of the staple grain.
"The theme of her campaign is gut issues, poverty. Anything that has something to do with poverty alleviation is welcomed by voters," said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms.
When Villar's husband campaigned in the 2010 presidential elections, he highlighted how hard work helped him rise from what he called a sea of trash (dagat ng basura) to real estate tycoon and later, Speaker of the House of Representatives and Senate President.
"Ang ibig sabihin lang nito, kahit maliit lang ang negosyo dapat pagtyagaan natin kasi sa maliit na negosyo nanggagaling 'yung malaking negosyo...Siguro iyon ang appeal natin. In the end, ‘yung hanapbuhay is a good appeal to the people," Mrs. Villar said.
(This shows no matter how small your business is, you should work hard. A small business can grow into a big business. I think that's our appeal. In the end, livelihood is a good appeal to people.)
In the 2010 polls, however, the rags-to-riches story of her husband wasn't enough to make him president. Mr. Villar placed third as voters, angry over corruption and other misdemeanors under the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, chose the late Cory Aquino's son, Benigno III.
Mrs. Villar declared a net worth of P3.6 billion in 2017, making her the country's richest senator. Her Senate colleague, boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, placed second with P2.9 billion.
Forbes Magazine placed Manny Villar's net worth at $5.5 billion, making him the Philippines' richest and 317th around the world.
The Villar couple's son Paolo, is CEO of Vista Land which operates the Camella Homes brand while their only daughter, Camille, is the executive vice president of Starmall and president of All Home. Their other son, Mark, is the current secretary of the Department of Public Works and Highways.
"She has the resources, no questions about it. So, kung kunin mo 'yung yardstick of traditional politics, she has it all. She has the network, she has the campaign resources, Villar of course is a name brand," said Casiple, the political analyst.
The University of the Philippines business administration graduate who took her MBA at New York University is also a good political strategist, Casiple said.
Villar refuses to flaunt her family's closeness to President Rodrigo Duterte. She also investigated pollution in Boracay even if it could affect a Vista Land project on the island, he said.
"May plus points siya doon (She got plus points there)," Casiple said.
DESTINY IN 2022?
Villar, a stalwart of the Nacionalista Party, refused to answer questions about the 2022 elections, saying she preferred to concentrate on the midterm vote.
Casiple said "it wouldn't be a surprise" if either Cynthia or Manny Villar would run for president in the next elections.
"Kung nag number one si Sen. Cynthia, tingnan natin, mukhang it could be between the two of them," he said.
(If Sen. Cynthia finishes number one, it could be between the two of them.)
Villar was statistically tied for the top spot with Sen. Grace Poe based on the April 10 to 14 Pulse Asia poll. Poe placed third in the 2016 presidential vote.
"Yung low key niya does not attract critics. At the same time, 'yung approach na directly to grassroots at masipag... It avoids the pressure para makaka-concentrate ka sa campaign. Kumbaga sa kampanya, trabaho lang which I think is a very practical strategy," he added.
(Her low-key approach doesn't attract critics. At the same time, she is hardworking and her approach is directly to the grassroots.)
If Villar tops the senatorial race in her reelection bid, it would be a big improvement from her first try in 2013, where she placed only 10th. Those who do well in the midterm polls are seen as potential candidates for the presidency in the succeeding general elections.
The senator, however, said she was leaving it to fate: "Anything higher than a senator is destiny ‘yan eh. Ibinibigay ‘yan sa iyo, hindi mo pinaghahandaan."
(Anything higher than a Senator is destiny. It is given to you. You don't prepare for it.)