The rise of Bong Go

Dharel Placido, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 11 2019 10:55 PM | Updated as of May 12 2019 12:57 AM

Former special assistant to the President Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go during the Hugpong ng Pagbabago miting de avance at the San Pedro Cathedral grounds in Davao City on May 09, 2019. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

MANILA – As the campaign season for administration-backed bets kicked off in the packed grounds of Pampanga’s provincial capitol, Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go took the stage and bowed before the audience before taking the podium.

That Go chose to bow as he got up on stage was no coincidence. He was mimicking his long-time boss, President Rodrigo Duterte, who would often make the same gesture during public speaking engagements.

For those at the event who have been closely monitoring Philippine politics, there was no doubt in their minds that Go is Duterte’s single most important candidate in the upcoming senatorial elections.

Go, who served as the former Davao City mayor’s aide for over two decades, stayed on the sidelines when his boss rose to the presidency.

But Duterte attracted so much attention and interest that Go also found himself in the limelight. From being the “national photobomber” and “selfie king,” he is now gunning for a Senate seat and has a good chance of winning, if the surveys are to be believed.

“Hindi ko po ito ine-expect. Pero siguro ito ay dahil sa tiwala ng taumbayan kay Pangulong Duterte at sa pangakong ipagpapatuloy namin ang kampanya laban sa ilegal na droga, korupsyon at kriminalidad,” Go said of his rise in the during a chance interview on the sidelines of a campaign event in Davao City on May 9.

(I was not expecting this. But maybe this is because of the people’s trust in President Duterte and my promise to continue his campaign against drugs, corruption, and criminality.)

President Rodrigo Duterte looks at his long-time aide, Senate aspirant Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, at a campaign sortie in Davao City on May 10, 2019. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

'METEORIC RISE'

University of the Philippines political science department head Ela Atienza said Duterte’s all-out support was the crucial ingredient for Go’s meteoric rise in the pre-election surveys, noting that the political neophyte has no track record to bank on.

“Wala naman tayong alam about Bong Go except that he is with the President. That’s the only thing we know about him. He is the only one banking on being attached to the President,” Atienza told ABS-CBN News.

Go only had a 5.9 percent voter preference in the March 2018 survey of Pulse Asia. About a week before the May 13 elections, this figure rose to 42 percent, making go one of the frontrunners in the senatorial race.

UP political professor Aries Arugay said it would be “embarrassing” for the popular Duterte if Go “will not win and will not win big.”

“[Duterte] has been campaigning for Bong Go even before and it seemed like the entire machinery of the Philippine state is behind him. This is to compensate to the fact that he’s a newcomer compared to the others,” Arugay told ABS-CBN News.

“What Go has is his direct access to the President. So somehow, that is residual. Anything that the people think positive of Duterte he gets a residue of it by virtue of his proximity.”

But Go and his team of strategists knew that constant media exposure and closeness to the President were not enough to seal a victory in a Senate race teeming with old and familiar names in Philippine politics.

Even before the start of the official campaign period in February this year, Go’s posters and billboards were scattered all over the country.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism said Go led the candidates with the biggest pre-campaign season spending. It said Go spent P422 million in ads from January 2018 to January 2019, dwarfing his declared net worth of P12.8 million.

Go has distanced himself from the campaign materials posted prior to the start of the campaign period in February.

He has also downplayed the PCIJ report, saying only campaign materials used during the 3-month campaign period beginning February 12 should be computed as part of his political expenses.

“Masyadong bloated at masyadong malicious. Napaka-malicious nung report,” he told reporters on the sidelines of PDP-Laban’s campaign kickoff in San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan last Feb. 14.

(The amount was too bloated, too malicious. The report is too malicious.)

“Ang mga supporters ko ang nag-place ng ads; iyung iba nga po libre. Hindi ko po alam bakit umabot ng ganoon. Hindi ko po maiwasan, marami kaming supporters ni Pangulong Duterte na sila mismo ang naglalagay ng ads.”

(It was my supporters who placed the ads; some are even free. I don’t know why it reached that amount. That can’t be avoided because President Duterte and I have supporters who placed the ads themselves.)

Monitoring campaign expenses prior to the official campaign period has been a challenge for the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

A Supreme Court’s decision in 2009 in the Penera vs Comelec case rendered the poll body toothless in going after those who conduct premature campaigning.

Because of the SC ruling, any TV, radio or newspaper advertisements released prior to the actual campaign period are not prohibited. Thus, any expenses incurred for partisan activities prior to the campaign period won’t be included in the computation for campaign expenses.

Go has managed to avoid major controversies during the campaign period. Opposition bet Gary Alejano earlier accused Go of using government funds for his campaign when he distributed shirts during a public assembly attended by barangay officials, but this failed to pull the latter’s numbers down.

Go, for his part, insisted that no government resources were used in his campaign.

“If government funds were used, don’t vote for me,” he said in a chance interview in Pampanga on Feb. 12, the start of the campaign period.

He has also succeeded in evading hard questions about his candidacy by avoiding televised public debates.

Former special assistant to the President Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go speaks with President Rodrigo Duterte and children Sara and Sebastian during a campaign sortie in Davao City on May 10, 2019. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

UP’s Arugay said Go will remain “insulated” from allegations of exploitation of legal loopholes and use of government resources to boost his candidacy as long as Duterte remains popular.

“At the end, this is something that was done before this is quite almost borderline normal, conventional,” Arugay said of the use of state resources to fuel up an administration bet’s campaign machinery.

“Unless Comelec’s sanction and enforcement rate improves, these kinds, though illegal and violating a lot of our campaign regulations, will be ignored.”

And as Go is potentially poised to win the cut-throat Senate race, he said he will continue to remain the people’s “bridge” to Duterte, even as he vowed to continue serving the President and his family until the end of his life.

“Ang laki po ng utang na loob ko sa kanila. Hanggang kamatayan po akong magsisilbi sa kanila at sa taong bayan,” Go said in a chance interview in Davao City on May 9.

(I owe the Duterte family so much. I will serve them and the nation until the day I die.)