PANGASINAN, Philippines – As media personnel, campaign staff, and security officials went in and out of the Phinma University of Pangasinan in Dagupan City on Saturday, April 23, Jenny Villegas stood watch at her usual spot outside the regional medical center, selling balut (duck embryo) and other snack items.
She doesn’t intend to watch the last presidential debate live at the university, but has every intention of watching the telecast from her neighbor’s television set.
“Para malaman kung sino ang maganda naman na… kung anong gagawin natin na presidente sa ating bansa (So I know who’s a good choice and what their plans are for the country),” the 58-year-old told Rappler.
Villegas is only one of some 1.7 million registered voters in the province of Pangasinan, which plays host to the last of 3 presidential debates organized by the Commission on Elections (Comelec).
It’s a crucial final debate for the 5 presidential bets. The significance of the venue is clear: Pangasinan is, after all, the 3rd most vote-rich province in the country.
But the timing of this debate, co-organized by ABS-CBN, the Manila Bulletin, Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas, and the university, cannot be emphasized enough. With two weeks to go before Filipinos go out and vote, it will be the goal of every presidential hopeful to woo the undecideds and the so-called soft voters of the 2016 polls.
At least 4 of the 5 candidates for president have been aggressive in wooing the vote-rich province. Senator Grace Poe, one of the front-runners in opinion polls, has visited Pangasinan at least 6 times since she declared her candidacy in 2015.
Pangasinan is the home province of her adoptive father, movie star and defeated 2004 presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr. It’s here where Poe chose to hold her first provincial rally and it’s here where her campaign jingles specifically point out that she too is a “child of Pangasinan.”
Vice President Jejomar Binay, standard-bearer of the opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), counts a Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) bigwig as an ally in the vote-rich province: Mark Cojuangco, son of the NPC founder.
It’s also in Pangasinan where Binay promised voters he would be a “spending” executive, in contrast to the current president, whose administration he accuses of underspending.
Liberal Party (LP) standard-bearer Manuel Roxas II counts on several incumbents and political bigwigs – from incumbent Governor Amado Espino Jr and the De Venecia family – to deliver him votes in Pangasinan.
Survey front runner and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, unlike his rivals, has no key allies to speak of in the province. But like in many other provinces, he’s turning to grassroots support.
One Dagupan local, Catherine, plans on hearing the presidential bets’ plans, but has long decided on voting for Duterte and his running mate, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano.
“Curious lang ako sa ibang kandidato kung ano naman causes na pinupursue nila (I’m curious to know what causes other candidates are pursuing),” said the 40-year-old, who tells Rappler it’s Duterte’s push for federalism – and his promise of peace and order – that appeals the most.
The mix of key alliances, historical ties, and electoral pasts will make Pangasinan an interesting province to observe come May 9.
Roxas won in the province during the 2010 vice presidential race, getting over half a million votes and trumping Binay by more than 70,000.
Poe won big here in 2013, topping the senatorial elections in the province with over 800,000 votes.
Ilocos Region, which Pangasinan belongs to, is overwhelming for Poe, according to the March 2016 The Standard Poll conducted by Laylo Research Strategies. Almost 40% in the region picked Poe as their president.
Binay trailed behind with 29%, Roxas with 15%, and Duterte with 11%.
And even if voters like Catherine and Villegas have already decided on who to vote for, the debate is something they look forward to – if only to hear what others bring to the table.
“Syempre para alam rin na baka sakali kung maganda rin naman, baka sakaling papalit yung desisyon (So we know if other candidates have good plans to offer too. My decision just might change),” Villegas told Rappler.
Alliances in Pangasinan also buck the trend in the rest of the country.
Cojuangco, for instance, belongs to the NPC, which backs the candidacy of Poe.
But Cojuangco has long insisted on supporting Binay, even when the party was still deciding on which candidate to ally with for 2016. The NPC stalwart, however, was absent when Binay campaigned in the province earlier this week.
Cojuangco’s candidacy had earlier forced Espino and Pangasinan 2nd District Representative Leopoldo Bataoil to bolt the NPC and eventually, ally with the ruling Liberal Party.
But Espino also happens to be the nemesis of Alaminos City Mayor Hernani Braganza, who belongs to the LP. Espino, when he was still a member of the NPC, walloped Braganza in the 2013 gubernatorial race.
Do local dynamics and endorsements affect national votes? Villegas admits that while Espino’s alliance with Roxas matters, it’s the LP standard-bearer’s promise of continuity that appeals the most.
“Malaking bagay rin syempre [pero] nakikita ko maraming natutulungan na kababayan natin. Kaya lalo’t na sa aming, mahihirap ang buhay… maraming nakikinabang,” said Villegas, whose 37-year-old son is a beneficiary of the government’s popular Pangtawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), its flagship anti-poverty project.
(The endorsement is huge but I’ve seen that a lot of our countrymen got help under this administration. So especially for us poor, it’s a huge help.)
That Pangasinan is vote-rich is clear if you take a quick stroll along most of its major streets. Campaign materials from different political camps, from national and local candidates, litter the streets.
The sheer amount of campaign material flooding the city is a surprise, even to those who’ve gone around the country for the campaign trail.
Who will clinch Pangasinan? As Duterte begins distancing himself from the pack, support in vote-rich provinces becomes even more crucial. – Rappler.com
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