MANILA, Philippines – As survey frontrunner Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr continued to reject invites to presidential debates, he’s focused his energy this week on campaign sorties in weak spots: Batangas and then Bicol, bailiwick of his closest rival, Vice President Leni Robredo.
Marcos lost to Robredo in these areas in the 2016 vice presidential race.
Sorsogon Governor Chiz Escudero, while a Bicolano like Robredo, said he is not endorsing a presidential bet for now. He will be hosting Marcos on Friday, March 4.
“Sorsogon is an open province, we will host and welcome any and all candidates who will be visiting Sorsogon. In fact, Senator Ping [Lacson] will be going on March 3, Senator BBM on March 4, Mayor Isko [Moreno] on March 14. VP Leni [Robredo] was there February 9, wala pa yatang schedule (there is no schedule yet) for Senator Manny Pacquiao,” Escudero said on Tuesday, March 1, on the sidelines of an event of the League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP) where Marcos and running mate Sara Duterte were guests.
Escudero is part of the senatorial slates of Lacson, Pacquiao and Robredo and counted by Sara Duterte as one of her “seven friends” or senatorial candidates she is endorsing outside of the Uniteam.
Sorsogon has 538,082 registered voters for 2022 and in 2016, it went for Escudero, who also ran for vice president that year. Robredo got the second highest votes in the province with 97,129 votes, while Marcos got only 20,709.
But for the entire Bicol region – composed of Albay, Camarines Sur, Camarines Norte, Sorsogon, Catanduanes and Masbate – Robredo won with more than 1.5 million votes. Escudero garnered more than 503,000 votes while Marcos only got more than 190,000 votes.
Bicol has 3.9 million registered voters in 2022, the country’s 15th most vote-rich region.
Isn’t Escudero endorsing a presidential candidate?
“I am waiting for them [his party, the Nationalist People’s Coalition] to decide, if they will endorse, if I agree with the endorsements, or if they will let us be and let us endorse whoever we want to endorse,” said Escudero.
The Marcos campaign issued a press release Monday, February 28, saying the son of the dictator “feels the intolerable hardship that the Bicolanos are experiencing because of the endless brownout” and that he will push for “studies on alternative renewable energy sources to ease the burden.”
In another press release Wednesday, March 2, Marcos said he would “revive glory days of the Bicol Express,” or a train system across the region. The Philippine National Railways Bicol had already started this, with construction set for the first quarter of the year.
With the help of LMP president and chief ally Narvacan, Ilocos Sur Mayor Chavit Singson, Marcos got the endorsements of several mayors of Robredo’s home province of Camarines Sur. But of the 11 mayors they named in a press release, at least two have denied backing Marcos, saying they were brought in to a meeting with Marcos but did not say they were endorsing him.
The two mayors, Pamplona Mayor Ronaldo “Boy” Franco and Milaor Mayor Anthony Reyes, said they are still supporting Robredo.
Heading to Batangas, too
On Thursday, March 3, Marcos and Duterte are scheduled to visit Western Batangas – in Balayan and Calatagan towns, according to social media cards of support groups, which is the way media has been tracking the Uniteam’s schedule, kept mostly secret by the campaign team.
Marcos has been frequenting Batangas, the 7th most vote-rich province with 1.82 million registered voters for 2022. He has visited the province at least twice in the campaign. Robredo was in the province also last month.
Marcos and Duterte had already secured the endorsement of Batangas Governor Hermilando Mandanas. But is that enough to flip Batangas for the tandem?
Robredo won in Batangas in 2016, getting 514,608 votes against Marcos’ 261,499.
The Uniteam describes this as a “killer schedule,” using that as reason why Marcos cannot join presidential debates.
For the Comelec debate on March 19, Marcos’ campaign manager Benhur Abalos requested to be able to discuss topics beforehand. Comelec said it would give general topics in advance.
Asked if he would finally join the Comelec debate, Marcos said “that is basically the same as others.” Reporters could not clarify what that meant, as he was being whisked away by his security to a holding room.
Uniteam senatorial bet Gilbert Teodoro, who attended debates himself when he ran for president in 2010, defended Marcos for missing the CNN Philippines debate on February 27: “It’s a scheduling problem according to them… I was with him in Pangasinan and the experience is different, so actually the debate organizers should make it also possible for all the candidates to attend.”
“It [debates] can be [important], it cannot be, depends on the format, it depends on the questions. And I am always against 30 second time limits or yes or no answers, so it depends,” said Teodoro, who joined Duterte at an earlier convention of vice mayors Tuesday morning.
Singson said, “It depends on the interviewer, if they are pro-BBM [Bongbong Marcos] or pro-Leni.”
Tuesday’s LMP event is at least the second LMP convention where Marcos and Duterte were guests. Is LMP being used for Uniteam?
“Basta sinusunod ko lang ‘yung mga mayors (I’m just following the mayors), majority of them are supporting BBM and Sara,” said Singson.
President Rodrigo Duterte may be going to Narvacan, Ilocos Sur on Friday, March 4, upon Singson’s invite to see their newly-opened market. But Singson said he won’t use the event to lobby the President to endorse Marcos.
“Pupunta lang dun para i-unveil yung public market namin na bago. Matagal nang na schedule yun….No [I don’t plan to convince him] kasi hindi yun ang agenda namin,” said Singson.
(He will go there just to unveil our new public market. That has been scheduled way before. No, I don’t plan to convince him because that is not our agenda.)
Besides, Singson said, surveys already peg Marcos at 60%. Are they okay without a Duterte endorsement at this point? “Parang ganun nga ang survey eh, pero mas maganda pa rin kung mag endorse (that’s what survey says, but it’s better if he endorses),” said Singson.