2022 Philippine Elections

Political Dynasties 2022: Zubiris rule Bukidnon after Fortich

Grace Cantal-Albasin
Political Dynasties 2022: Zubiris rule Bukidnon after Fortich

Janina Malinis/Rappler

(1st UPDATE) With the Fortich family out of the picture, Joe Zubiri laid the groundwork for a new political dynasty in Bukidnon. The Zubiris’ political influence has grown through the years, dwarfing local opposition groups.

Editor’s Note: Political dynasties currently occupy 29% of local posts, up from only 19% in 1988. They hold 80% of the country’s gubernatorial posts, compared to only 57% in 2004. In Congress, they now control about 67% of seats from 48% in 2004. 

This means that most of our provinces are governed by leaders who come from families or clans that have dominated local politics for years, and the country’s laws which citizens are subjected to are mostly crafted by them. 

In this series on political dynasties in 2022, Rappler takes a close look at the persons and families who wield tremendous power and continue to have a firm grip on their respective localities. Their brand of politics and exercise of their political clout influence not only the outcome of local elections, but also the choice of our national leaders.

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Political Dynasties 2022: Whether Red or Pink wins, families rule the regions

Political Dynasties 2022: Whether Red or Pink wins, families rule the regions

BUKIDNON, Philippines – After a political career that has spanned nearly four decades, Bukidnon Governor Jose Maria “Nonoy Joe” Zubiri Jr. and his family remain as the political force to reckon with in the heart of Mindanao.

Bukidnon is home to many of the wealthiest farmers in Mindanao. The province is also where giant food processor Del Monte Philippines Incorporated operates one of the world’s largest pineapple plantations.

Despite being considered as Mindanao’s food basket, the province’s wealth is concentrated in a few families. A large swathe of the population remains impoverished, a problem none of the province’s political families, past and present, have addressed.

It was among the 15 poorest provinces in 2013, and in 2015 had the most number of poor households in Northern Mindanao. The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported a drop in poverty incidence – 53.6% in 2015 down to 27.5% in 2018. But as late as 2021, displaced farmer families – a tragic story in many communities – could still be found in backstreets of urban centers.

The ruling Zubiri family has produced a senator, Juan Miguel “Migz” Zubiri, even while dominating politics in the landlocked province. As soon as Joe rose to become its governor in 2001, there was no more room for an older political dynasty, much less space for smaller ones.

At 81, there are no signs that Joe – who has outlived his contemporaries and heads of other political dynasties in Northern Mindanao – is looking forward to retirement.

Already constitutionally barred from seeking reelection as governor, Joe is running for congressman in Bukidnon’s 3rd District, a post currently held by his second child Manuel Antonio, who is now being groomed as the patriarch’s successor in the capitol.

The Zubiris and their Bukidnon Paglaum Party (BPP) are strongest in that southern Bukidnon district. Joe served as its first representative when the district was created in 1987, and three of his five children have subsequently taken turns in representing it in the House of Representatives.

Joe served as the 3rd District’s representative for nine years straight until 1998, when he fielded one of his five children and third son, the then 29-year-old Migz, as his replacement. The elder Zubiri opted to wait for three more years than clash head-on with Governor Carlos “Totoy” Fortich who sought his third and last term in 1998.

A member of the popular “Spice Boys” in the Lower House during the Estrada administration, the younger Zubiri used the Bukidnon post as launching pad for his successful 2007 senatorial bid.

The Spice Boys was a small all-male bloc of relatively new, young, vocal, and articulate congressmen who gave politics a breath of fresh air, and rose to national prominence, especially during what subsequently became the aborted impeachment trial of then-president Joseph Estrada. The public perception of the group, which rode on the popularity of the all-female British pop group Spice Girls at the time, helped boost Migz’s bid for national office.

In 2007, Migz’s eldest brother, Jose “Joey” Zubiri III, was also elected representative of Bukidnon’s 3rd District while their father won the last of his three consecutive office terms – his first nine-year stint – as the province’s governor.

Joey served as congressman until 2016 and was succeeded by his younger brother Manuel Antonio, who is now the family’s bet for the governorship.

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Zubiri’s roots

The Zubiri patriarch didn’t start from humble beginnings – he comes from a landed clan in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental. 

With a bachelor’s degree in management from De La Salle University, Joe worked in different business firms before joining the Bukidnon Sugar Milling Company (Busco) as executive vice president in Quezon, Bukidnon, in the ’70s.

Busco was controlled at the time by the late “sugar king” Roberto Benedicto, a known crony of the then-dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos.

ZUBIRI FAMILY. Joe Zubiri, the patriarch, has political descendants both for national and local posts.

Joe, a loud and charismatic mestizo, endeared himself to the masses in Bukidnon for his unusual acts of generosity. 

He packaged himself as a member of the upper class who understood the plight and ways of the common man, a mestizo who spoke their language with a thick Hiligaynon accent, and a generous politician who fought for their rights against the rich and mighty who lorded over Bukidnon’s agricultural lands throughout the 20th century.

For years, stories about him throwing his sabong (cock derby) winnings in the air in Bukidnon when he was younger continue to do the rounds.

The capitol, under Joe’s watch, has pampered its workers. Their Christmas bonuses and other year-end incentives – amounting to more than P50,000 per worker – have become a source of envy of other local governments in Northern Mindanao.

Joe’s political career began when he served as assemblyman together with Lorenzo Dinlayan in the Marcos Batasang Pambansa from 1984 to 1986. They were members of the dictator’s Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL). 

End of the Fortich era

Bukidnon politics used to be dominated by another political family – the Fortiches. Zubiri slowly rose to power at a time when the last remaining scion of that family in politics, Governor Totoy Fortich, was about to bow out of politics.

The Fortiches were in power in Bukidnon for at least half a century until after the 1986 EDSA revolution, when Ernesto “Boy” Tabios, a Bagong Alyansang Makabayan activist, served as governor from 1988 to 1992.

The province’s leadership was then reclaimed by Totoy Fortich who served as governor from 1992 to 2001.

For some reason, Fortich opted to retire and step down before he could complete his third and final three-year office term. His vice governor, Nemesio Beltran, took over, albeit briefly.

Fortich, who died at age 83 in 2019, served his first term as governor in 1968. All in all, he served as Bukidnon’s governor for about three decades.

But the Fortiches had been in power since the early 20th century. Totoy’s grandfather Manuel Sr. was the province’s first appointed governor, who served from 1914 to 1921.

Members of the Fortich family represented Bukidnon in the National Assembly from 1935 to 1941, the Commonwealth Congress in 1945, the 1st Congress in 1946, and the succeeding congresses until 1972. 

It was only during the 6th Congress, from 1965-1969, that a non-member of the Fortich family, Benjamin Tabios, represented the province. 

The following year, or in 1970, the Fortich family returned to power until 1986. Totoy preceded Zubiri and Dinlayan in the interim Batasang Pambansa from 1978 until 1984. All of them were members of Marcos’ KBL. 

When the 3rd District of Bukidnon was created in 1987, Joe Zubiri served as its first congressman until 1998. 

Following Fortich’s retirement, Zubiri first ran for governor in 2001, won, and was reelected twice. In 2010, he traded places with his vice governor then, Alex Calingasan, but won the gubernatorial post back in 2013, for a fresh nine-year stint that would end this 2022.

Enter the new dynasty

With the Fortich family out of the picture, Joe laid the groundwork for a new political dynasty in Bukidnon.

Migz, who has been the Senate majority leader since 2018, is seeking reelection. His congressman brother Manuel Antonio is running for governor. Manuel could have opted to seek reelection in 2022 – he is entitled to one more – had he not agreed to trade places with his father.

Joe’s nephew, Ignacio “Iñaki” Zubiri, also served as mayor of Malaybalay, Bukidnon’s capital city, from 2010 to 2019. But like Joey, the eldest of the Zubiri siblings, Iñaki opted not to seek public office in 2022.

The Zubiris’ political influence has grown through the years that none of the siblings and their father ever lost in any election in Bukidnon.

Their political opponents see Joe as a master of divide-and-rule tactics in local politics, at times, pitting one faction of a sector and even local politicians against each other to prevent them from organizing a united front against him during elections.

As a result, what Bukidnon has are small groups of anti-Zubiri forces – some weaker political dynasties – working separately.

As of early March, it was unclear who among the presidential candidates the Zubiris are supporting, or if they intend to support any.

Provincial board majority floor leader Nemesio Beltran Jr. told Rappler in early March, “Wala pa gihapon until now (There’s none until now).”

But he said the Zubiri-led group has scheduled a meeting, and the matter might be taken up.

Joe’s senator son Migz has been campaigning for reelection without endorsing any of the presidential candidates. In a March 8 interview in Talisay City, Negros Occidental, he said he “wished them all well (presidential candidates)” and “I love them dearly.”

Political Dynasties 2022: Zubiris rule Bukidnon after Fortich
Joe’s challenger

In the province’s 3rd District, Joe’s congressional bid is being challenged by broadcast journalist Arlyn Ayon, who is currently a board member of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan. 

Ayon, who rose to prominence when she exposed abuses in Valencia City in 2003, is a congressional candidate of the late senator Miriam Defensor Santiago’s People’s Reform Party (PRP).

Her on-air commentaries caught the ire of then-Valencia mayor Jose Galario Sr., who had the radio station, Radyo Ukay, closed down to stop Ayon’s public affairs program from airing.

Ayon was subsequently elected Valencia councilor. She later ran for Bukidnon vice governor in 2016, but lost to Rogelio Quiño, who won by more than 100 votes.

The Roques

Ayon’s party mate, Bukidnon 4th District Representative Rogelio Neil Roque, is challenging the bid of Joe’s son Manuel to become the province’s next governor.

Roque, a former Valencia councilor, was first elected in Bukidnon’s 4th District in 2013, the year the district was created. He is serving his third and last office term as congressman. But Roque has also fielded a member of his family – his wife Laarni – to run for the congressional post he would be vacating in 2022.

Laarni is the only non-member of Zubiri’s party who won a seat in the Valencia City council in 2019. She ran under the Nacionalista Party (NP) and topped the race for city council seats that same year.

ROQUES. Husband-and-wife team going up against the Zubiris.
The Floreses

In the 2nd District, the Floreses of Malaybalay City have stayed in power since 2001. 

The late physician Florencio Flores Jr. was the city’s mayor from 2001 up to 2010, representative of Bukidnon’s 2nd District until 2019, and elected mayor again in 2019. He was seeking reelection when he caught COVID-19 and died while admitted to a Cagayan de Oro hospital on February 17.

Joe’s nephew Iñaki replaced Flores as Malaybalay mayor from 2010 to 2019, a period when the physician cum politician served as representative of Bukidnon’s 2nd District. The congressional post was held previously by former senator Teofisto Guingona III.

Flores was elected back as Malaybalay mayor while his lawyer-son Jonathan Keith Flores succeeded him in 2019 in the province’s 2nd District. That year, Flores’ son defeated Iñaki in the congressional race in the 2nd District.

Now, another Flores son, Brian, is seeking a seat in the Malaybalay City council under the Nacionalista Party (NP).

FLORES FAMILY. Dr. Florencio Flores dies in February 2022.
The Acostas

Former Aquino administration presidential adviser for environmental protection Nereus “Neric” Acosta is also attempting a political comeback and is seeking the congressional post in the 1st District, a position he, his mother, and sister held on separate occasions.

But the Zubiri group succeeded in pitting the Acostas against each other – Neric is facing Jose Manuel “Joeman” Alba, the husband of his sister Maria Lourdes who is serving her last term as a congresswoman.

In 2007, Neric challenged Zubiri in the gubernatorial race but lost.

The Acostas have been in the province’s political milieu since the ’70s when the family’s matriarch, Socorro “Coring” Olaivar-Acosta, won a legislative seat in Manolo Fortich in 1972. In 1979, she was appointed mayor of Manolo Fortich town and was elected in 1980. 

When the 1st District was created in 1987, she sought election under the Liberal Party (LP) and served the district from 1987 to 1998. 

Her son, Neric, who started as a provincial board member, succeeded his mother in the 1st District in 1998, and served as congressman until 2007, the year he lost in his bid to unseat Governor Zubiri. 

From 2007 to 2013, the 1st District was represented by Candido Pancrudo Jr. and Jesus Emmanuel Paras, who served one three-year term each.

The Acostas, through Maria Victoria, won back the congressional seat in 2013. She left the Liberal Party (LP) to join Zubiri’s party which is now fielding her husband against her brother.

Meanwhile, their mother Coring is seeking the mayoral seat of Manolo Fortich town under the LP. Rappler.com

Grace Cantal-Albasin is a Mindanao-based journalist and an awardee of Aries Rufo Journalism Fellowship.

Read the other stories in our Political Dynasties 2022 series: 

Overview

Luzon

Visayas

Mindanao

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