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MANILA, Philippines - Two days for the country's third vote-richest province.
On Friday, March 15, the coalition of President Benigno Aquino III, Team PNoy, heads to important battleground Pangasinan, which boasts 1.65 million voters. It has 6 congressional districts, 44 municipalities, and 4 cities.
The slate will spend two days there and will leave on Sunday, March 17, for La Union and Baguio City, where its sorties will coincide with rallies of the opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA).
Spending two days in Pangasinan could be useful for the coalition led by the Liberal Party (LP). It faces a tough challenge in the province dominated by the Nationalist People's Coalition (NPC).
While the NPC and the LP have an agreement on the national level -- with NPC member Loren Legarda part of the administration slate -- such a partnership does not translate to the local level, especially in Pangasinan. Not only are the two fielding their own candidates there, the two parties are also considered bitter rivals in the province.
In fact, even in the national level, the NPC has expressed its preferences for senator -- and this includes bets who are with UNA.
In February, former congressman Mark Cojuangco, the President's cousin and the NPC founder's son, made headlines when he announced NPC's support for its members and honorary members who are running for senator regardless of the slate they belong to.
He said that since there are already 5 of them -- Team PNoy's Loren Legarda and Chiz Escudero, UNA's Jack Enrile and Ernesto Maceda, and independent Ed Hagedorn -- and there are only 7 remaining slots, some of the administration's candidates will inevitably be excluded from the NPC sample ballots.
The declaration was a blow to the LP, which had an agreement with NPC on nationwide mutual support for the senatorial slate.
With NPC's influence in Pangasinan, the statement of Cojuangco -- who is also the chair of NPC in the province -- may be a threat for Team PNoy bets who will have to woo the province on their own.
No local alliance with NPC
But the LP also broke a deal with NPC, according to Cojuangco.
Cojuangco told Rappler in a past interview, there was an agreement early on to leave Pangasinan to NPC, hence his surprise when the LP fielded local candidates.
In the 1st district, LP fielded Leonido Pulido against incumbent NPC Rep Jesus Celeste; in the 2nd district, it fielded Ma Blanca Kim Bernardo-Lokin against incumbent NPC Rep Leopoldo Bataoil.
More importantly, LP is fielding former Alaminos mayor Hernani Braganza against NPC's re-electionist Amado Espino for governor of Pangasinan. Bragranza is a close friend of President Aquino and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas. Shortly after Braganza was drafted as LP's gubernatorial bet, Roxas tagged Pangasinan as one of the poll hotspots in the May elections, an announcement that surprised Cojuangco.
But it's not just Cojuangco who called foul over LP's actions in Pangasinan. UNA's Secretary General Toby Tiangco accused LP of engaging in "political persecution" after Roxas launched an investigation into Espino's alleged involvement in the illegal numbers game jueteng.
Tiangco attacked Roxas' classification of the province as a high-risk area, a move "that has been questioned by almost all incumbent local officials of Pangasinan," and said Roxas's actions were tantamount to power grabbing.
"Political control over Pangasinan is apparently important to anyone aspiring for higher office in 2016, and this includes the DILG Secretary," UNA said.
Despite the candidates fielded by the LP in Pangasinan, however, LP is quite weak compared to the NPC, which is the organized and dominant party in the province. Of the 44 towns, LP is fielding only 29 mayoral candidates compared to NPC's 43. Of LP's 29, only 3 are seeking re-election while NPC has 28 re-electionists.
'Differentiate LP and Aquino'
With both UNA and NPC questioning LP's past actions in Pangasinan, Team PNoy's challenge in Pangasinan looms large. Or not.
In 2010, Aquino received a total of 537,533 votes in Pangasinan while the 2nd placer, Sen Manny Villar, garnered 318, 533. Former president Joseph Estrada, an UNA stalwart, only managed 223,441.
In the vice presidential race, Roxas also received the most number of votes at 517,563, ahead of now Vice President and UNA head Jejomar Binay, who received 441,055 votes.
Even Cojuangco, who admits the LP and NPC are enemies on the local level, told Rappler the President should be differentiated from the LP, and that NPC is supportive of Aquino.
This is precisely the reason Team PNoy spokesperson Miro Quimbo is confident of the slate's chances in Pangasinan.
"What makes us really optimistic, while these (local conflicts) are expected issues, as opposed to the other party, we have the President with us who is strongly pushing for the coalition. It's different when a president takes control of a campaign. He may have a different impact in ironing out these local kinks," he said.
Quimbo admitted to feeling concern over NPC's possible dropping of certain Team PNoy bets in its sample ballot, but said they expect support from the coalition's allies even on the local level.
"We expect our local candidates who campaign against a party which is a member of the coalition, will still carry the national candidates," he said. "We expect our local slate will support the national coalition, and we expect NPC and NP to do the same."
NP, or the Nacionalista Party, is also one of the parties in the administration's coalition.
Acknowledging the importance of Pangasinan in the upcoming elections, Quimbo said President Aquino will join the slate and bets will spend extensive time there.
The slate is expected to hold pocket rallies in Mangatarem, Bugallon, Bani, Lingayen, Binmaley, Bayambang, Malasique, Mangaldan, Manaoag, Villasis, Rosales, Tayug and Binalonan, as well as a major rally in Urdaneta, and two more in Alaminos and Dagupan with the President. - Rappler.com
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