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PANGASINAN, Philippines - The gubernatorial race in Pangasinan is expected to be one of the hottest come the midterm elections in May.
Liberal Party (LP) bet Nani Braganza will face off with incumbent governor Amado Espino of the Nationalist People's Coalition (NPC), in a showdown in the 3rd vote-richest province in the country.
Pangasinan, declared a free zone by the administration, boasts 1.6M voters, 6 congressional districts, 44 municipalities, and 4 cities.
While NPC is the more dominant party in the province, Alaminos Mayor Braganza is confident about his chances of victory.
"Admittedly the only advantage Gov Espino has over me is awareness because he's been there for 6 years. Second, local officials are scared of him because he has the power to suspend them when they go against him, which he has done in the past against his opponents," Braganza told Rappler on Friday, March 15, on the sidelines of a Team PNoy rally in Dagupan City.
"But as far as the reception of people to my candidacy, it's warm. At the end of the day, its not just the machinery that makes you win, it will be the voters who will decide who is the better candidate," he added.
Solid NPC machinery
In Pangasinan, the NPC's so-called machinery is large and intact -- especially relative to LP's. 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 running.
Despite this, President Benigno Aquino III won huge here in 2010, emerging victorious by a wide margin in the presidential race. Braganza is counting on the same clout to carry him to victory.
"Aquino's endorsement is a huge push to any candidate not just in Pangasinan but in the whole country. But in the case of Pangasinan, the people here are also known to look into platforms not just personalities," Braganza said.
Espino has also expressed his support for Aquino, as had former congressman Mark Cojuangco, the NPC head in Pangasinan. Espino was absent in all of Team PNoy's appearances in the province, although at the coalition's rally in Urdaneta City, a huge tarpaulin from the NPC welcomed Team PNoy with Espino's face.
Aware of his influence in the province, Aquino endorsed Braganza over Espino openly. The NPC and LP have an alliance on the national level, with both parties belonging to the President's coalition.
"I have full faith and trust in Nani Braganza. Unlike other, he will not gamble away your future, he will not use power and force to stay in power," Aquino said in his rally speech.
Espino is being probed for the illegal numbers game jueteng, and is facing charges for allegedly allowing illegal black sand mining in Pangasinan. He is also facing murder charges for the death of Infanta Mayor Ruperto Martinez.
The charges all came as the election season loomed.
Braganza is a close friend of President Aquino and LP president Mar Roxas, who is also Secretary of the Interior and Local Government. Both Braganza and Aquino were critics of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo when the two were congressmen.
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.
Rappler's local sources in Pangasinan believe Braganza is responsible for feeding the LP national leadership with the idea to play dirty tricks on Espino, by convincing the LP that he can defeat Espino even if only a handful of mayors support him.
But Braganza denied the claim.
"Who filed cases vs Gov Espino? Mayor (Rodrigo) Orduña (who filed the jueteng case) was his former ally, his bagman, who he fought with because of how the money was split… I had nothing to do with that," he said.
"The second case filed -- the murder charge, was by the child of Espino's media and political operator whose conscience haunted him…. As for black sand mining, I'm not into mining. The one who filed cases was not me, but the communities affected in the areas," he added.
Braganza went on to say the biggest difference between him and Espino if he became governor would be "corruption."
The former congressman however, is facing charges as well.
Braganza is facing two charges for his alleged failure to release barangay aid funds, and for confiscating patrol cars. His supposed violation of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act and Abuse of Authority was filed against him by Alaminos City barangay captains with the Office of the Ombudsman.
While Braganza may be part of the weaker political party in the province, he has powerful familial lineage rooted in the province. The gubernatorial hopeful is the nephew of former president Fidel V. Ramos who hails from Lingayen.
Braganza said he recognizes Espino as "a friend," but emphasized how strikingly different their platforms are.
If elected, Braganza said he plans to fight poverty by providing more jobs. He lamented Pangasinan's lack of a sardines factory despite being the largest supplier of bangus, and the absence of a mango juice factory despite the province being a significant exporter of mango.
He added, Pangasinan is the largest supplier of overseas Filpino workers, because there are no jobs in the province despite its natural resources.
Braganza also said he would focus on peace and order, because "if you don't stop killing, investments and businesses will not come."
Recognizing he has less resources to campaign compared to his opponent, he expressed faith in the electorate to vote wisely.
"We will directly communicate with voters. Many times my opponents have been very wealthy against me but many times I've prevailed for a very simple reason: because they trust me and believe in my platforms. At the end its up to the voters, the platforms, not the machinery," he said. - Rappler.com
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