What a coup!

A former coup plotter, Antonio Trillanes IV surprised even himself with his victory in 2007. Now comes the hard part.

(This story was first published in August 2007 in Newsbreak, after Antonio Trillanes IV won as senator. We are publishing it again following Trillanes’ resignation from the Senate majority on Wednesday, September 19.)

MANILA, Philippines – He bucked all odds and broke all “How to Win” rules in politics. But to credit the Left—as has become the military’s habit—for the victory of Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV is to discredit the mixed bag of people and groups that voted for him.

In fact, goes the joke, Trillanes should avoid throwing a get-together party for all his supporters because they might end up strangling each other. The youngest senator (turning 36 on August 6, 2007) did attract an eclectic lot during the campaign: from the coiffed ladies who lunch at the ritzy Serendra to the unrepentant Marxist that is Dodong Nemenzo to the Lumad community in Mindanao to Friendster addicts who probably don’t even remember what Trillanes fought for in 2003, when he led a mutiny.

Nakakapangilabot,” Trillanes said about the 11 million votes that he got that put him on the 11th spot in the 12-person senate race. Indeed he won despite—or maybe because of?—the fact the public knew and saw little of him in the last 4 years that he was jailed.

His campaign’s organizational base included the broad anti-Arroyo movement; soldiers, their families, and fellow graduates at the Philippine Military Academy; his high school batchmates at Angelicum in Quezon City; a sprinkling of Filipino-Chinese businessmen; the anti-Joma Sison factions in the Left; layers of young volunteers; and, to a certain extent, the base of Sen Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan, such as the Guardian fraternity, and Sen Panfilo Lacson, who had asked his staff to help Trillanes.

The bulk of the Trillanes votes came from traditionally opposition bailiwicks of Metro Manila and Southern Tagalog. He also fared well in the Zamboanga provinces, where most of the Oakwood mutineers were based. All in all, he did well across the board, across ages. In the local absentee voting composed of cops and soldiers, he ranked no. 12, garnering 17,432 of the 36,361 votes cast.

How could this have happened? As Armed Forces chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. told Newsbreak, “Nobody can fathom his victory.”

Young and reckless

Only 4 years ago, Trillanes and his Magdalo group got a beating in public opinion polls, getting a negative 9% rating in a survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations following their botched coup. The young Turks fumbled in their testimonies before the Senate with their incoherent replies to tough questions on what triggered their mutiny.

At the hearing, Sen Joker Arroyo grilled him about why he broke the chain of command. Trillanes retorted, “Sir, in the same reason, sir, na iyong judgment n’yo, sir, n’ung nag-walk out noon sa impeachment trial, you took it upon yourselves, sir, to break the Rules of Court that time, sir.” Arroyo went ballistic.

Before the Feliciano Commission that probed the 2003 mutiny, Trillanes displayed the same intransigence, denying he had met with his mentor Honasan prior to the mutiny—which was a lie, according to intelligence officers.

Then, in 2004, Trillanes and fellow Magdalo leaders like captains Gerardo Gambala and Milo Maestrocampo were bused to a meeting with President Arroyo, where they saluted their commander in chief and pledged allegiance to her government. That eventually led to the release of the many enlisted men who were jailed after the mutiny. Their freedom came at a high price—an ugly split within Magdalo that left Trillanes with the faction that continued to oppose and plot against the President.

It is this stand—unflinching despite all the pressures and enticements—that stuck in the public mind.

In January 2006, Trillanes began using his appearances at a Makati court as a venue for stoking the fire against Ms Arroyo. He would call on his fellow soldiers to decide for change—alluding to frenzied efforts then to oust her. His campaign might have begun there, since the failed February coup last year turned out to be the most popular of all plots—backed by a crosssection of civil society from Left to Right but which flopped nonetheless.

By September, the jailed officer began entertaining thoughts of running and tossed the idea to jailmates at the Marine headquarters. His staunch supporter then, and now, former UP President Francisco “Dodong” Nemenzo told Newsbreak that he initially rejected the idea. The chair of the left-wing Laban ng Masa coalition said he feared that a Trillanes defeat would be seen as a “vote against a coup.” But on May 14, the die-hard Marxist cast a vote for Trillanes, “because as far as I was concerned, I was voting for a coup.”

Like most phenomenal runs, no single group or person could grab credit for this come-from-behind victory. Nobody thought he’d win; or maybe just a handful. A few weeks before the elections, Lacson told friends over lunch, “Don’t be surprised if Trillanes wins.” There was laughter. “Yes, maybe he will beat [Prospero] Pichay,” said one of them.

That remark came from Angelito Banayo, veteran political strategist who, incidentally, was the one who nominated Trillanes at the Genuine Opposition’s emergency meeting to finalize their slate. Two days before the deadline for filing of candidacies, the opposition had yet to fill up its two slots. Banayo said he was worried that he might spark debate, but still moved to nominate Trillanes and won instant support from a leader of the anti-Arroyo Black and White Movement, former Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman.

Banayo met Trillanes for the first time only 4 months later, in June. “I never knew him personally…I just felt that he fit into the GO with his fighting stand,” he told Newsbreak.

That seems to be the story of the Trillanes vote.

‘Network of initiatives’

People knew only what they wanted to know about the man: that he railed against corruption, tried to topple this government twice, and graciously took the price for it. If the bemoustached Gringo Honasan showed off his parachutes and Uzis in the late 1980s, Sonny Trillanes donned a different image in 2007—clean-cut, handcuffed, persecuted, bored in the courtroom but still looking, and sounding, good.

The 11 million votes that he got represent 26% of the nationwide registered voters. It’s slightly more than the percentage that Pulse Asia got on the number of Filipinos who would vote for anyone who favored the impeachment of the President—24%. “That was his base,” said Ana Maria Tabunda, executive director of Pulse Asia.

Early on in the campaign, Trillanes continued attacking the government for corruption, something that advisers from the opposition wanted to tone down since, they said, negative campaigning might damage the entire slate, according to a campaign insider. But the candidate himself correctly read into the situation and felt no need to play sweet.

Trillanes defied all the basic rules in campaigning: that one needed millions and machinery to win. He only had the media, and even then only occasionally on the last leg of the campaign—which augured well for one who isn’t as articulate as Honasan and for a public that was left hungering for more.

In some areas during the canvassing, Lacson said, Trillanes’s name was even used as a password for cheating operators who worked for the administration slate. If an election inspector read Trillanes’s name as the 12th bet, that meant the province delivered for the administration. Trouble was, these operators thought Trillanes would not figure in the top 12, thus the choice of him as a mere “password.”

For his campaign, Trillanes tapped the help of those close to home: his fellow Magdalo members in and out of jail, his childhood friends from Angelicum led by lawyer Rolando Averilla, and his family. Soon enough, the Trillanes for Senator Movement was launched at UP, packed with leftist activists and led by Sonny Rivera, an old family friend and former member of the Communist Party of the Philippines until the party’s bitter split in the 1990s.

“This one is for the books,” said Rivera, also a former Pasig councilor and a longtime buddy of Trillanes’s elder brother, Antonio III. He said that all groups that campaigned for Trillanes functioned independently. Trillanes, according to Rivera and Averilla, was on top of everything.

The campaign was a network of “initiatives,” Rivera told Newsbreak. “Never in the duration of the campaign did we use the term, ‘campaign manager’.”

Rivera and Averilla said that they had volunteers in 79 out of the 81 provinces. “Some are even unknown to us,” Rivera said. Trillanes himself acknowledged this, citing many surprises in the campaign, when all sorts of help would come. It was, in many ways, “kanya-kanya,” a campaign of different strokes by different folks.

Unprepared

The Trillanes camp must have shelled out only P5 to P7 million, the bulk of this comprising printing costs of campaign paraphernalia, according to Rivera. This cost excludes the TV ads contributed by Sen Maria Consuelo “Jamby” Madrigal.

Trillanes said he had no “big” campaign donors like the rest of the bets. Most of the campaign funds were collected from volunteers, supporters, and from the two fund-raising dinners that they held. The politically active wealthy women of Makati—Josie Lichauco, Betina Legarda, among others—did their own campaigning as well. Trillanes said he also dug into his personal savings and sold his car.

But all that is over.

The youngest senator comes to the Senate not completely prepared. His academic credentials—cum laude at the PMA, a master’s degree in public administration at the University of the Philippines—would serve him well. But ranged against the newly elected crop, Trillanes might realize sooner than later that getting elected from behind bars was the easiest part. – Rappler.com

(This story was first published in Aug 7 in Newsbreak, after Antonio Trillanes IV won as senator. We are publishing it again following Trillanes’ resignation from the Senate majority on Wednesday, September 19.)