Negros in Cojuangco’s Grips

The Negros vote is one of the most coveted votes for candidates aspiring for president and other national posts. To do that however one must first kiss the hand of the country’s acknowledged powerbroker, Eduardo Cojuangco, Jr. whom many say considers Negros Island his own kingdom.

By Karl G. Ombion

BACOLOD CITY, Negros Occidental – This election season, Negros Island in central Philippines finds itself again throbbing with politicians out to make a grab into its vote-rich population. Staking quite a big stake in this new campaign is none other than the acknowledged kingmaker and powerbroker himself, Eduardo Cojuangco, Jr.

The two Negros provinces, Occidental and Oriental, are in the top three regions outside Metro Manila with a huge population of voters, and Cobra-Ans research reveals. Both provinces have two million voters or 72 percent of the entire region’s 3.2 million population. Negros Occidental has 1.5 million voters out of 2.1 million population while Oriental has a little more than 0.5 million out of 1.1 million people.

Past elections have shown that the Negros electorate has served as a swing vote for politicians gunning for national as well as congressional and Party-list seats.

Aside from national politicians who are keen on capturing the coveted Negros vote, the two provinces’ ruling elite is expected again to use the electoral arena to run for national and local posts – or to support their bets – as a means of increasing their monopoly over the largely monocrop, sugar-based economy. Their grip on the Negros economy and the political power that it breeds will in turn be used to push for laws and policies that further boast their interests

Proof that the Negros vote is crucial is that many of those who became the country’s presidents and vice presidents have either blood ties or close electoral alliances with the Negrense elites. The economic and political conglomerates that they forged have made both politicians and the local elites big names and dynasties in the country’s politics. Among them are Sergio Osmeña, Diosdado Macapagal and his daughter Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Ferdinand Marcos, Jose Yulo and Fernando Lopez as well as the Aquinos, Cojuangcos, Aranetas, Benedictos, Gustilos, Montelibanos, Guanzons, Arceos, Ledesmas and Alvareses.

Haciendero politicians

In Negros, so dominant are the local politicians who have deep-rooted economic ties that most often they are able to win elective posts without contest. This crop is led by candidates who belong to the same haciendero class and are affiliated with the United Negros Alliance-Nationalist People’s Coalition (UNA-NPC), the local party of business tycoon and former Marcos crony, and now “ally” of Macapagal-Arroyo, Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, Jr. NPC itself was founded by Cojuangco.

Examples are the UNA-NPC bets for governor and vice-governor in Negros’ two provinces who are running for re-election unchallenged: Gov. Joseph Maranon and Vice-Gov. Pedro Zayco in Occidental; Gov. George Arnaiz of NPC-Lakas runs unopposed in Oriental.

Except for the lone district of Bacolod, the six congressional districts of Negros Occidental and three other districts in Negros Oriental, including Dumaguete City, are contested by aspirants from UNA-NPC party, with some of them running under Lakas-CMD-NPC “sunshine coalition” and LDP-KNP coalition party. All are also backed by Cojuangco and his associates.

The 18 seats for provincial board members in the two provinces are also running unopposed. They belong to the same political parties backed by Cojuangco and the Maranon brothers.

Other local posts

Most of the aspirants racing for local executive posts in 13 of 16 cities and in 31 of 41 towns in Negros Island are either from UNA-NPC, NPC-Lakas or LDP-KNP-UNA coalition variations. Local political analysts say that whoever wins in the local polls will still be beholden to the Cojuangco-Maranon clique. In addition, there are three cities and one town in Negros Occidental where the Cojuangco bets have no opponents.

However, in Bacolod, the region’s capital and premier city, the situation is slightly different. The incumbent Mayor Luzviminda Valdez of Lakas-CMD and congressional bet, former Rep. John Orola from NPC – both backed by the traditional power blocs in the city – are being challenged by NPC-PMP-LDP-KNP bets mayoralty aspirant former and former mayor Bing Leonardia and congressional aspirant, human rights lawyer Archie Baribar.

On the other hand, incumbent Rep. Monico Puentevella of Lakas-CMD, a party-mate of Valdez, is the only aspirant who is staunchly anti-Cojuangco. He appears to be fighting all alone and has neither mayoralty slate nor political backing from the traditional power blocs of Bacolod and the province.

There are reports that the Cojuangco-Maranon clique is also betting on the Valdez-Orola tandem, as they are viewed to be not hostile to the Cojuangcos. In fact, Maranon has openly endorsed both candidates. Maranon’s support for Valdez-Orola and NPC for Leonardia-Baribar however is perceived by local political observers as a cunning move by the UNA-NPC to “saddle on two horses” to ensure their economic and political interests.

Some political observers have noted that it seems everything have already been settled among the ruling elites as far as who would win in the coming elections is concerned. “Daw kaathag naman nga naareglo na nila ang partehanay sg poder, para lang indi makaparte ang mga pumuluyo o ang nagapakig-away sa ila interes” (It seems the elites have already agreed among themselves on the division of power, just to prevent the people or their representatives from opposing parties from taking a share in the political cake), they said.

Cojuangco power

Many Negrenses believe that the Cojuangco factor – or the overwhelming economic power and influence wielded by the Cojuangcos in Negros – has determined much of the allocation of political and economic power in Negros.

By the time Cojuangco, Jr. fled the country with his patron Marcos in 1986, he had acquired a total of 5,303 has. of prime agricultural lands in the towns of Himamaylan, Isabela, La Castellana, La Carlota, Pontevedra and San Enrique and was engaged in sugar farms, orchards, cattle ranches, fighting cocks breeding farms business.

Upon his return in 1991, he made Negros as a base for his economic power recovery and also for his political comeback. The following year, he ran for presidency but lost; his vice presidential aspirant – Joseph Estrada – whom he convinced to withdraw from the presidential race won. (Estrada became president in 1998 but was ousted in early 2001by people power.)

In the May 2004 presidential elections, Cojuangco tried entering the race – and many thought he would pose a strong challenge to the incumbent. He withdrew on condition that the Macapagal-Arroyo government – which anyway is an ally with the NPC in the ruling People Power Coalition (PPC) – allowed him to get back most of his shares in SMC.

In the 1990s, playing well with the power clique in Malacañang under President Fidel V. Ramos, a former Marcos police chief, Cojuangco carefully and steadily cultivated the loyalty of his potential allies by generously providing them with their economic needs and supporting their election bids. His efforts paid off when through them he captured most of the elective posts in the fourth district in 1995 elections, including the district congressional seat that his son Charlie Cojuangco bagged.

In his bid to gain control of the entire province, and eventually the entire island, he consolidated the gains in the 1995 elections and quickly expanded to neighboring districts in the 1998 elections. By then, Cojuangco had exerted a good influence among the key families, hacienderos and politicians in the 5th and 6th districts.

Politics, a one-time Cojuangco supporter told a journalist, goes hand in hand with business and Cojuangco apparently believes that one is necessary for the other to flourish.

It was not a mere coincidence that when he expanded his political base from the 4th district beginning 1995 to other districts, Cojuangco also diversified his properties into orchard farms and aggressively expanded his agribusiness ventures. Today, the Cojuangcos reportedly own not less than 20,000 hectares of rich and productive agricultural lands in the entire region.

In 1998, Danding Cojuangco through his son-congressman Charlie, made important moves that would gradually seal his control of the economics and politics in the region, and elsewhere: the consolidation and development of his 11 haciendas into tropical fruit farms for exports and the massive production and marketing of cassava and corn in the region for San Miguel Corporation (SMC), Cojuangco’s most prized asset. These practically clinched Cojuangco’s goal to create “one island, one region” – with most political leaders of Negros in his grips.(

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