Old money takes on new money as southern Philippines city braces for closest election yet

They have barely touched the ground. But by the size of the crowds they pulled for their proclamation rallies, there might actually be a race between the scions of two of the city’s richest families in General Santos City.

Matching warm bodies to warm bodies, the opposition ticket here gathered more than enough supporters to have re-electionist Mayor Darlene Antonino-Custodio and, some say, her father on their toes.

While rallies are not sure fire indication of political strength, being able to mobilize a bigger crowd than the administration points to plenty of organization and logistics for the opposition People’s Champ Movement.

Opposition mayoralty candidate Ronnel Rivera, a city councilor who topped the 2010 elections while running as an independent, made an impressive show of force Friday evening (April 5) when his camp gathered at least 10,000 supporters at the same Oval Plaza where on March 31, Antonino-Custodio could only muster at the most 7,000.

Rep. Manny Pacquiao at the PCM rally.

It also helped Rivera that he has friend Rep. Manny Pacquiao as a close political ally, easily the night’s biggest draw.   The Sarangani congressman arrived in grand style landing his helicopter in the middle of the plaza shortly before the rally started.  Now, how about that for ostentatious display of wealth for you?

Rep. Pacquiao’s brother Rogelio (Roel) is running for congressman in the first district of South Cotabato which covers the towns Tampakan, Tupi and Polomolok in addition to the vote rich General Santos City.

Crowd estimates, however, are very subjective unless an actual headcount is made.

Five days before the PCM rally was AIM's opening salvo.

Reversal of fortunes

Many elections ago – including the 2010 electoral race – the Antoninos were derided for their alleged penchant for overspending and making the election very expensive for any candidate to have a shot at unseating them from being the real power behind whoever is occupying city hall.

Since 1987, the Antoninos have also maintained a tight grip over the First Congressional District of South Cotabato broken only in 2010 when then Antonino-Custodio’s term limits forced her to swap positions with now Rep. Pedro ‘Jun’ Acharon Jr.  The Antoninos and the Acharons are longtime allies whose common political roots trace back from the moribund Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL) party of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Not even Rep. Manny Pacquiao big spending was good enough to unseat Antonino-Custodio from her congressional seat in 2007.  Pacquiao reportedly spent more than P120 million (US$2.9 million) in his failed first bid to become a congressman.  The Antoninos are believed to have spent more than that.

In 2010, Pacquiao transferred residence and ran for congress in nearby Sarangani where he won handily over another scion of an old political clan, the Chiongbians.  Pacquiao allegedly threw away more than US$6.6 million (P356M at 54:1 peso-dollar exchange rate) to gain a seat in the House of Representatives, a spending ratio of almost 4:1 against the reported P100 million that his opponent, Roy Chiongbian, spent.  This year, the Pacquiao’s and the Chiongbians are already allies in Sarangani.

On Sunday, March 31, it was Antonino-Custodio’s turn to wail and warn against the ‘money politics’ of her opponent.

While Pacquiao is not running against the Antonino, he has always coveted the city’s plum position and is fielding his brother for congress.

He now has joined hands with the Riveras, probably the richest family in General Santos City, who are also the city’s largest producers and processors of tuna.  The Riveras’ wealth comes from diversified business interests as they are also into real estate and real estate development, shipbuilding, canning and tin can manufacturing, hardware and hotel chains, banking and finance (they owned Penbank), retailing, printing and packaging and agri-businesses.

Mayoralty candidate Ronnel Rivera

Combined with Pacquiao’s fame and wealth, Rivera now has reputation preceding him; and something the Antoninos had before and still have now – money, which, as everybody now knows, win elections.

The Antoninos have no known business interests in the city although a source close to them said they own a tuna catcher fleet that is reportedly being run by a local tuna producer.

They, however, belong to the old rich families in the Philippines who also made their fortune in logging in Mindanao during the 1960s.  The Antoninos are originally from Luzon where they still own vast tracts of land.  They also own shares of stocks in various corporations, including a reported substantial stake before at the Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation.  They also have prime real estate properties in Manila and in Davao City.

The Riveras and the Antoninos were former business partners when they, along with another fishing magnate Marfenio Tan, put up the local station then of ABS-CBN in the early ’90s.   But their relationship was shattered when, in 2001, Ronnel’s elder brother Ryan ran for congress against Antonino-Custodio.

The Riveras reportedly spent P20 million in losing the race for Ryan.

Where is the message?

Apart from that they are rich and about the same age, nothing much really separates Rivera, who is 41 years old, and the 40-year-old Antonino-Custodio.

There are no compelling reasons – therefore no captivating message from both camps – why one should not be voted into power over the other except perhaps one has been overstaying while the other is gatecrashing.

The overused catchphrase ‘change’ worked incredibly for one American president, but it does not really resonate in the escalating Antonino-Rivera rivalry, although the Antoninos may be facing the strongest challenge to their political ascendancy in the city yet.

They are known to keep a tight leash at the 12- elective seat city council where all but one are members of the Antonino-founded Achievers with Integrity Movement.  The current and past city councils have been accused as rubberstamps of the Antoninos where nothing ever gets done without passing through Aquarius, the code name of their residence here in General Santos City.

Re-electionist Mayor Darlene Antonino-Custodio

As a result, they always got what they wanted from their city councilors.  And they always had their way in running the city.

The Antoninos are riding, nay gloating, on the unprecedented and continuing growth of the city after the 1986 EDSA Revolt.  From a forlorn place when it became a chartered city in 1968, General Santos has risen to become the third largest local economy in Mindanao – anchored chiefly on the fishing industry.

Ironically, it is in the fishing industry where the Riveras built their fortune and many local businessmen are wary how a Rivera administration will impact local business here.

The Riveras will certainly make their case that with or without the Antoninos, the tuna industry would still have made the city a prime investment destination and what it is today.

Sources who do not want to be identified, however, said Mayor Antonino-Custodio still has the support of majority of the fishing industry players in the city and local businessmen who are wary of the growing clout of the Riveras.

But the Antoninos do have their own reputation of getting back at businessmen who cross political swords with them.  They have earned the reputation of vindictiveness, something many businessmen here also resent.

For the Antoninos, their rallying point is an old cliché that “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” in blocking the assaults of their political rivals.

Rivera, on the other hand, is assembling a hodge-podge of known and longtime Antonino enemies and critics, many of them had failed before to win against the well-oiled machinery of their well-entrenched rivals.

To his and to Rep. Manny Pacquiao’s credit, they were able to unite the opposition against the Antoninos for the first time.

Still Rivera is yet to capture the imagination of voters with one catch phrase that will separate him from the incumbent city mayor.

While in previous elections the Antoninos always had the upper hand in terms of machinery, the first week of the campaign period is proving that the combined forces of the Riveras and Pacquiaos are slowly catching up.

It now boils down to resources down the homestretch and in their willingness to outspend each other.

Otherwise, they will become a victim of their own reputations.  Both are moneyed but what if the flow of money will not come as expected?