With less than a year before the May 2013 elections, re-alignment and consolidation of existing political forces are fast shaping up in southcentral Mindanao (SOCSKSARGEN) area in the Philippines, with General Santos City likely to be the hotbed of local electoral contest in the region.

Of course, Sarangani is not be far behind with many awaiting what is next with Rep. Manny Pacquiao’s fledging political career.

In South Cotabato, the thorny issue of the environment will likely remain as Rep. Daisy Avance-Fuentes is poised to reclaim the governorship in the province.

Elections in the region have so far been spared the attendant violence that marred past electoral exercises elsewhere in the Philippines like the bloody run-up to the Maguindanao gubernatorial contests in 2010 where 58 people, 32 of them journalists and media workers, where killed during the period of the filing of certificates of candidacy.

But like the rest of Philippines, however, elections have become almost the exclusive domain of people who have the resources to win the votes of the electorate.  Blame or credit it to the Antoninos -  and now Pacquiao and Rivera.

Billion peso mark?

If things go ahead as they are figuring out, the most expensive and costly elections will be in General Santos City where two of the richest political families in the city are poised to slug it out in the mayoralty contest.

Incumbent Mayor Darlene Antonino-Custodio will have her hands full as 2010 top city councilor Ronnel Rivera has already forged an alliance with Rep. Manny Pacquiao, also the richest man in the region.

Pacquiao, who ran and lost to Custodio in the 2007 congressional race in the 1st District of South Cotabato (which includes General Santos), is fielding his younger brother Rogelio for the same position he miserably lost to Custodio.   Rogelio (Roel) will try to unseat Rep. Pedro ‘Jun’ Acharon, a partymate of Custodio.

The General Santos City mayoralty contest will have old money against the nouveau rich.

Custodio is the eldest of two daughters of Adelbert Antonino whose father and mother were once senators of the Philippines.  The Antoninos built their business empire through their logging business in Kiamba and Maitum in Sarangani, once part of South Cotabato, in the late ’50s.  They have since diversified into real estate, banking, distributorship, printing, fishing and several other business activities.  When Adelbert divested his interests at the Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation after winning in the 1987 congressional race, he reportedly received in the vicinity of upward the P500 million-figure for his shares alone.

Together with their political allies in the Acharon family, the Antoninos have been in uninterrupted political power in the city since 1987, except in 1995 when an overconfident Adelbert lost to Rosalita Nuñez for the mayoralty race.  He regained it in 1998 and Nuñez would never recover from that political setback.

Rivera is the third child of fishing magnate Rodrigo Rivera Sr whose family owns the largest General Santos City-based tuna fishing fleet in the country today.  Rivera Sr. built his business empire in the early ’80s and is now into banking, financing, real estate and real estate development, hotel and resorts, hardware, manufacturing, aquaculture, food processing and other businesses.  The net worth of the Riveras is easily way above the billion peso mark.

Ryan, eldest son of Rivera, once ran against Darlene in 2001 but lost miserably.

Councilor Rivera however broke into the local political scene by topping the 2010 race for councillorship despite running as an independent.  In alliance with Rep. Pacquiao, Rivera was able to consolidate all anti-Antonino forces and will likely field a slate to include personalities identified with the Nuñezes and others who unsuccessfully tried to dislodge the Antoninos.

When Manny Pacquiao lost to Darlene in 2007, he reportedly spent more than P120 million while the Antoninos allegedly spent almost double that amount.

The money that will flow in next year’s local elections will largely depend on how local politics will shape in Sarangani.   If both camps will go for the jugulars, their combined electoral spending could top the billion peso mark (US$23.5 million).

To be or not to be

Pacquiao had already declared his intention to trade places with Gov. Miguel Rene Dominguez who is on his last term.

In 2010, Manny overwhelmingly won out over Roy Chiongbian, a member of the Chiongbian family who are long-time allies of Dominguez.

Pacquiao and Dominguez, friends before their political parties went separate ways during the last election, have become allies again and both have announced their plan to swap positions as early as July last year.

Some quarters from Pacquiao’s camp however are not hiding their intentions to thwart the budding alliance between the two young politicians.  Joining the mix is Vice Gov. Steve Solon who is not coy on running for governor provided Pacquiao keeps his current post.  Solon, a grandson of James Chiongbian who created the province, has reportedly offered Dominguez to be his vice governor.  Inside sources from both camps said Dominguez and Solon are on the verge of political estrangement if not already political enemies. Should Pacquiao opt to run for governor, Solon is likely to run for congress putting him on collision course with Dominguez.

Last month, Dominguez quietly took his oath as a member of the Liberal Party of President Benigno Aquino III after several years of courtship from LP stalwart and budget secretary Florencio Abad.  Pacquiao, meanwhile, joined Vice President Jejomar Binay’s PDP-Laban.  Solon is a member of Lakas-Kampi.

If Solon is eased out of the equation as a result of a Pacquiao-Dominguez tandem, long-time Pacquiao lawyer Jeng Gacal could end up as running mate of Pacquiao in the gubernatorial race.  It is to the best financial interest of Pacquiao, however, if he could convince Solon to serve the latter’s remaining available term.  For Solon and the Chiongbians, 2013 is a political crossroads.

Pacquiao has been repeatedly sending signals he will run for senator in 2016 and has probably finding his current job in the House of Representatives not to his liking.   Being out of the graces of Malacañang – courtesy of his past association with former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo – Manny found his pet projects languishing on the drawing board for lack of support from the administration.  Manny also reportedly wants to have a direct hand at running the affairs of the province which will make him closer to his constituents and where his generosity is more suited.

Clearly, it will also save him resources if he and Dominguez remain allies in local politics despite or in spite of their opposing party affiliations.   Should that alliance hold up, Manny can concentrate on financing the campaign of younger brother Roel and helping Councilor Ronnel Rivera in the mayoralty race in nearby General Santos City with still plenty of resources left for his 2016 senate run.

Whatever, Pacquiao has emerged as an important political figure in Sarangani, General Santos City and, to some extent, South Cotabato.

Mining giant’s shadow

In nearby South Cotabato, former political allies turned rivals Gov. Arthur Pinggoy will have his hands full against Rep. Daisy Fuentes who is raring to make a comeback as governor of the province after just one term in her second stint as member of the House of Representative (Fuentes served for three consecutive three-year term in 1992 to 2001 before running and winning as governor in 2001.  She again ran for congress in 2010 after serving out her three 3-year term limit as governor)

Issue-wise, the South Cotabato gubernatorial race is the most interesting and worth watching.

It was under the stewardship of Fuentes when the Provincial Environment Code was passed by the provincial board.  The ordinance banned open pit mining in the province. Fuentes signed the ordinance a few weeks before her term ended.

While Pinggoy has repeatedly stated he will implement the ordinance unless ordered by a competent court or it is declared unconstitutional, he also said he is open to reviewing the code.  What is preventing Pinggoy from opening up a review is the prevalent sentiment of the members of the Provincial Board which is still dominated by anti-open pit mining.

South Cotabato is host to the exploration activities of Sagittarius Mines Inc., an X-Strata controlled company that owns the US$6-billion Tampakan Copper and Gold Project.  SMI has already announced it will use the open-pit mining method to extract cooper and gold ore deposits in the mountainous villages of Tablu and Danlag in Tampakan, South Cotabato.  SMI’s projected 2016 commercial production however runs contrary to the provincial ordinance as well as the advocacy of the local Catholic Church which is strongly opposed to large scale mining operations.

Early this year, SMI was denied its application for the issuance of environmental clearance certificate (ECC) despite arguing that the provincial environment ordinance is contrary to existing national mining policy.

Instead of contesting the ordinance before the Supreme Court, SMI is lobbying the Office of the President to have the province repeal the local legislation.  It is expected that SMI will support candidates who will pledge to repeal the controversial but landmark local ordinance.

Pacquaio could also enter into the play in the issue as his brother will try to woo the votes of residents from Tampakan, Tupi and Polomolok – all South Cotabato towns which, including General Santos City, comprise the first congressional district of the province.

Fuentes, by the way, is a long-time ally of the Antoninos.

With the October deadline of the filing of certificates of candidacies, local political parties have barely four months to finalize their slate.   For some, it could just be a matter of adding a candidate or two and a little tweaking of their line-ups.  But for others, it would be fielding the best candidates and optimizing resources.  Whichever, ahead are interesting times in local politics.