SARANGANI Representative Erwin Chiongbian’s frantic effort to fend off Manny Pacquiao’s strong start as pretender to the seat in Congress he will forcibly vacate in 2010 underscores his increasing isolation and detachment from political realities on the ground.
Although Manny’s intention is no longer a secret, Chiongbian’s reaction when interviewed by a local television here revealed his own uncertainties. It likewise betrayed an apparent arrogance in de facto claiming he and his family have the exclusive birthright to that congressional position. As if it is theirs to anoint and appoint who will get that coveted seat.
Moreover, he still clings to his self-anointed mantle as the political kingpin in the province.
He is dead wrong.
The Chiongbians lost their grip and hold to political power in Sarangani as early as 1998 when, despite the clout of their then ageing late father James, his sister failed to score a win against the ambitious political upstart Juan Domino.
That defeat of Erwin’s sister Lucille to the non-entity Domino, dented the Chiongbian legacy in Sarangani, a province that was carved out from South Cotabato in 1992 by his father.
Only a technical error on the part of Domino, which led to his disqualification after he already won the election, prevented him from taking his seat in Congress which remained vacant for three years. Without representation, between 1998 and 2001, the province was left in utter neglect.
The Chiongbians would again commit a political blunder by anointing their understudy, then Vice Gov. Miguel Escobar as the province’s next governor.
In a span of three years, beginning 2001, the province saw unprecedented scale of corruption even Rep. Chiongbian himself was forced to disown Escobar and other political leaders whom they had nurtured seamlessly, so it seemed. The late James Chiongbian obviously died a very frustrated man, unable to bear the agony of seeing their anointed successor/s destroying his legacy. His remains were brought to the provincial capitol at the height of the 2004 election campaign when Rep. Chiongbian was lambasting Escobar and his clique.
Lacking the political acumen and savvy of his parents James and Priscilla, Rep. Chiongbian himself was not spared his own missteps.
The unkindest cut of them all, he was defied by his own ambitious daughter who ran as vice governor in 2007 against his ticket that included Governor Miguel Rene Alcantara Dominguez.
Unable to rein over his daughter and then Vice Gov. Bridget Chiongbian-Huang, whom they advised to quit politics altogether after the latter tried to ran against Dominguez, Rep. Chiongbian saw himself in bitter family feud and estrangement with sister Lucille Chiongbian-Solon whose own son Steve also ran and won as vice governor of Dominguez.
The Chiongbians and the Alcantaras are long time family friends with both James and the late Conrado Alcantara arriving and setting up their business interests in the province, then the undivided South Cotabato, almost at the same time.
The incumbent governor and vice governor belonged to the third generation of their respective families who arrived in Sarangani in the early 60s. And, until they dipped their hands in politics, both were on their way up the corporate ladder of their respective business empires.
Separated by five years and only in their 30s, both Gov. Dominguez and Vice Gov. Solon are idealists and only beginning to carve their own niches in local politics.
Both are jelling very well, having been educated in the US.
Although their union was borne out of political expediency, their tandem is bringing wonders to the province even as Rep. Chiongbian continues to be seldom seen by residents.
Many believed the Dominguez-Solon tandem will remain intact and united. That cannot be said with the congressman’s side of the political clan if he will choose to ignore the two youthful and emerging political leaders in the province right now.
When rumors of Pacquiao expressing interest in Sarangani began circulating, Rep. Chiongbian orchestrated a visit to the province by his ageing mother and former governor several months ago.
Attended by two nurse aides, Priscilla, already ailing and in her mid-80s, announced in a cracked voice she will be running for the congressional seat her son would soon vacate.
It sent wrong signals to political observers as well as close Chiongbian friends.
It also showed that the crack in the Chiongbian family has not healed and may be headed to eventual split.
And as soon as Manny transferred his residency status from General Santos City to Kiamba and formally announced his intention to run for Congress, Rep. Chiongbian announced that “they” have already decided who will run against the popular Filipino boxing icon.
He rattled off the names of Gov. Dominguez, his brother (presumably Philip), his mother and even his wife Nancy.
Interestingly, except for the governor, all are absentee “residents” in Sarangani.
His announcement was however quickly shot down by Dominguez who told the media here that he still has one term left as governor. Although still non-committal about his future plans, Dominguez refused to be dragged into the political fray.
By prematurely announcing his “political plans,” Rep. Chiongbian has just painted himself in the corner. His options have become severely limited and if he still insists on his political patriarch mentality to the detriment of other political leaders in the province, he will soon find himself isolated and alone in his proxy fight with Pacquiao.
Dominguez has himself proven his leadership and can undoubtedly move forward on his own as he has been doing in the more than four years he has been in public office.
He commands the respect and loyalty of political leaders in the province by proving good governance can still be had even in this poverty-stricken province.
How the governor will deal with Pacquiao will not be based on the caprices and whims of the congressman. Whatever “political debts” he has with the Chiongbians, he has more than doubly paid them.
How long will it take for Rep. Chiongbian to realize that Dominguez is already a man of his own and himself a political heavyweight not only in the province but in the region as well?
The governor can run against Pacquiao and still emerge a runaway winner despite Manny’s vaunted popularity and newfound wealth. Or he can choose to leave the Chiongbians to slug it out with Pacquiao and stay neutral.
But the Chiongbians cannot afford to have Dominguez on the other side of the political fence.
That is the harsh reality of the times for the Chiongbians – at least on the side of the outgoing congressman. By living in his ivory tower, Rep. Chiongbian is only hastening the collapse of their once impregnable political clout in the province.