The Bullets’ Harvest: Politics in Kidapawan after the Shootings

(Published in the Dumaguete MetroPost 29 May, 2016)

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Kidapawan was still tense from the recent shootings when I came home to it on Election Day. The location where the rally of April 1 took place was marked by a large tarpaulin.

It spelled out my hometown’s general sentiment on the incident:

‘Do not disturb my Kidapawan!’

I had an inkling of this feeling from Kidapawanons online even before going home. The blockade had been hurting local business and disrupting transportation in Kidapawan, and yet less than half of the protesting farmers were from the city. They had been protesting against the provincial government in Amas, not the city government, but they chose to stage the rally near Kidapawan’s border with Makilala on the other side of the city from the Provincial Capitol – Kidapawan was literally caught in between. And the city has been dragged to the spotlight against its will since.

One of the two confirmed deaths, Enrico Fabligar, was from Kidapawan, and was only a bystander. And yet the absurdity of his death – a poignant demonstration of how uninvolved Kidapawan was as much a victim as the farmers – was being drowned by the louder ‘Bigas Hindi Bala’ uproar.

‘The losses are huge,’ mayor Joseph Evangelista puts it simply on an interview with online news site Rappler.

 

Evangelista’s handling

Evangelista had to balance the interest of Kidapawan, the demands of the farmers, and the directives of the provincial government, and most of the Kidapawanons I talked to believed the mayor handled the situation as best as he could. City Hall insiders tell me the mayor was functioning as mediator between Amas and the farmers, but the protest leaders were refusing to sit down.

Throughout and after the debacle the mayor was articulating the general sentiments of Kidapawan’s residents. An open letter condemning the city’s negative publicity, penned by his office, stands in front of the city hall and is covered with signatures.

Come May 9 support for Evangelista translated to votes: he was re-elected mayor of Kidapawan with over 46,000 votes, almost the entire voting population of the city. And this in a city which often abstains when a candidate is unopposed.

 

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Blaming Lala

In contrast, at over 25,000 votes the governor of North Cotabato, Emmylou ‘Lala’ Taliño-Mendoza, got just over half of that figure in Kidapawan. Over 10,000 votes from Lala’s provincial capital went to her opponent Lito Monreal, who is virtually unheard of in North Cotabato politics. This was clearly a protest vote against her.

While her term as governor has generally been well received in Kidapawan, the shooting has evidently caused Lala some support in her province’s only city.

‘She had been too bureaucratic,’ ‘she was being inaccessible when she needed to be there,’ ‘she was too proud.’ Along with these murmurs in the city were wild rumours that she had in fact withheld the distribution of relief rice in order to help boost the candidacy of a political ally. The governor had earlier faced allegations in Kidapawan of manipulating the price of rubber, a major product in the province. While the rumours are unlikely, she has undoubtedly gained the tendency to attract unpleasant speculations.

‘She should have just talked to the farmers,’ as one tricycle driver I chatted with put it.

From his tricycle I saw more posters and tarpaulins on Kidapawan’s iconic island of pine trees: ‘Kidapawan loves Peace and Progress.’ ‘No one from Kidapawan was in the rally, but Kidapawan had to sacrifice.’ ‘Do not disturb my Kidapawan.’

 

Tagum the Scapegoat

And one sign hints at the reason why Lala has accrued such ill-will in the city. ‘To serve and Protect,’ it reads, with the subtitle ‘We salute you.’

Luoy ang mga pulis (I feel sorry for the police)’ says manong driver.

My godfather Alexander Tagum, the provincial police director who led the rally dispersal, is a son of Kidapawan. Many of the police deployed – and who were injured – were from Kidapawan. It was not difficult to see why Kidapawanons sympathize with the police – their own sons and daughters – more than the farmers.

‘Alex was used as a scapegoat,’ as one relative put it. Lala earned some flak for the way she handled the shooting, but she did not get as much damage as ninong Alex. Relieved from his post pending investigations, Tagum’s career now faces a bleak future in light of the imminent return to power of the Piñols – he had a verbal tiff with then governor Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Piñol when he was still Kidapawan’s police director. ‘Tagum’s only fault,’ says the relative, ‘is he can be too gentle for a police officer. Hopefully Duterte won’t be too vindictive.’

 

 

The Duterte Factor

The election of the country’s first Mindanawon president complicates post-shooting Kidapawan politics further. The Duterte camp was very much involved in the incident: he is seen as being close with the Left, which has been accused of orchestrating the rally; he has publicly castigated Lala for her handling of the situation; and he has Robin Padilla.

His ties with the Piñol family, through its most prominent member Manny, mean the very idea of him is a key factor in any political situation in the province.

Any bid for public office by a Piñol is consequently seen as implicitly with Duterte’s backing, and with him in the land’s highest post this is a huge boost for the clan. Combined with the potential for being a protest vote post-shooting against Lala, the Piñols are in for a comeback.

In this election they had already made significant gains across North Cotabato: Joselito Piñol successfully transitioned from mayor to vice mayor of M’lang, and Gerardo and Socrates Piñol got hold of seats in Lala’s provincial board.

And most shocking for Kidapawan, Bernardo ‘Jun’ Piñol made a remarkable comeback as Vice Mayor after a few terms in the wilderness since being routed out of his congressional seat some years ago.

Jun Piñol’s election may have been a protest vote for Lala’s handling of the shooting or a show of solidarity with Digong, but the clear victim of his comeback is the defeated incumbent, Rodolfo Gantuangco.

Then again, Gantuangco was practically a political sitting duck. The former mayor of Kidapawan was cast in a negative light by the 8 million peso deficit in the local coffers when he turned over the Municipio to Evangelista. And in the previous election the bid of his brother Nido to unseat Evangelista damaged him both ways: he was seen as disloyal to Evangelista, his running mate, to those who thought it was his plan to make his brother run (and he thereby alienated the Evangelista vote); and he was seen as so untrustworthy his own brother endorsed his opponent as vice mayor.

They now say in Kidapawan that the third casualty during the shooting was Gantuangco’s political career.

‘And now Jun Piñol is poised to run for mayor when Evangelista’s term ends,’ a city hall insider tells me. As Piñol and Evangelista are not the best of political friends, a Piñol mayoralty can be the worst situation for Evangelista’s many projects. This is what is making the people in the Municipio most anxious: Evangelista’s term has seen the city grow rapidly, and a change in administration can waste all the progress. ‘But politicians can learn to be civil,’ notes my insider with hope.

 

Rice among the Bullets

The aftermath of the shooting isn’t entirely bloody for Kidapawan though. Evangelista’s able handling of the situation is a boost for him too, and when his term ends his bid for Amas can be much easier. For all the trouble it had to put up with, the shooting may be a catalyst for Kidapawan to finally see one of its sons elected governor of North Cotabato.

And the return of the Piñols isn’t necessarily a bad thing: a possible Piñol mayoralty, and speculations of a cabinet post for Manny, mean Kidapawan – and North Cotabato for that matter – might get a closer voice to the president’s ear.

At the very least, Kidapawanons admit, the international attention isn’t entirely bad. ‘At least I don’t need to explain where I’m from,’ a friend quips wryly on Facebook. Kidapawan, for whatever reason, is being talked about. And that in itself is certainly a welcome thing.

 

 

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