By MORTZ C. ORTIGOZA
Over two months after the media bombshell that implicated Gov. Amado T. Espino, Jr. in a supposedly billion-peso jueteng scandal, and barely a month and-a-half into the local elections, the Pangasinan governor appeared to have overcome whatever ill effects the expose had generated.
Close observers of Pangasinan politics noted that based on media (mostly print and radio) exposure in social media, Espino has considerably edged his opponent Alaminos City Mayor Hernani Braganza, whose camp had understandably calculated that the sensational whistle blowing by Bugallon Mayor Ric Orduna would dramatically affect the battle for public acceptability in the gubernatorial race.
The failure of the Braganza spin masters to sustain and capitalize on the Orduna expose’, by squeezing every possible drop of sleazy details that could have helped in damaging Espino’s name, had also gave the Espino camp enough room--and time--to consolidate its defense, in fact, managing to clothe the accusations with political motive, pointing out quite convincingly that it was right after the filing of candidacies for the 2013 elections.
Espino’s party, the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), had also greatly helped the governor’s cause with its strongly worded statement warning the Liberal Party of using its powers to discredit its opponents.
Espino’s neck will be next, but ...After the December 2012 Orduna revelations, rumors flew far and wide that Gov. Espino was due to be suspended administratively, similar to the fate of Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia, a United Nationalist Alliance candidate for reelection, who was suspended by the DILG for six months.
Innuendos that obviously emanated from the Braganza camp also created unverified suggestions that it was President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III himself who was behind a move to suspend Espino by all means to insure the victory of the Liberal Party gubernatorial candidate, Braganza.
In fact, the propaganda tide had turned against Braganza when Espino’s supporters right in Alaminos City where Braganza reigns as mayor filed a case of plunder before the Ombudsman allegedly in connection with the city’s anomalous and ghost projects over the past nine years of his (Braganza) incumbency that amounted to over P4 billion.
Meanwhile, major Manila-based columnists Ramon Tulfo and Roberto Tiglao of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Ninez Cacho-Olivarez of the Tribune, Jojo Robles of the Business Week, Alex Magno of the Philippines Star, and other news writers, took turns in lambasting the Liberal Party’s agenda to unduly impute faults on their perceived enemies, the blatant mobilization of government offices, personnel and resources to tilt the balance on the ruling party candidates. as demonstrated in the persecution of Garcia of Cebu and Espino in Pangsinan.
Sources said that these political writers were allegedly beneficiaries of a handsome sum per article from Espino’s well-oiled political machinery. This machinery can be felt too in the local scene; the frequency and quality of information materials disseminated among the press and radio are almost 10 to 3 in favor of Espino, who has managed to retain the support and belief of media stalwarts in Pangasinan.
Malacanang backtracks on its plan to suspend EspinoHas Malacanang realized how deep the clout of Espino on the provincial voters that it cowered on its plan to suspend the governor?
Since February 13, deadline imposed by the Commission on Election on preventive suspensions of sitting officials, had expired, and yet Espino still calls the shots as governor of the more than 1.6 million voters’ Pangasinan.
It was assumed that the president has been deterred to suspend him not more than 90 days otherwise it affects the winnability of his 12 senatorial bets in the mammoth province.
Another factor in the easing up of the pressure against the governor was the unswerving stand of the NPC led by Mark Cojuangco to support Espino.
Not a few have observed the threat by Cojuangco, the party’s stalwart, that would caused the withdrawal of senatorial bets Loren Legarda and Chiz Escudero from the LP-NPC senatorial ticket.
Political spectators surmised that threat of Cojuangco has been a comeuppance to the bigwigs of the LP not to pursue their agenda.
Espino’s masterful defense teamWith the threat of suspension relegated to the back burner, Espino hired the services of top-notch Manila lawyer Abraham Espejo, who is also the top legal counsel of the powerful religious sect Iglesia ni Cristo, to defend the governor in the plunder case , a non-bailable offense filed before the Ombudsman by Orduna, a close ally of Braganza.
In a series of counter charges, Espejo and his defense team managed to put together a plunder case against Braganza brought forth by 15 barangay chairmen and city councilors of Alaminos City, claiming that Braganza was behind the anomalous and ghost projects worth P4.6 billion.
PR War changed in 2013 compares to the last two gubernatorial pollsAnother media source had noted that the terrain, rules of engagement, and the complexion in the current Pangasinan gubernatorial war has changed dramatically as compared to those when Espino trounced Jamie Agbayani, the wife of outgoing Governor Victor, in 2007, and thereafter the gubernatorial race of 2010 when it was the come-backing former Gov. Agbayani, himself, as the opponent, who lost to Espino by an unprecedented over 500.000 votes.
Espino is an alumnus of the elite Philippine Military Academy who had survived a number of ambuscades by communist guerrillas of the New People’s Army, while Braganza was once a political officer of the NPA who was arrested by the military but freed a day later through the intercession of his uncle then Constabulary Chief Fidel V. Ramos, who would later become Philippine president. Braganza, in his political forays, had admitted his deep involvement with the dissident movement, and once heard saying in the vernacular: Aminado naman ako na dating NPA ako, pero NPA din si Governor Espino -- No Pera Alisto. as an obvious dig on a previous charge that Espino was involved in black sand mining and smuggling, which was later denied by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
The DENR’s Environmental Compliance Certificate had marginalized as an issue the black sand mining, and Espino instead trained his gun to his opponent by claiming the baseless charges against him unduly hampered the implementation of Pangasinan’s flagship project which involved the putting of a large Eco-Tourism project that would leapfrog the province’s push for tourism and foreign investments.
The local pundit observed: " Iba na ang labananan ngayon kumpara noon. Ngayon magaling sa sira-an ang kalaban na kailangan ang talent ng abugado like Espejo to answer them. Noon, pa PR – PR lang kami. We just publish then how the governor spruced up the capitol grounds, its edifices, the 14 provincial hospitals, and many other government assets that centered on putting Lingayen and the province in the forefront of tourism in the country.”
Different Electoral BattleObservers further opined that the current gubernatorial race had turned ugly, dominated by sensational charges and counter-charges that dwelt not only on public action, but also on the persona, and even personal lives of the candidates.
“This never happened in the past, and the bitterness of the political rivalry has a negative effect on the psyche of Pangasinenses, normally a peace-loving and gentle people,” the observer added.
Another dirty element has entered the political scene: the favorite communist practice of agitating trouble-makers to create civic disturbances, such as assembling of a few “radicals,” holding aloft placards that demonize their perceived political foes, as what a number of pro-Braganza supporters have done in a few communities.
Gubernatorial Media War analyzedReports have been going the rounds that Gov. Espino enjoys a 20 percent advantage in the battle for public attention through the print and social media, which is normal for an incumbent governor who commands a full-staffed information arm led by the Provincial Information Office (PIO).
Braganza has his City Information Office (CIO) that is half the size of the PIO in terms of personnel, resources and talent.
According to a source, Toots Orfinada, Braganza’s CIO chief, had intimated to some media friends that the Braganza campaign will be bolstered by a few PR and information specialists from Manila, but the Espino camp, run by two to three battle scarred spienmeisters, has yet to see the result of their supposed superior handiwork.
For the last three weeks, for instance, the Braganza camp has sent only a sputter of PR articles to the e-mails of media men and blogs like P’nan Biggest Blog.
When we asked a personnel of the Alaminos City's CIO what’s the latest on their propaganda efforts, showing that they have been losing substantially in the media and propaganda exchanges. He readily answered: “Just wait. They (Espino Camp) will soon self-destruct, you will see.”
Was it a sheer threat or an empty threat?
We will soon learn as this writer watch with bated breath how the two camps undermine each other almost two months from now before the day of reckoning.
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