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The Reluctant Bet

By NEWSBREAK

Danding Cojuangco has many factors to consider before making the big jump for the second time.

To those who have watched him raise a glass of gin in the new
Ginebra San Miguel ad, the message is clear: Eduardo “Danding”
Cojuangco Jr. is toying with the idea of running for president again.

 

Cojuangco, “the Boss” to his supporters, has neither confirmed nor
denied speculations about his plans for 2004. The buzz is, he will end
the guessing game during a momentous occasion early this June—his 68th
birthday—though some Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) stalwarts
doubt that.

According to House Deputy Majority Floor Leader Francisco Escudero, spokesperson of the NPC, Cojuangco has no plans of celebrating his 68th birthday. Last year, Cojuangco told party members that he would do so only when he turns 70.

But party or no party, Escudero admitted that a Cojuangco bid for the presidency is not to be discounted at this time. “If he has decided not to run, then he would have announced way before, if at all,” he said. “So definitely, he’s thinking about it, he’s considering his options.”

Escudero, however, stressed that Cojuangco’s advertisement was not meant to test the political waters. The ad was conceptualized and approved way before President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s December 31 announcement that she was not running in 2004, he said.

With a working coalition with the administration in place, the NPC never thought of propping up its own presidential bet in the forthcoming election. The equation seemed to have changed with President Macapagal-Arroyo’s surprise decision to withdraw from the presidential derby next year—though speculation that she might just change her mind will likely alter the political arena again.

In a separate interview with NEWSBREAK, Tarlac Congressman Gilbert Teodoro, a nephew of Cojuangco, said his uncle might be prevailed upon to run for president again. He gave three factors that could persuade Cojuangco to make another bid: extreme pressure, quality of endorsements, and a sense of responsibility.

“He could not run away from the problems of the country,” said political analyst Antonio Gatmaitan, who was one of Cojuangco’s strategists in the latter’s 1992 unsuccessful presidential bid. “Everybody is clamoring for an economic manager,” added Jesli Lapus (3rd district, Tarlac), another NPC congressman.

 

About the Levy

There are other inducements as well, some sectors contend. On top of the list is Cojuangco’s economic interests. Jose Faustino of the Coconut Industry Reform Inc. (COIR) noted that the Sandiganbayan anti-graft court is set to rule on the government’s 9.7-billion-peso suit against Cojuangco. The case involves the ownership of much of Cojuangco’s business empire, including substantial shares in San Miguel Corp. (SMC), the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB) and other companies, which the government believes were purchased using the coco levy funds.

On Dec. 14, 2001, the Supreme Court (SC) ruled that the levy was not only “affected by public interest” but “prima facie public funds.” Based on that SC decision, the Sandiganbayan was supposed to rule on the case three months ago.

“This is the nearest we ever got to recovering the levy,” Faustino told NEWSBREAK. But things may go awry if Cojuangco joins and wins the presidential race. Decisions on these matters tend to be influenced by the political environment, Faustino said.

The SC decision upholding a 1989 ruling that the coco levy funds are “imbued with public interest” and granting the Presidential Commission on Good Government the right to appoint members of the boards of various companies only came out in 1999–after Ramos won as president. Prior to that, there was talk that it might be reversed, according to Faustino who sits in the UCPB board representing the coconut farmers.

There are a number of other factors that Cojuangco will have to consider before making his decision, the Boss’ associates told NEWSBREAK.

 

Humbling Experience

If Cojuangco decides to run, “he would have to resign from SMC,” said Lapus. In that case, asked Gatmaitan, “what will the new stockholders—particularly Kirin and Henry Sy’s group—say?” The new investors gave Cojuangco a five-year management contract. “He would have to go back to them and say he’s quitting because he’s running,” said Gatmaitan.

Cojuangco’s age and health are important considerations, too. The Boss will be 68 this June. If he makes it to Malacañang in 2004, he would be 70 during his first year in office. “You have to look at our demographics. Would you let a 70-year-old man determine your future?” Gatmaitan said.

Cojuangco’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1992 has made the man very cautious, according to people close to him. The NPC chairman lost heavily in a number of areas where candidates he supported won. In Davao, for instance, he supported Rodrigo Duterte, Elias Lopez, and Jess Dureza. All three won but Cojuangco lost.

“He’s been through a humbling experience,” Teodoro told NEWSBREAK. “A powerful industrialist who went on exile then [suffered] defeat in a presidential election. He has mellowed.”

But supporters of Cojuangco are convinced that the Boss would have an edge over other declared presidential aspirants in case he decides to throw his hat into the political ring. For one, a number of veteran politicians have come out to support him. Moreover, Cojuangco already has his own ready machinery, the NPC.

According to Gatmaitan, Cojuangco knows from experience that machinery votes are not enough to make him win. “Command votes like those controlled by politicians will deliver at best 20 percent of the votes. That will not be enough for a presidential slot.”

Money alone will not be sufficient either, Gatmaitan added. “Hindi mo kasi lahat madadala sa pera. Lalo na sa Metro Manila saka ‘yung Lingayen-Lucena corridor, matindi ‘yun.” The Lingayen-Lucena corridor is the string of towns and cities that compose 40 percent of the national vote, which is generally composed of market votes. “That is the heart of the campaign. Walang siga diyan. Kung pwede kang manalo diyan, pwede ka nang manalo (Nobody controls that area. If you can win there, you can win nationwide),” said Gatmaitan.

 

Calculating Man

To win, a politician has to court the market votes which now compose roughly 80 percent of the electorate. “Danding is calculating. If he feels in his guts he can do it, he probably will. But if he feels he cannot, he will not do it,” said Gatmaitan.

Besides, Cojuangco will have to market himself “the proper way,” said Gatmaitan. He noted that while the San Miguel ad may have enhanced Cojuangco’s name recall, “the Danding [we see in the ad] is not the Danding we know as effective.”

Another big factor in the polls would be the type of endorsements Cojuangco is getting. “Unfortunately, it was the politicians who endorsed him first,” Gatmaitan said.

Then again, there are a host of issues that political rivals can easily dig up to undermine Cojuangco. The coco levy issue is just one. Gatmaitan conceded that the Boss has baggage. At the very least, these could pose unwelcome distractions in a campaign.

All things considered, the odds are 60-40 in favor of Cojuangco not running, Gatmaitan told NEWSBREAK. “If he thinks he will win, he will run,” he said. “I don’t think we have enough time.” And the Boss, he said, knows this.

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