The privilege speech of Sen. Grace Poe about the alleged cheating in the 2004 presidential election brings back a memory of that campaign where I covered the bid of her father, the late Fernando Poe Jr.
I’ve covered all presidential elections since 1986 but nothing beats that of 2004 in sheer drama and excitement. Sen. Nene Pimentel, who was then running in the Senate slate of the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP), likened FPJ’s campaign to that of Ramon Magsaysay in 1953.
“Nobody has generated such an excitement from the people. His popularity is even rubbing on me. I had never shaken the hands of so many people before. My hands are still sore,” Nene told me in one of the KNP campaign sorties.
FPJ generated huge crowds wherever he went, except in Cebu where the KNP entourage outnumbered the audience. Politicians tried to elbow others for the privilege of joining him in the campaign. In Marawi City, the camps of two candidates for mayor prepared to shoot it out when the KNP campaign managers could not decide who between the two should join the motorcade and be on stage with FPJ. The KNP averted any violence by canceling the rally there.
‘Cheating’ in Maguindanao, Cebu
Senator Poe charged in her privilege speech that there was massive cheating in Maguindanao and Cebu. Command votes in Muslim areas were acknowledged long before the 2004 polls. Who could forget the classic telegram of then Lanao del Sur Gov. Ali Dimaporo to President Ferdinand Marcos in the 1986 snap elections? Dimaporo wired: “You are leading by 100,000 votes. Tell me if you need more.”
The case of Cebu is a different matter. At the first and only FPJ rally in Cebu City, there were more campaigners than attendees. All serious presidential candidates had made it a point to make a last-ditch attempt to court vote-rich Cebu City. FPJ was the first one to cancel a scheduled final rally in Cebu City.
The cancellation had left me wondering until I got the answer from three key FPJ campaigners: Senators Edgardo J. Angara, Tito Sotto and Tessie Aquino Oreta. Angara was chair of the KNP executive council; Sotto was FPJ’s campaign manager, while Aquino Oreta was in charge of KNP campaign finance and logistics. They told me that KNP had conceded Cebu province and Cebu City to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo weeks before election day.
“We cancelled the miting de avance because we had no organization in the city and province,” Angara said.
Sotto said the KNP was banking on the support of Cebu Vice Gov. John-John Osmena and former Rep. Junnie Martinez but the two, while contesting the post of governor, both supported GMA.
“We had only one candidate, in Cebu City, but he was very weak,” added Aquino Oreta.
She was referring to former Cebu City Mayor Alvin Garcia who lost to Mayor Tommy Osmena by a landslide.
Sotto said that with the absence of local candidates in Cebu City and Cebu province, the KNP went without election inspectors or watchers in voting precincts. GMA got 1 million more votes than FPJ there although his followers claimed that she got this thru massive cheating. (FPJ also had no provincial and congressional candidates in my home province of Nueva Ecija but he won there just the same – by a landslide in fact.)
A campaign like no other
That huge crowd attended FPJ rallies was not the only thing that set his campaign apart. He was also the only major presidential candidate who had avoided media interviews. He told us that he seldom gave interviews to movie reporters, while Tito Sotto said that FPJ was basically media-shy. He would oblige us for a few minutes but not once did he give any specifics on what he intended to do should he become president.
His popularity in the polls started to go down after an April Fool’s Day incident in Tigbauan, Iloilo, where he lost his cool on stage. GMA-7’s Sandra Aguinaldo was preparing for her stand-upper spiel and FPJ thought she was stealing the attention of the audience away from him. He gave the mike to her, saying: “Ikaw na lang ang magsalita.”
Later, in Guihulngan City, Negros Oriental, he became friendlier to media. He even joined us for dinner at the beach house of then Rep. Jing Paras.
In early April 2004, I requested the Manila Times to relieve me of my FPJ assignment. A political reporter’s main task is to help educate voters on the program of government of candidates, a task I couldn’t perform covering the FPJ campaign. My professional pride wouldn’t allow me to write only about huge crowds and emotional responses because a candidate isn’t accessible to media.