Showdown

Last week, radio reporter Febe “Bords” Morales of Aksyon Radyo 720 posted on his Facebook wall a photograph of Iloilo Governor Arthur Defensor, Sr. chatting with former 4th District Board Member Mitch Monfort-Bautista with her husband at the Capitol. It was made to look like Aksyon Bords stole a picture through a small opening of the door. But it wasn’t really a scoop; it was a deliberate media leak hatched at the Capitol to show a possible alliance between the Defensor family and Mitch Monfort, daughter of the late Cong. Dr. Narciso Monfort, in the next elections. Far from being kept a secret, the meeting was intended to be leaked to send a message to Dr. Ferj Biron, M.D., the incumbent congressman of the 4th district who is poised to run for Governor against Rep. Arthur “Toto” Defensor, Jr. in the May 2019 elections.

mitch monfort with defensor

Photo credit: Febe “Bords” Morales of Aksyon Radyo Iloilo

From what we are seeing, there is no more turning back for Defensor and Biron. Biron is reportedly fielding one of his sons to replace him as congressman, and the meeting between Gov. Defensor and Mitch Bautista is an indication she will run again and challenge the son. She ran and lost to Biron in the May 9, 2016 elections. Defensor is now sending a message to Biron that the latter’s turf will face a tough challenge. And we can expect Defensor to put up candidates for Congressman and municipal mayors in other districts.

Early on, Biron has started courting the support of the congressmen and municipal mayors in the province. A year ago, Defensor Sr. and his son, along with Representatives Arcadio Gorriceta, Biron and Raul “Boboy” Tupas agreed to field a consensus candidate to represent their alliance. Biron was able to gather the commitment of support of most of the municipal mayors in the province. He was quick to claim the title as consensus candidate. But Defensor Sr. backtracked on his commitment for a consensus candidate and announced the candidacy of his son.

It’s still a good one year before the elections are held for Governor, but the protagonists can now be narrowed down to just the two: Biron and Toto Defensor. Cong. Oscar Richard Garin Jr. of the 1st District had initially shown interest in becoming the third force in the equation. The controversy over the Dengvaxia vaccine, however, in which his wife Janette played a key role (she was listed as among the former public officials to be charged criminally by the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee) doused cold water on his plans. He has since kept quiet on the gubernatorial race.

The 2019 gubernatorial race in Iloilo

Iloilo City politics would have turned out to be dull and unexciting had it not been for the falling out — or so it seems — between brothers-in-law Cong. Jerry P. Trenas and City Mayor Joe Espinosa III. But I will leave the topic momentarily as nothing is as yet definite; there are Herculean efforts going on behind the scenes to reconcile the two.

I will shift my attention to the provincial race: the 2019 gubernatorial elections.

Midway in 2018, a three-way fight was brewing, with 1st District Cong. Richard Garin, 3rd District Cong. Arthur “Toto” Defensor Jr., and 4th District Cong. Ferjenel Biron looming as the protagonists. However, the Dengvaxia scandal erupted, and this dragged Garin down with it. His wife, former DOH Secretary Janette Garin, is in the eye of the storm. That served as a TKO punch against Garin; his wife’s scandal knocked him down, and put out of contention.

Now, only Biron and Defensor are left on the ring. The 2019 race will unfurl as a grudge fight. In 2013, Toto’s father, the incumbent Arthur Defensor Sr., defeated Biron. Apparently, the senior Defensor wants to show that his popularity will carry Toto to victory and succeed him. He wants to retire seeing the Defensor brand continue to run the province.

As early as 2017, Biron had already started wooing municipal mayors outside his congressional district, taking them on short trips abroad for a get-to-know-each-other session. Specifically, he targeted the municipal mayors of the 5th district and the 2nd district. It’s a given that Defensor will harvest the votes in his home district. When Biron began his courtship of the mayors, Garin was still in the running. His math was simple: win the support of the mayors in the 2nd and 5th, and his running would be smooth and easy.

So who has the edge?

In terms of municipal mayors who have lined up in support, there is no question that Biron has the upperhand. But experience shows that the number of municipal mayors backing up a gubernatorial candidate is the biggest key to victory. In 2004, the late Gov. Niel Tupas Sr. scored a landslide victory over then 1st District Cong. Oscar Garin Sr. even though he only had a handful of incumbent mayors on his side. Not only was Tupas outnumbered in terms of municipal mayors; among the five congressmen then, only Boboy Syjuco threw his support for Gov. Niel.

In 1992, then incumbent Gov. Simplicio Grino pulled a surprise victory against Mrs. Olive Padilla, who was backed by four out of five congressmen.

The Ilonggo vote can be unpredictable. When it comes to choosing their Governor, Ilonggo voters pick their personal preference over the dictates of their congressmen. And neither can a hostile President affect a gubernatorial bet’s chances. In 2007, the late Gov. Tupas won in what is perhaps the biggest landslide victory in Iloilo political history against then Vice Governor Obet Armada despite the disfavor he earned from Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Clearly, victory for the governorship depends on the mass appeal, the charm, and the message of the candidates. The elections for governor is really a battle for the hearts and minds of the people, and not just plain political machinery. It is too early to say who will win. Both Toto Defensor and Ferj Biron haven’t started going on media yet to let the people scrutinize their personalities, ideas and platforms.

One thing is clear: the media, notably radio, will play a big role in the gubernatorial race. Social media is not yet that strong as to swing votes this way or that. But Facebook will have a strong influence among young voters.