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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE UN-CANDIDATE

Renato de Villa is neither popular nor inspiring. But President Ramos may anoint his pal to succeed him. And that means votes

By Jose Manuel Tesoro and Antonio Lopez / Manila


Go to a list of competitors

Go to a critique of the civil service

Go to de Villa interview

MONDAY MORNING; 7:25 sharp. A blue-and-white Bell 412 helicopter lifts off from the sprawling parade grounds of the Department of National Defense in Quezon City. The aircraft is a presidential support chopper; its early departure and distant destination characteristic of Fidel V. Ramos's go-get-'em schedule. But the plane's passenger is not the president.

At least not yet. Officially, Renato "Rene" de Villa is leaving metropolitan Manila for a tour of the northern provinces. His mission: to set up village-level, disaster-response groups, part of his job as head of the National Disaster Coordinating Council and as defense secretary. Yet it seems no small coincidence that the provinces he is visiting consistently deliver solid blocs of votes. Or that the councils he is founding may later serve as a grassroots political network. Or that he is introduced by supporters, on this trip at least, as the next Philippine president.

De Villa has not even declared his candidacy for next year's critical presidential elections. Nor is he a member of Ramos's ruling Lakas-NUCD party. But the 61-year-old retired general is expected to win the support of both Lakas and of the president, despite a probable challenge from at least two party stalwarts. "As a matter of gut feel," says de Villa, "I feel I have an edge over the others". Of all the aspirants for the hotly contested position, de Villa may well be the most loyal guardian of the Ramos legacy.

Aside from that, few know what else de Villa stands for -- if they know him at all. Popularity surveys have him at 3%. His name recognition is so low that the "We Love Rene" stickers his boosters distributed were assumed to be for the senatorial campaign of chief presidential lawyer Rene Cayetano. Supporters had to amend the signs to say "We Love Rene de Villa."

"De Villa is a cipher," says economist Solita Monsod, former economic planning secretary. De Villa has so far been overshadowed by Ramos, who is seven years older, though the defense chief has followed the president's military and political career like a road map. Both men graduated from elite military schools, and both served in the Vietnam war. Both led the Philippine Constabulary (PC), now the Philippine National Police, under the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos. Though the PC was accused of human-rights abuses, neither man was tainted by the charges.

De Villa backed Ramos when the general broke with Marcos in 1986, and remained loyal throughout the turbulent administration of Corazon Aquino. When Ramos was elected president in May 1992 -- with a slim plurality of 24% -- he appointed his old friend, who had retired from the military 18 months before, as chief of defense.

The close ties the old soldiers share raise doubts about de Villa's independence -- as well as initiative. "De Villa would not seek the presidency without having been told by Ramos," says opposition congressman Edcel Lagman. De Villa himself admits, "Never in my wildest dreams did I think of wanting to be president." Ramos has kept silent about whether he wants de Villa to succeed him. His hints, however, speak volumes. The president often brings the defense chief on sorties to the provinces. "Don't forget to spell his name," the president tells audiences. What for, one wonders -- so they can write it correctly on a ballot?

8:47 a.m. The president's chopper lands in Cabarroguis, the capital of quiet Quirino province. Waiting for de Villa are the Lakas provincial governor, Josie Castillo Co, and some local generals. After breakfast, Co ushers the defense secretary into a gym to face a crowd of 1,500. She introduces him as "a great leader and presidentiable." The people stomp their feet and applaud loudly. "Enlighten us," she slyly asks de Villa, "on how best we could prevent disaster in the event the right person to succeed Ramos has not been given the needed blessings."

Co is referring to Ramos's so-called "anointment." Along with de Villa, House Speaker Jose de Venecia, 60, and Finance Secretary Roberto de Ocampo, 51, are also angling for the ruling party's nomination. None of the three is popular on his own, so whoever snags the nomination will have to depend on Lakas's political clout -- and on the president's explicit support. The ruling party, which boasts 133 congressmen and two-thirds of the governorships and other elective posts, can throw its considerable heft behind its candidate. But Ramos's word is worth perhaps 20% of the vote.

"We don't have a candidate yet," Co later says, after leaving de Villa to start his lecture. "But if he's the anointed one, then we'll vote for him." First de Villa must handle some details. This month, he will resign from the defense department, join Lakas and declare his candidacy. But until his aspirations become official, his electioneering will remain fairly subtle. In his speech at Cabarroguis, he talks about disaster-training, which, he takes care to point out, is "a continuation of the program begun by President Ramos." At one point, the defense chief comes as close as he can to making an election statement: "It is important that there is a leader during a crisis."

With such coy signals, perhaps one cannot blame his listeners for being equally demure about their inclinations. Longilong Cabilangan, 50, the chief of a distant village, says simply, "We will vote for whomever helps us." Vemelyn Claro, a 22-year-old math teacher, is still undecided.

It is voters like these that Lakas and its rivals are hell-bent on winning over. Between four and seven candidates are likely to contest the presidency. The newly united opposition party, the LaMMP, is expected to field either Sen. Edgardo Angara, 62, or popular Vice President Joseph "Erap" Estrada, 60. One independent aspirant will be Sen. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, 50, whose ratings rival that of Estrada. And bringing up the rear will be Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, 51, who lost to Ramos in the 1992 elections.

None of these presidential wannabes polls above 24% in surveys. But ratings are less indicative of their chances of winning than the influence of their parties. "Surveys do not make a president," says LaMMP Rep. Lagman, "It is the political organization that does." That is why Lakas -- and de Villa -- are paying such close attention to the provinces. Quirino may be a small, quiet area, but it is part of a region united by a common language, Ilocano, and a tradition of loyalty to their own, especially in polls. Ramos and Marcos both came from this region. De Villa, whose roots are from south of Manila, must woo it if he wants to win the presidency.

After a 30-minute flight, de Villa arrives in Nueva Vizcaya, another piece of the Ilocano patchwork. This is opposition territory; vice president Estrada is well-liked in the province. "If elections were held today, Erap would win by a mile," says a scion of the Dumlao family, which has governed the province for generations. But here, de Villa finds welcoming faces. Some 1,000 war veterans have waited five hours to hear the defense secretary speak about disaster control. Many sport "We Love Rene de Villa" stickers on their caps.

"We will vote for him because he's another general and is one of us," says 78-year-old Jose S. Oria, a Japanese concentration camp survivor. De Villa gingerly shakes hands with the former soldiers, as he listens to their complaints about inadequate, and often delayed, pension checks. He promises to dispatch the head of the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office to the province within two weeks.

The prospect of another former military man installed in the presidential palace cheers these veterans. But it is a source of concern to some Filipinos, who feel the armed forces may now have too much clout in government. Ramos fought off six coup attempts by rebel soldiers during the Aquino administration. But after he assumed office, he surrounded himself with generals and ex-soldiers, a practice that has sparked worries about the "militarization of the bureaucracy" (see story, page 22).

That association, however, may be the only bit of criticism his opponents can throw at de Villa -- other than that he is not very charismatic. But in the coming election, the lack of a high profile may actually be an asset. All the other prospective candidates have been wounded by vicious battles in previous elections. De Villa is a blank slate. "He's a clean person. He's going to clean the government," says political scientist Carol Hernandez. "This is the guy who will not compromise on his principles." In the barracks, rebel soldiers once scoffed at de Villa for being whiter than brand-new underwear.

The defense chief's hesitation to join the fray could backfire. In some circles, he is called "Mr. Teka-teka" (Mr. Wait-a-Minute); this refers to his reluctance to act decisively in a military battle in Mindanao. Says Lakas congressman Rodolfo Albano, a de Villa supporter: "If I were him, I would state once and for all: 'I will run.'" Once that day arrives, Filipinos will want to know a lot more about de Villa -- and what he stands for.


HIS COMPETITION

Vice President Joseph "Erap" Estrada, 60, is wildly popular among the masses, but the former movie idol's candidacy worries Manila's business elites.

Senator Edgardo Angara, 62, has merged his party with that of Estrada. Angara's survey ratings are in the single digits but he has a nationwide political machine.

House Speaker Jose de Venecia, 60, is angling for a Ramos anointment. He built the ruling party into a juggernaut but is only polling at 5% in surveys.

Finance Secretary Roberto de Ocampo, 51, is another rival for Ramos's favor. He helped turn around the economy but is said to be out of touch with the masses.

Sen. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, 50, is an independent whose ratings rival those of Estrada. She is smart and pretty, but lacks a nationwide political machine.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, 51, almost beat Ramos in 1992, but she is headstrong and her party is weak. Polls show that her support hovers around 15%.

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