As midnight of last December 1 drew to a close together with the deadline for the filing of certificates of candidacy for next year's local and national elections, the person almost everybody who is anybody in Surigao del Sur politics was either anxiously dreading or eagerly anticipating would file his COC (depending on which side of the political divide one was) was most assuredly nowhere to be seen. As in the last two previous local polls, Dr. Primo Murillo was again a disappointing no-show.
Yet until the very last minute, there were those at the provincial offices of the Commission on Elections in Tandag who waited in trepidation for the man to suddenly and magically appear and then formally join the list of hopefuls eager to mix it up in the May 2010 race for provincial positions. This, of course, brings up the big question in my mind.
For someone who has been out of the political limelight for the past nine years or so, why is Primo Murillo still such a big issue especially for the current political powers in the province? Why are rumors of the possibility that he may again be re-entering politics capable of sending shivers of apprehension and causing sleepless nights among those who supposedly have already sewn up total control of the provincial government after almost a decade of being in power?
Primo Murillo's nine years as provincial governor of Surigao del Sur from the early 1990's to 2001 were both remarkable and yet undistinguished depending on how one looks at his political career. Capitalizing on the the popularity of his father, Gregorio Sr., another doctor who was assassinated in 1983 while also a serving provincial governor, he quickly built a personal following that saw him win the governorship and hold on to it for three consecutive terms with landslide victories every time.
He went up against the strongest and most dominant political clans and families of the province during his time and won reelection handily every time thus earning almost a magical reputation as a political whizkid. Johnny Pimentel, the scion of the powerful Pimentel-Ty political clan who is eying the governorship in next year's election, ran against Murillo in the late 1990's and knows bitterly well what it is like to get trampled in the dust by the then irrepressible Murillo political juggernaut.
Yet much of the hope and promise that the Murillo governorship brought with it to the provincial government remained largely unfulfilled in nine years of tepid and unremarkable stewardship of the province. Instead, the then young and promising politician got mired during the latter years of his incumbency in a controversial rape case involving the daughter of a provincial employee that become the stuff of tabloid newspapers of the day and which even got dramatized in a news program on national television.
The local elections of 2001 finally saw Primo Murillo taste defeat for the first time in his meteoric rise to power. He had tried to run as provincial vice-governor since he was prohibited by the Philippine constitution from serving more than three consecutive terms. His wife, Djoanna who ran for mayor of Cortes town together with his brother, Gregorio Jr., who was contesting the congressional seat for the first district of Surigao del Sur with Prospero "Butch" Pichay also went down in defeat.
Since then Murillo has absented himself from politics and has reportedly moved his entire family to the United States. His brother, Gregorio Jr., did run for a variety of provincial positions in 2004 and 2007 but has not been successful in reviving his family's shattered political fortunes.
That 2001 electoral debacle for the Murillos led to the resurgence of the Pimentel-Ty political clan who under the leadership of Vicente Pimentel Jr., who had replaced Primo Murillo as governor, quickly consolidated its control over the province. That clan's political alliance with Butch Pichay who later on would become a national figure and prominent wheeler dealer in the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would prove to be resilient and strong enough to fend off all challenges to its supremacy in Surigao del Sur politics to the present day.
That Gov. Vicente Pimentel Jr., Johnny Pimentel and the rest of the Pimentel-Ty clan could still feel threatened today by an electoral challenge from someone who could be considered a political "has-been" is something that I find more than a bit perplexing in the light of the overwhelming political clout that this particular clan can muster nowadays if it chooses to do so. One then wonders if there is something more to this Murillo-phobia that meets the eye.
Politics in Surigao del Sur has always been the sole playground of its dominant political clans and families. Since it became a province in 1960, its provincial capitol has been solely in the control of either Castillos, Pimentels or Murillos. Yet, in many ways, the Murillos have have been different from the rest because they have always been able to tap on to a significant degree of residual popularity among the province's rural folk. I am often reminded of parallels between them and Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted Thai prime minister who continues to bedevil the government that ousted him because his political resiliency and populist appeal to a significant sector of Thai rural society. It is perhaps this ready made following and the lingering appeal of the Murillo name that worries the current bosses of the province.
Personally I would prefer that the 2010 local elections in Surigao del Sur would be fought more on issues and political platforms rather than personalities and the machinations of political clans and established political forces. If there is one thing that the recent gruesome events in Maguindanao province should teach us it is the fundamental truth that for true democracy to work, the governed must speak out and must not allow would-be warlords and aspiring tyrants to subvert the democratic process and allow the emergence of a political aristocracy that can plunder and pillage their political fiefdoms at will.
Primo Murillo may be the bogeyman in the political nightmares of the Pimentels, the Ty's and the Pichays but, in the final analysis, that is something that has actually little or no relevance to the daily lives of the people of Surigao del Sur. To them, politics is simply a game only the big boys play while they watch largely ignored and uninvolved in the sidelines. Whoever wins or loses does not matter much in the general scheme of things for them. In the end, it is the political families and clans that have the final say.
The Pimentels, the Tys, the Pichays and the Murillos have had their way with Surigao del Sur for a long time now. The challenge for the electorate of this province is how to change the way provincial politics is played here and now and how to reclaim for themselves the right for to determine their own political future, a fundamental right that, in a true, living and breathing democracy, should have been theirs in the very first place.