by: Inquirer Southern Luzon
MANILA, Philippines—Winning a seat in Congress is as easy as having a barber’s cut, lawyer Rodel M. Batocabe, one of the three nominees and president of the party-list Ako Bikol (AKB), said in jest.
Finding the time to visit his barber and have his hair dyed a day after Monday’s elections, Batocabe said he was also stunned by the overwhelming support given by voters to the AKB, a regional party-list group which ran for Congress for the first time.
Based on partial, unofficial tallies online of gmanews.tv as of 7:57 a.m. on Wednesday, the AKB was leading in the party-list race with 1,390,794 votes. It was followed by Senior Citizens (1,169,846), Buhay (1,162,301), Akbayan (967,630) and Gabriela (923,997).
Asked why his group was emerging as the front-runner, Batocabe said its activities were already very visible and felt by the people even before the election period started.
The AKB started as SOS Bicol, a rescue and relief program organized by private individuals and organizations in Bicol after Supertyphoon “Reming” ravaged Albay in November 2006.
Batocabe would not name the individuals and groups for “personal and private” reasons. “They don’t want to be identified,” he said.
Since then, the group has continued with its programs for Reming’s victims by helping in rehabilitation programs involving both the government and the private sector.
Likewise, it has started livelihood programs for the displaced, such as selling of the rocks and sand spewed by Mayon Volcano.
These efforts started drawing financial and moral support from other Bicolanos residing in the Philippines and abroad, among them successful businessman Elizaldy Co, an ally of President Macapagal-Arroyo. (The AKB’s two other nominees are entrepreneur Christopher S. Co, Elizaldy’s brother, and lawyer Alfredo A. Garbin.)
In October until December last year, Co’s Sunwest Group of Companies was at the forefront of the AKB in gathering donations for victims of Storm “Ondoy” in Marikina City, Quezon City and other towns in Rizal. It hosted a caravan that passed major routes in the Bicol and Calabarzon regions and handed the donations to the victims themselves.
In a story published in the weekly regional paper Bicol Mail in April 2008, Batocabe parried allegations that the AKB is solely financed by Co, a real estate developer who is also behind Sunwest Water and Electric Co. (Suweco). The company is currently generating hydroelectric power in the island-province of Catanduanes.
Batocabe said the accusation implied that the AKB was established for the sole purpose of joining the May elections.
In a statement circulated for media people in Legazpi City in Albay before the elections, AKB spokesperson Joshua E. Martinez Jr. said Co should not be singled out for his contributions to the group.
Martinez, the group’s deputy secretary general for media relations, was referring to issues raised by lawyer Luis Ruben General who alleged in the article that the AKB was financed and run by tycoons and as such, did not represent Bicol’s marginalized sectors.
Batocabe also bristled at the “black propaganda” hurled against the group by Tessa Lopez, spokesperson for the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan)-Bikol.
In a phone interview, Lopez said Batocabe must be referring to the “Letter to the Editor” which she had sent to local media entities early in May.
In that letter, the Bayan leader issued a challenge to review the AKB’s claim of representing the marginalized and questioned its source of campaign funds for the May polls.
“Many Bikolanos know that AKB is nothing but a dummy party-list of Malacañang and it is better called Gloria Bicol party-list,” Lopez wrote.
Bayan-Bicol is a militant multisectoral organization closely allied with the issues raised in Congress by Bayan Muna, a party-list group currently represented by Satur Ocampo, Teddy Casiño and Neri Colmenares.
“The black propaganda actually helped us make AKB more popular,” Batocabe said.
“With what they have done, the more that Bicolanos did not believe them,” he said. Instead, he urged rival party-list groups to work with them to achieve the common goal.
Batocabe said the AKB planned to sponsor at least 30 bills in its first 100 days in office. The measures, he said, would focus on education, economy, agriculture, tourism promotion and environmental protection.
“We will support the next president, whoever he is. AKB is friends with everyone.” Batocabe said. Sarah B. Moran and Jumean Rose M. Atun, contributors