SAN FERNANDO, Philippines — The crowd of supporters parted like the Red Sea as former Roman Catholic priest Ed Panlilio stepped out of his campaign headquarters in downtown San Fernando. The building had just received a phoned-in bomb threat.
Marked for assassination by gambling barons as well as political enemies, the soft-spoken 53-year-old has so far proved to be an elusive target in a country where life is cheap and an assassin can be hired for a few hundred dollars.
The first priest ever to be elected governor in Philippines, he has changed the political landscape of this predominately Roman Catholic nation of 86 million where the constitution clearly calls for the separation of church and state.
Panlilio beat all the odds in May when he was elected governor of Pampanga, President Gloria Arroyo’s bailiwick and the illegal gambling capital of the Philippines.
Thousands of impoverished people had come to listen to his speeches in the grueling grassroots campaign while the local media portrayed him as a crusading David challenging the two Goliaths of local politics — Mark Lapid and Lilia Pineda — and backed by Arroyo’s vast political machinery.
While his victory may have alienated him from his superiors in the church, who stripped him of his priestly duties, analysts say it underscored the public’s frustration with so-called traditional politicians who have failed to lift the living standards of their constituents.
Panlilio is embarking on a Herculean crusade to clean up the bloated and corrupt provincial bureaucracy and introduce transparency in Pampanga, an agricultural province some 80 kilometers (49 miles) north of Manila.
He has already began investigating anomalous government contracts and looking at ways of cutting the provincial government’s overstaffed workforce but, perhaps more importantly, he has declared war on the operators of the popular illegal numbers game “jueteng.”
The underground multi-million-dollar jueteng operations have for years been the major source of revenue for corrupt local politicians.
The practice has become so widespread that it partly caused the downfall of president Joseph Estrada in 2001. Among others, Estrada was accused of running a protection racket involving jueteng.
Jueteng barons have become so powerful that they are known to broker political ambitions, channeling millions in campaign funds to those they favor in exchange for them turning a blind eye to their illegal business operations.
“Those who threaten us are cowards.”
Panlilio is under no illusion about the job ahead of him and he knows he may not totally eradicate jueteng. “But we have to start somewhere,” he says.
“Defeating the jueteng lords remains crucial if we are to introducing good governance in a province dominated by Mafia-like, patronage politics.”
Panlilio is the epitome of simplicity, and is most comfortable wearing a plain white shirt, jeans and sandals.
Despite the death threats, Panlilio refuses to wear a bullet-proof vest, saying: “They are too heavy and too cumbersome.”
Rubbing the simple crucifix necklace between his fingers, he says: “This is all the protection I need.”
Even so, everywhere he goes there are armed bodyguards provided by the provincial police — just in case.
“I am not afraid. When I ran for governor, I had already given myself up and was prepared for the consequences of my action,” Panlilio told Agence France-Presse.
“Those who are threatening us are cowards who don’t know how to stand on their own two feet. We cannot be cowed,” he said.
The threats against him are real — already, three local officials who were key to his campaign have been attacked by unidentified gunmen.
One of them, Mario Nulud, was killed while tending his garden in what was seen by many of Panlilio’s supporters as a warning to the priest to stop his crusade.
The attacks have forced Panlilio to limit public appearances until after his July 1 inauguration. Nevertheless, the death threats continued, including one sent via text message threatening to bomb his headquarters.
Panlilio would not publicly say who he suspects are behind the attacks but relatives of those who have been targeted believe the hired guns worked for the family of losing candidate Lilia Pineda, wife of Pampanga’s alleged jueteng kingpin Rodolfo Pineda.
“We are in constant communication with police about these threats. We are taking adequate measures for our safety,” said Panlilio.
“We will address them all in the proper time,” he said when asked if he would go all the way against the jueteng barons.
He said he would first introduce alternative livelihoods to those directly and indirectly employed by jueteng, including those who roam around Pampanga villages collecting bets. Priests would also be urged to use the pulpit to shame those known to play the game.
The plan, apparently, is to bleed dry the betting pool in hopes of killing off the gambling network.
“The jueteng lords will not have powers if the public supports the anti-gambling drive,” Panlilio said, while acknowledging that public education was needed as gambling which is generally accepted in most Asian countries.
“Ray of hope in a gloomy political sky”
Panlilio says the threats will not hinder his movements, nor stop him from fulfilling his three-year mandate as governor.
Analysts say Panlilio will have a hard time overhauling Pampanga politics.
First, he does not have the numbers in the provincial council and second, the political neophyte appears to have lost the support of the church, which frowned on his decision to run.
“Panlilio’s victory signifies the recovery of Kapampangan (Pampanga residents) self-esteem from the lowest levels to which it had sunk under the successive leadership of corrupt politicians,” said sociologist and political analyst Randy David.
David said Panlilio’s victory was a “bright ray of hope in an otherwise relentlessly gloomy political sky”.
He said there was reason to hope that Panlilio, who does not have a political party, would be able to push reforms, although he may also be overwhelmed by the task.
“Reluctant individuals, drawn into politics by extraordinary circumstances, may often choose to stand above the cesspool of politics, hoping to preserve purity,” David said.
“They usually end up being overwhelmed by politics, unable to grasp its imperatives or to live with the imperfect choices it represents.
“Potent and inspiring as political symbols, they however fail to establish enduring legacies,” he said
Mario Galang, a local governance expert who hails from Pampanga, noted the powerful Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) was not too happy with Panlilio’s victory because he was not trained for a political post.
Panlilio remains under suspension by the church, apparently to forestall any breach in the wall separating the church and the state.
“He’s on his own as far as the church is concerned,” said Galang, who writes policy reports for the Action for Economic Reforms, a local think tank.
He said politics is a game of numbers, and with Panlilio not even backed by a political party he appears to be “off to bad start.”
“He ran with nobody to point to as running mate, let alone a slate. It’s an invitation for trouble,” he said.
Panlilio crusade against jueteng and corruption “bears the figurative marks of Thermopylae” where outnumbered Spartan troops held off a horde of Persian soldiers with courage, although eventually they failed.
“The aim is less to win than to sound a moral call so clear and so convincing for legions to follow later,” he said.
Public office another way of serving God
Panlilio says he and a group of advisers were taking crash courses in good governance at a prestigious university to help him better prepare for his role.
He shrugs off the negative comments, saying that embarrassed losing candidates want to see him fail.
But Panlilio is no stranger to social activism. Over the years, he has built a solid track record for community service by working alongside non-government organizations.
He has received various awards from civic groups for his work championing micro-enterprises among the poor as well as protection for children with disabilities.
He says he does not crave power and would gladly return to his ministry once he has fulfilled his official duties.
“I am doing this not because of a personal ambition or a craving for power. I have always loved my priestly ministry and I have always found fulfillment in it,” he said.
“A priest running for public office is not an easy thing to accept,” he said, stressing that his decision had caused him sleepless nights and entailed giving up his church duties.
He says he has already crossed party lines and remains willing to have political opponents help him in his mission, while making it clear that his office would run on full transparency.
“I already miss my church. But I also believe that public office is another way of serving God,” he said in a soft voice. “With God at your side, well, how can you fail?”