Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hostage to politics

This is my column today.

What kind of citizen would not wish progress for his hometown?

Progress is the first thing anyone who has been away for quite some time watches out for the moment he or she sets foot in his or her hometown.
So why then is the citizenry of my hometown Tacloban City seems to be torn over the issue of whether or not the city should become a highly urbanized city? Ordinarily, being conferred the title of HUC would be a source of pride. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be true in this particular case.

Tacloban City, being the premiere city in Eastern Visayas has already attained the basic requirements to become HUC as provided for in the Local Government Code. To qualify, a city must have a population of at least 200,000 and an annual income of P100 million. Tacloban has a population of more than 217,000 and an annual income of P500 million. Thus, on Oct. 4, President Arroyo signed Presidential Proclamation 1637, making Tacloban City a highly urbanized city. However, this will only take effect upon ratification by the people of Tacloban in a plebiscite scheduled Dec. 18.

If the citizenry of Tacloban approves the measure, Tacloban will become the 34th HUC in the country and shall belong to that league of independent cities with its own congressional seat, its own internal revenue allocation, etc. The city would no longer be dependent on the provincial government of Leyte. Tacloban would be the sixth city in the Visayas to attain HUC status after Cebu, Lapu Lapu, Mandaue, Bacolod, and Iloilo. Eastern Visayas would have produced its first HUC ahead of the Bicol Region as not even Naga or Legazpi have been conferred HUC status.

The campaign to make Tacloban City an HUC is being spearheaded by incumbent Mayor Alfred Romualdez and his high-profile wife, the former actress Christina Gonzales-Romualdez, who also sits as councilor of the city. The couple has hit the campaign trail to get Taclobanons to approve the measure, essentially promising the moon and the stars. If we are to go by the power couple’s logic, the city’s fortunes hinge on its attaining HUC status.

Those who oppose the measure, however, qualify their opposition by saying that they are not against the HUC measure per se. “It’s a question of when,” they assert. Their main beef lies in the assertion that Romualdez has had very little success thus far in terms of effectively addressing the most basic problems of the city and the most basic needs of its citizenry. They have a long list of complaints—from ineffective garbage collection, to a drainage system that’s gone kaput, etc—which they feel need to be addressed first before the city puts its sights on more complex problems.

By gunning for HUC status, they fear that the attention and priority of the city will be deflected towards pushing for progress that is not supported by basic infrastructure. The analogy that they are putting forward is that attaining HUC status at this point when the city does not have the basic structures to prop up it up is like adding more floors to a house and expanding its fa├žade without doing anything to buttress the basic foundations of the house nor solving the internal decay. They fear that the city would be unable to cope with the growth and eventually come crashing down like a proverbial house of cards.

They make mincemeat of the mayor’s claim that more investors would come in by citing the fact that investors have come into the province even before the HUC brouhaha came about (Robinson’s has already started constructing a mall early this year). They claim that on the contrary, it would be a strong foundation in terms of basic services, etc, that would lure investors into the city. On the other hand, the proponents of the HUC measure counter that attaining HUC status would precisely address the problem as access to more funds would enable the city to expand its current services.

The debate has become like the proverbial chicken and egg equation. On one side, we have people advocating that the city fix the inherent problems and strengthen the foundations first. On the other side, people who think attaining HUC status would precisely enable the city to fix the problems and further strengthen its foundations.

The issues are important of course and one wishes that the debate is limited to the issues that matter. But this is the Philippines. Local political issues are inevitably linked to politicians. And in this country, local politics is inevitably tied to the issue of political dynasties. Thus, central to the HUC debate is the political rivalry of two powerful political clans in the province: Between the Romualdezes and the Petillas.

The Romualdezes, of course, are like royalty in Leyte. The former first lady’s family has held various positions in the province and in Tacloban for a number of years. The current congressman for the first district is Martin Romualdez, son of former Governor Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez, brother of the former first lady. Alfred Romualdez took over the reins of Tacloban from his father Bejo Romualdez.

The Petillas, on the other hand, came into power during the Aquino administration and have since then held court at the provincial office. The matriarch of the family, Remedios Petilla was governor for almost two decades. The current governor, Jericho Petilla, is a son. Siblings of Remedios Petilla sit in various elective posts. Interestingly, both families are allies of the President.

However, the provincial government and the city government have not really been in agreement on many issues for the longest time. The differences have reached almost ludicrous levels when they couldn’t even agree on a single festival to celebrate the people’s cultural heritage.
There are many things at stake aside from family honor and bragging rights. There’s economic power, for one. At present Tacloban is a component city of the province of Leyte and therefore shares internal revenue allocation with the province. Attaining HUC status would entitle it to its own IRA. The province would then be receiving lesser allocation if Tacloban becomes an HUC.

But even more contentious are the elective posts at stake. If Tacloban City becomes an HUC, it would eventually be entitled to one congressional seat. The scuttlebutt says that Alfred Romualdez wants that seat for himself so that he can relinquish the mayoralty to his wife. The suggestion of political dynasty has turned off a number of people of course, particularly since Christina is not from Tacloban. But then again, they were officially voted into office, so the perception of resentment seems misplaced. There are more political issues at stake, for example, the fortunes of the incumbent Congressman Martin Romualdez. The Romualdezes count mainly on the votes from Tacloban and Tolosa (the hometown of Imelda). If Tacloban is spun off as a separate district, the incumbent congressman will have a difficult time getting re-elected.

So in the end, it’s really politics as usual. What’s worse, the debate which has become acrimonious has begun to resemble a fight between two bullies who each want a bigger piece of the playground. When we come to think about it, it’s really too bad that something so important such as the progress of a city is held hostage to political intramurals.

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