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Inner circle hopes to harness Duterte ‘magic’ in Senate bids

MANILA – With the campaign period officially started, President Rodrigo Duterte is expected to intensify his endorsement for his bets in the senatorial race, especially those who belong to his inner circle.

Duterte is endorsing multiple candidates from various political parties, but only a handful are known to be associated with the chief executive, a long-time Davao City mayor who was practically a stranger to national politics before he was thrust into the presidency nearly 3 years ago.

Duterte’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, has taken on the role as a power broker as her father ran the government, forming the regional party Hugpong ng Pagbabago (HNP) which forged ties with national political parties that carry re-electionists and old names in Philippine politics who are most likely to win May’s Senate race based on the recent surveys.

The President, however, is expected to pour his time, political capital, and other resources heavily on the members of his inner circle, namely his long-time aide Bong Go, former Philippine National Police chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, and former political adviser Francis Tolentino.

The three bets, together with Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III and Maguindanao Rep. Zajid Mangudadatu, complete the 5-man slate of the ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino – Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban). Together, they are called “MaBaGoKoTo,” a play on their names which can be translated to “I can change this,” something that echoes the “Change is coming” slogan of President Duterte during the presidential campaign.

Go and Bato, who are both newbies to national politics, admit that Duterte’s endorsement plays a heavy role in their respective Senate bids.

“Malaking bagay ang pag-eendorso ni pangulo sa akin at isa siya sa nagpatakbo sa akin. Malakas ang kutob niya at alam niya na makakapag-serbisyo ako ng maayos po dito sa Senado,” Go told ABS-CBN’s The Bottomline with Boy Abunda.

For most of his two decades serving Duterte, Go was away from the limelight. An election run for Go, however, became imminent when he started branding himself as the Presidential “photobomber” and “selfie king” often seen in photos that should otherwise feature the President as the most important subject. His billboards and tarpaulins would later start springing out in various parts of the country.

Dela Rosa, for his part, said he owes his identity to Duterte, having been tapped as the chief executive’s first PNP chief tasked with carrying out the controversial war on drugs.

“There’s no Bato without Digong. Siya ang gumawa sa akin. From the start ng aking career, gina-guide niya ako kung paanong magaling na pulis… Mananalo ba ako kung walang suporta ni Presidente? Definitely no.”

Tolentino, meanwhile, has his experience as long-time Tagaytay City mayor and former Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) chairman to back him up. He placed 13th in the previous Senate race, losing to then-administration bet Leila de Lima, whom he has described as a “nemesis.”

After losing in the Senate race, Tolentino found himself in the company of Duterte as the latter’s political adviser, a post which one would find to fit him given his previous association with the opposition Liberal Party.

After barely winning the 2016 Senate race, Tolentino hopes Duterte’s endorsement will spell the difference this time for him.

“Napakalaki ng tulong ng endorsement ni Mayor Digong. I will rely mostly on the endorsement of the President and his goodwill,” Tolentino said.

Among the five PDP-Laban bets, Pimentel perhaps need the least boost from Duterte, as he landed in the middle of the Magic 12 of the latest Pulse Asia senatorial preference survey. His stint as a senator since 2011, the name recall, and his association with Duterte should give him an edge over other lesser-known candidates.

Mangudadatu, meanwhile, has his work cut out for him as he continued to lag in the surveys.

The Maguindanao lawmaker is banking on a solid Muslim support from Mindanao, as he vowed to push for stronger anti-terror laws amid the spate of bombings in the restive region.

“The president need the representation of the Muslims in the Senate,” he said, adding the President assured him he will climb up the surveys as the former did when he ran for president in 2016.

These five candidates will vie for the 12 Senate posts this year with other candidates who have also received the President’s endorsement, albeit not as aggressive.

Pimentel, PDP-Laban’s president, said fielding only 5 bets was not a sign of weakness for the party.

“Strategic decision na iyon para una sa lahat, eh di madaling dalhin. If we win 5 out of 5, eh ‘di 100 pct ang batting average namin,” he said.

Pimentel added the party did not force to complete a 12-person slate because it did not want to field party youngbloods who will surely lose in the race.

In contrast, Sara’s HNP is teeming with candidates, fielding one slot more than the usual 12-person slate being fielded by political parties in the past.

HNP-endorsed candidates include re-electionists Pimentel, Sonny Angara, Cynthia Villar, and JV Ejercito, as well as Pia Cayetano, Jinggoy Estrada, and Bong Revilla, who are hoping to make a comeback in the upper chamber.

Completing the HNP list are Tolentino and Senate reace newcomers Go, Dela Rosa, Mangudadatu, Jiggy Manicad, and Imee Marcos.