The city of Manila has experienced many things in its historic existence. The Philippine capital for decades, Manila has seen war and foreign occupation, fire and violent protest actions, urban sprawl and modern makeovers. And look what’s touted as coming in 2013: the so-called “Battle for Manila,” which earned the colorful and foreboding tag “Dirty Harry versus Asiong Salonga”—an expected face-off between two controversial characters, both politicians of long standing but a study in contrast, for the city mayor’s post. (The chances of it taking place is 50-50, according to the latter.)
“Dirty Harry” is of course the incumbent, the tough-as-nails Alfredo Lim, who regained the Manila mayor’s seat after an aborted reach for the presidency and a stint as a senator. In his two previous terms as mayor, Lim was known for his sweeping crackdown on the city’s red-light district and relentless crusade against criminals, particularly drug dealers, that bordered on vigilantism (hence the nickname). He’s an ex-cop said to strike fear in both hardened criminal and ordinary citizen, but is also a square guy. And as though to prove that the city still remembered that fearsome image, Lim was reelected in 2007. He faced charges of human rights abuse in 2008 but that did not stop his election for a fourth term in 2010. And to think he’s all of 82.
“Asiong Salonga” is no one else but. Joseph Estrada just celebrated his 75th birthday with a bash that showed his undiminished connections in the public and private sectors despite his ouster as president and a plunder conviction. He was born in Manila but has a long history as mayor of San Juan, his family’s bailiwick to this day. The dude who earned his moniker from portraying the Robin-Hood-style gangster on the silver screen is a celebrated ladies’ man (12 children by six women) in the only country left in the world that does not recognize divorce. An ex-senator as well, he landed a respectable second to Benigno Aquino III in the 2010 presidential election, leading many to concede that “Erap” is still a potent political force.
Lim has been reported as keeping an indifferent stance to the possible blockbuster duel. “It’s too early to think about that. Let’s keep working instead,” he told reporters.
But Estrada is not being coy and is not above dropping meaningful hints, claiming that Salonga’s home ground of Tondo has a “sentimental value” to him. He also laments that Manila is no longer among the metropolis’ finest: “It’s sad because Manila is the capital city. It’s supposed to be a showcase city. It needs urban renewal.” He is obviously enjoying the attention as a likely candidate: “I’m not concerned about stature. I don’t care if I [had been] a president. I started my political career as a mayor. Who knows? I might end it as a mayor as well.”
It would be interesting if it weren’t so bizarre. The thing is, Estrada will have to move from his residence in posh Greenhills, San Juan, to Manila by May 13 to qualify for the mayoral race, according to the Commission on Elections. That’s right: The man doesn’t live there.
The “turf war” promises to be exciting, as many electoral races are in this country. But the question has to be asked: Is the recycling of these two fixtures in the political scene really the best that Manila can look forward to? Or are they sending in the clowns? Adding to the cast of previously seen characters is former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, he of the distinctive Hawaiian shirts and the splinter “Liberal Party” who is said to be planning to run as vice mayor. Haven’t the residents of Manila experienced enough?
Where are the young, up-and-coming forces for change? Who will bring something different, new and out of the box to the table? Any dark horses out there? Don’t the one-and-a-half million people of Manila deserve much better?
In many ways, the potential hot race for the Manila mayor’s seat reflects the flawed way by which Filipinos elect their officials—mainly smoke and mirrors, with a significant part riding on legend instead of track record. It’s also a demonstration of the crying need for alternative candidates, especially on the local level.
The city of Manila can be great again if its residents decide to vote to give it a new lease on life and a different path. Otherwise, it’s still a year away from the elections, but the madness has already started.