Despite a decades-long hiatus from public office, former cabinet secretary Rafael Alunan III is now rallying to return as a member of the Senate. In light of an uphill campaign leading up to the May elections, he sits down with Rogue to discuss what has kept him occupied and what has called him back
For much of the last year, Rafael Alunan III engaged in heated debate with himself on whether he should return to public office. Everyday he ended in a stalemate.
In a blog post he authored on the website Defenders of Philippine Sovereignty in September of last year, the two-time former cabinet secretary wrote, “My heart says YES; and dream of being carried to victory on the shoulders of those sectors who I’ve journeyed with. But my head says NO because the current political culture militates against people like me. I am not ‘popular,’ rich, and ‘flexible.’”
Thus played out much hemming and hawing that finally concluded in the choice, on the evening before the last day of filing for candidacy, that he would not go back to government service. Discussing the matter with former senator Richard “Dick” Gordon, they decided there were simply more cons than there were pros. They went to bed decided—only to both appear at the Commission on Elections office the next day, where they officially became 2016 senate aspirants.
“I don’t know if you want to call it divine intervention, a miracle, or serendipity,” the first Aquino administration’s Tourism Secretary and the Ramos administration’s Interior Secretary says now. “I woke up with a very heavy heart. I had never experienced something like that before. And then I got a call from Dick Gordon and he said, ‘You know, I woke up with a very big, splitting headache.’ So that’s it, I think somebody’s telling us: You just go ahead, go for it. Just let go and let God.”
Of course, a national campaign asks much more of a candidate than just his commitment. A change of heart will not alter the fact that the 67-year-old Alunan will face the lead up to May 9 with a sizable handicap. For one, there is his acknowledged shortage of funding, an issue certainly unaided by his decision to jump into the game a mere seven months before votes are set to be cast. Sitting now in the study of his Quezon City residence—one with all the indications of a home far out of reach for the average Filipino earner, but quite modest by the standards of our one percent—he recalls a conversation with another politician: “Raf, you’re coming back after 20 years; you’re going to need a lot more money than we do, because we’ve got easier name recall. In my case, I spent only P100 million in 2010.” To which Alunan replied, “Did you say only?”
A signed photo of Alunan being awarded the Outstanding Achievement Medal from then incoming President Fidel V. Ramos and Brigadier General Leo Alvez on June 25, 1992 in Fort Bonifacio. He was lauded for his help during the December 1989 coup attempt.
Alunan being sworn in as Secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government by outgoing President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino in 1992. Alunan’s term ended in April 1996.
He is of course no stranger to the electoral process, having been involved in Ramos’s presidential bid in the early 90s. “The reality of politics is that you need big organizations, you need money, you need machinery. [For the 2016 elections] I was an independent, I wasn’t part of any of these so-called ‘parties’ that are nothing but fraternities or syndicates.” Though it’s worth noting that he is officially running under Gordon’s Bagumbayan Party, he explains, “I expected that things would’ve changed for the better, no? But things are still so commercial, and if we talk about that kind of money, you’re just excluding so many people who are qualified who don’t have money.” He adds, “To get elected is like climbing two Mount Everests because the guys, the entrenched, the status quo will make sure they preserve their seats of power.”
Secondly, there is the issue of recall. This year marks the second consecutive decade since Alunan last held a post in government. For that reason, the average Filipino under the age of 30 is unlikely to be familiar with his name, let alone his politics. He himself admitted in the aforementioned blog post, “Building a national base for new politics takes time in terms of advocacy and organization-building based on integrity, service, and merit. The majority of voters—mainly the youth, D, and E segments—who, most of all, need a better and secure life, don’t know who I am.”
On the issue of the youth, Alunan’s stance is one that is revelatory of both his sincerity in his desire to serve as well as, perhaps, a little naïveté. “Really, it’s not about me. It’s my message: I stand for new politics. And the youth would have to research; there are a lot of candidates out there. They’ll have to determine for themselves: ‘Who are the guys that represent new politics that will fight for our future?’” he says. “We’re just here to make ourselves available to help them out. If they don’t need our help, then that’s it. So be it. They’ll have to live with the impact of the consequences of their choices.”
Unfortunately, the national Philippine elections have long been a game in which personality politics trump regard for platform, and one’s financial resources are the buy-in for media attention. Seeking to change this is commendable, but to presently consider it otherwise is a delusion. Fortunately, of late Alunan has been an active voice in pressing issues that have warranted him airtime, namely the West Philippine Sea dispute with China and the highly contentious Bangsamoro Basic Law. Both on air and in person, it’s these topics that ignite a more impassioned discussion in the otherwise composed and sober Alunan. He has been a vocal critic of the BBL, while to address the former he co-initiated the West Philippine Sea Coalition. He calls it a form of “information warfare” that spreads our country’s word about the dispute beyond our own borders, where the media rarely think to cover it.
Over the years the Filipino has developed an indiscriminate aversion to public officials. Our knee-jerk reaction is to be suspicious of their initiatives, wary of their motives. Willingly stepping before this increasingly jaded electorate, Alunan gives the impression of a man who is genuinely eager to do well by his country in what he believes is his greatest capacity. Speaking of his 50th high school reunion last year, he says he and his La Salle Bacolod batchmates were reflecting on the distressing state of the country over the last three decades. Now well into their 60s and having found success and influence in their individual arenas, they agreed they could not allow themselves to become fault-finding old men whose only contribution to society was to bemoan its downfall.
“We’re senior citizens now, but we’re still in the front lines . . . And so we said, if we’re going to be just critics in our old age, that’s not good enough. We have to really put our money where our mouth is,” he recalls. “We’re not fighting for ourselves anymore. We’re fighting for the younger generations. We’re going to croak in 10 to 15 years, right? You guys will be here for the next maybe three, four decades.”
Alunan performing his duties as Troop Commander during the AFP Reservist Day in Camp Aguinaldo, December 2004.
Thus was formed Alunan’s five-point legislative agenda. The first point involves ensuring that people in government are “matino at mahusay” by strengthening existing laws on good governance and right-sizing our bloated bureaucracy. This is a course of action of which Alunan is already familiar. “The first thing I did when I sat down as DILG chief: I retired 67 generals and colonels and then retired 3,000 more, and some of them I filed cases [against] in court,” he says, going on to say he did the same in local government units as well as in the DOT. “We were very busy cleaning up and reducing red tape, because red tape contributes to corruption.”
The second involves reforming the criminal justice system, which has been damaged by the pervading culture of corruption and ineptitude, entitlement and impunity. “If there’s no justice, there is no peace. And if there’s no peace, you can’t develop, you can’t compete effectively with the rest of the world,” he says. Next are poverty and national development, which he says ought to be focused on reviving agriculture to reverse the diaspora as well as on using agro- and eco-tourism to fast track the economy. Related to this is human and ecological security, which deals with improving our way and quality of life so as to take into consideration succeeding generations. His last point is that of internal security, public safety, and national defense “because it’s constitutional duty to defend our country, our people, our sovereignty, our resources.”
Despite what is evidently a long-considered platform, it cannot be said that Alunan harbors any illusions of his prospects of success. When asked by potential funders where he sits in the polls, he likes to say, “I’m somewhere in cyberspace.” He adds, “It’s a big task that I’ve placed before myself. The other motivation is that I don’t want to be caught in my deathbed being asked by my grandchildren, ‘Lolo, what did you do for a better Philippines?’ and I wouldn’t have anything to answer them. It’s a matter of conscience as well.”
FAMILY AFFAIRS. From left to right: (first row) Alexi Alunan-Sarmiento, Cristina Alunan-Gatmaitan, and Barni Alunan-Escaler; (second row) Carlo Gatmaitan, Rafael Alunan III, Elizabeth Jalbuena-Alunan, Katrina Alunan-Gonzalez, and Amina Aranaz-Alunan; (third row) Mark Escaler, Robin Sarmiento, Bong Gonzalez, and Rafa Alunan.
These words jive perfectly with the outward persona of the man speaking them. Whether or not you agree with—or are aware of—his political perspectives, Alunan seems to exude sincerity. Where other politicians incite you to cock an eyebrow at their PR, he gives the impression of an agreeable, well-respected uncle whose jokes are humored if only to be polite. For this interview he has donned a polo shirt ornamented with two of his campaign stickers, and he insists on being photographed in what he calls his trademark pose: a hearty thumbs up, which manages to be both endearing and unfortunate.
When considering his attitude in combination with his obvious political stumbling blocks, perhaps the only controversial issue that can be drawn from his senatorial bid is his choice of president. He has thrown his support behind strongman Rodrigo Duterte, whom he has known since he was a new mayor in Davao. Alunan has an understanding and appreciation for his methods of leadership, champions his “moral use of force,” and fails to give satisfying answers to questions relating to the man’s potential parallels with late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, of whom Alunan was an active dissident. It is up to voters, however, to discern what this may or may not say about Alunan.
All things considered, whether or not there is a seat for him at the senate following next month’s elections is anybody’s guess. But as the China dispute and the Bangsamoro Basic Law face a rising place among our country’s concerns, Rafael Alunan III can be expected to continue to be an active voice in the next phase of Philippine politics, be it as an elected official or a force somewhere in cyberspace.
Alunan in the study of his New Manila home.