EXPLAINER: Ruling incumbents led by Barug's Mike Rama enjoy edge over rivals Margot Osmeña, other BOPKs. They dole out the funds; minority does not. Challengers may only allege bad handling, corruption.

·5 min read

THE SITUATION. Incumbent public officials seeking election this May 9 have the huge advantage of using vast amounts of public money to campaign and attract votes. And apparently, they're exploiting that advantage.

Not a new plus-factor for those in power but this time, with a back-to-back, twin extreme emergency, public money literally flows from the government treasury. And the political opportunity for the controller and distributor of resources is ample.

In Cebu City, majority party Barug candidates for mayor, vice mayor and councilors can use the money allocated for Covid-19 and Typhoon Odette to woo supporters. Public perception of helping during the crisis is of tremendous value to candidates.

The two major emergencies -- coming one after the other, inflicting damage that continues to this day and most likely to stay even after the May 9 balloting -- provide the occasion and the excuse.

LEGALITY, FAIRNESS. Nobody, not even the opposition BOPK (Bando Osmeña Pundok Kauswagan), has raised the matter of legality over the allocation and the spending.

The Covid-19 pandemic has virtually pulled the plug on heavy spending by the national government and local governments alike. The laws and ordinances support it. Public opinion roots for it.

Who can raise an outcry against using government funds to beat the virus, treat and protect those infected, and assist the poor and others who have no income during the pandemic? Who disputes that the money being circulated is a boost to the economy?

Comelec cannot do anything to stop or regulate the spending. The campaign period has not yet started and even when it does, election rules don't curb government operations, which include helping constituents during epidemic or disaster.

Opposers, particularly BOPK incumbents, and other critics harp on fairness without explicitly saying it. Opposition councilors do not or cannot say, "Allow us to join you in distributing rice and other foodstuff, vitamins and medicines that the City has bought during the pandemic and the 'ayuda' for Odette victims." In politics, "sana all" is a hopeless wish. When BOPK was in power (more recently from 2016 to 2019 when Tomas Osmeña sat as mayor after trouncing Mike Rama), Barug councilors were totally shut out and even sued in court.

BIG MONEY INVOLVED. The city's budget for 2021 was P10 billion plus a P4.5 billion supplemental budget last July and a second supplemental budget last December. Last December 2020, clamor of the opposition was for a breakdown of about P3.8 billion spending and in September 2021, the minority wanted P2.75 billion, all spent on anti-Covid response, liquidated.

BOPK got a summary but not the breakdown, let alone the purchase orders and other papers the minority councilors wanted. Why the breakdown: the money was appropriated in lump sums, all under the name and purpose of Covid, with too much, tempting discretion given to the executive.

The minority cannot stop the deluge of funds released for Covid, or even Odette, but it can push for accountability, hoping it will strike some chord among the voters.

CORRUPTION IS SOMETHING ELSE. Political rivals looking at rampant politicking in the dole-out of "ayuda" can only look with envy at the vote-getting ops enjoyed by the incumbents.

So they scrutinize at the spending: the award of contracts, the price paid for the articles and items or the possible corruption in the spending. Since the outbreak of Covid in 2020, the anti-administration camp has alleged irregularities in purchases of such goods as packed lunches, rice, bottled water, fuel, medicines, and the like. One or two may have already reached the court.

BOPK councilors have been demanding for breakdown of expenses paid from the lump sums the City Council allocated for the anti-Covid response. To no avail: pleas for documents and more time have generally been rejected by the majority, which always wins in the voting.

The problem with allegations of corruption is that the public tends to dismiss them as political propaganda. Unless supported by strong evidence, decided in a court case (which takes ages to resolve) or so colossally anomalous as to outrage voters, people suspend judgment or give more weight to more appreciable factors such as cash in hand or food for the table, even if the government owns the relief, not the public official.

HOW ABOUT COMPETENCE IN CRISIS HANDLING, to battle the epidemic and prepare for and respond to the typhoon's damage?

Both Barug and BOPK had occasions to cope with super-typhoons. Bando Osmeña chief Tomas Osmeña was mayor when Ruping struck in 1990. Barug (or Team Rama) stalwart Mike Rama was mayor when Yolanda lashed Cebu in 2013.

The difference is in the protagonists involved in this election. It's not Tomas who's BOPK's standard bearer now but his wife Margot. Former city councilor Margot's experience as chief executive is limited to that short stint from May 17 to June 30, 2016, when she served as acting mayor during the second suspension of then mayor Mike Rama. Her tenure didn't include overseeing a city walloped by a double whammy of extreme emergencies.

In contrast, Margot's rival Rama managed the city in the time of Yolanda during his second term (2013-2016). Then, in the Covid-Odette era during Mayor Edgardo Labella's term, Mike served as acting mayor several times, eventually taking over upon Labella's death seven months before its end this June.

Inevitably, Mike will be judged by his more recent track record as acting mayor and full-fledged mayor in the last two dark years. That cannot be compared to Margot's zero slate, unless the voter buys the pitch that in voting for the wife candidate, one gets the husband non-candidate too.

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