Once again, the former top cop-turned-Senator Panfilo “Ping” Lacson Sr. is targeting the presidency of the Philippines. He and his vice presidential running mate, Senator Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, declared their intention to run on July 20, . The participation of former members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) in the elections is not a new phenomenon in the country’s politics.
Like Lacson, several high-ranking PNP officers went beyond being “street-level bureaucrats” and ventured into electoral politics upon their mandatory retirement. Fidel V. Ramos, who once commanded the Philippine Constabulary (the predecessor to the PNP), won and served as President of the Philippines (1992-98). Robert Barbers, renowned for arresting drug kingpin Don Pepe Oyson, was elected Surigao del Norte’s 2nd District Representative (1992-96) and Senator (1998-2004). Alfredo Lim, a staunch defender of the Corazon Aquino government against coup attempts, won the mayoralty of the City of Manila (1992-98; 2007-13) and a seat in the Senate (2004-07). He was nicknamed “Dirty Harry” for his police background and contentious law-and-order programs. Former PNP chiefs Hermogenes Ebdane is in his third stint as governor of Zambales (2010-13; 2013-16; 2019-22) while Edgar Aglipay is chairman emeritus of the DIWA Party-list, which currently has one seat at the House of Representatives.
The most prominent police-turned-elected official in recent memory is Ronald Dela Rosa, popularly known as “Bato,” or “rock” in Tagalog. Upon assuming office in June 2016, mayor-turned-President Rodrigo Duterte handpicked Bato as PNP Chief and tasked him with being the chief executioner of Duterte’s flagship program: the brutal war on illegal drugs. Notwithstanding questions on the drug war’s efficacies and alleged abuses of police authority under his leadership, Bato was elected to the Senate at the 2019 mid-term elections. His longtime affiliation with the president, which can be traced back during his assignment in Duterte’s bailiwick of Davao City, was a major factor in Bato’s seamless transition from police barracks to the Senate halls.
Not contented with being street-level bureaucrats, many PNP officers have extended their public service careers by using their stint in the security force to win elective offices upon retirement. This is not to say that being a police officer is a surefire springboard to local or national office. Other ex-officers were less fortunate than those mentioned above. In the 10-way 1998 Presidential race, both Lim and Renato de Villa tried but failed to replicate Ramos’ feat; Avelino Razon placed third in the 2010 mayoral race in Manila, which was eventually won by Lim; Arturo Lomibao suffered a landslide defeat in his vice-gubernatorial bid in Pangasinan in 2013; Ramon Montaño sought a Senate seat in the 2013 and 2016 elections, losing on both occasions; and Getulio Napeñas and Abner Afuang were also unsuccessful in their Senatorial bids in 2016 and 2019, respectively.
Lacson’s foray into electoral politics, meanwhile, has been replete with ups and downs. His 2022 presidential candidacy marks his third attempt at the country’s highest elected office. In 2004, he ran but failed to win the presidency against then-incumbent Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. He finished with a measly 10.9 percent of the popular vote, placing a distant third behind Arroyo (40 percent) and movie star-turned-opposition leader Fernando Poe Jr. (36.5 percent) in the scandal-marred elections. Twelve years later, he considered running again for the same post but settled for a Senate run due to his low ratings in pre-election presidential polls. Today, he has yet another steep hill to climb: in the most recent Pulse Asia survey, Lacson was the preferred presidential candidate of only 4 percent of Filipino adults, placing him in seventh position. He is lagging behind Davao City Mayor and presidential daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio (28 percent); Manila Mayor Isko Moreno (14 percent); former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. (13 percent); Senator Grace Poe (10 percent); Senator and boxer Manny Pacquiao (8 percent); and Vice President Leni Robredo (6 percent).
While he failed in his previous shots at the presidency and is underperforming in the survey, Lacson boasts strong credentials and is the longest-serving public official among the contenders. During his stint as police officer, he steered several crucial positions before earning an appointment as PNP Chief (1999-2001). He was then elected to three six-year terms as Senator (2001-07; 2007-13; 2016-22), and played a central role in steering through legislation to slash red tape, promote free irrigation, and combat crime.
But Lacson’s track record is not without controversy. The Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force, an elite police unit established in 1998 to thwart syndicated crimes, was ironically implicated in the criminal underworld on his watch. These include engagements in alleged kidnap-for-ransom activities, the wiretapping of judges and political opponents, and the infamous Dacer-Corbito double murder case. He is also the principal sponsor and one of the authors of the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, widely panned due to its vague definition of terrorism and possible repercussions for political activism in the Philippines. Lacson, furthermore, has been accused of being a “spoiler” in the 2004 presidential race, when he launched a separate run instead of backing Poe’s candidacy under a unified opposition. Critics rued that he took away votes from Poe, benefitting Arroyo’s re-election in the process.
Today, Lacson and his running mate Tito Sotto intend to bank on their slogan of “Kakayahan, Katapatan, Katapangan” (competence, honesty, courage). Pre-election surveys seem to paint a bleak picture of Lacson’s Malacañang ambitions. It is certain that other candidates will look for more skeletons in his closet, especially those dating from his stint in the PNP. In addition, he is once again being tagged as a spoiler for launching his own campaign instead of supporting the 1Sambayan, which has been attempting to form a united front against Duterte’s camp. Lacson and Sotto, however, claim that they endeavor to offer themselves as the alternative candidates, neither pro-Duterte administration nor pro-opposition.
But will third time be the charm? It is still too early to tell, and the title of being a formidable third force who has a viable path to the Malacañang Palace belongs to Isko Moreno, who rose from being a scavenger to a matinee idol, and thereafter parlayed his celebrity status to political stardom as mayor of the nation’s capital. Despite past failed presidential runs and poor ratings in the present, it would be unwise to count Lacson out given his qualifications and public service record.
The Filipino people, furthermore, are no strangers to electoral plot twists: plunderers and human rights violators getting elected over competent candidates; a late plunderer-tyrant’s son (Bongbong Marcos) almost snatching the vice presidency; and a low-key legislator and only son of democracy icons (Benigno Aquino III) being catapulted into the presidency. If he plays his cards right, Lacson’s law-and-order background may work wonders this time around given how more than 16 million voters in 2016 elected a tough-talking city mayor, who rambled about “change” and the eradication of drugs and criminality in a manner of months, to the country’s highest office.
As the long list of officers-turned-politicians attests, the PNP is hardly an apolitical institution. Police officials have, time and again, played key roles at critical junctures in the history of the Philippines. Under the current administration, the police have been hailed for being among the front-liners battling an existential threat such as the Coronavirus. But they have also been instrumental in the actualization of Duterte’s brute force governance, particularly in the escalation of drug war casualties amid the pandemic. And given the great powers, responsibilities, and media mileage that this institution demands, there will surely be more officers who will follow the paths taken by the likes of Ramos, Lacson, and Dela Rosa and embark on a career in electoral politics. As an example, one need look no further than the incumbent PNP Chief Guillermo Eleazar, who is reportedly being urged to seek a Senate seat at the 2022 elections. While he has dismissed such calls, the filing of candidacies is a still few months away and it would be unsurprising if he suddenly takes a shot in politics just like his predecessors.
Elections, nonetheless, are an entirely different battleground from their own. Guns and violence may have been major factors every electoral cycle, and the line between policing and electioneering may be becoming increasingly blurred, as demonstrated by the number of ex-officers gunning for elective positions. But more than anything, an aspirant will need to market him or herself as the best contender, or the least evil one, and win the people’s votes on that basis. As asserted by the late civil rights activist John Lewis, “Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society.” As citizens of a fragile democracy, it is only apt that we scrutinize and duly elect people who can best determine, author, and implement policies that will uphold public over personalistic interests.