By Tonette T. Orejas
Fr. Eddie Panlilio trailblazed a difficult if not dangerous path in 2007 when he, a Catholic priest, answered calls for him to run as governor and end corruption and bad governance in Pampanga. His three-year term is over and his re-election bid last May was unsuccessful. His bishops and the Pope have yet to allow him to return to the active priesthood.
Planet Philippines caught up with the activist-priest recently for this exclusive interview. Among Ed just returned from three spiritual retreats since June determined and committed as ever to continue serving God and country.
What are your contributions or legacy to Pampanga?
I believe I brought back the original challenge of political leadership, that it is not self-service but it is a service to the community. We could have opted to work just lightly with a monthly salary of P31,000 but we really worked hard we did not mind about the salary. We did not mind about the perks and temptations to enrich ourselves. So it is possible to empower the people and not to be corrupt.
How did you manage not to be corrupt?
By leadership by example, by living simply and I told people that I would like to live simply and I would like to expect them to work and not to demand or receive bribes.
Weren’t you tempted because your salary is only P31,000?
No, because our work ethic has been this way for many years. Coming from the private sector, coming from the social action work, it’s just a matter of doing it again but in a different context so for me it wasn’t that difficult. The only time that I was offered money was the one that happened in Malacanang (in October 2007 right after the meeting of local officials with then President Arroyo) One of my priest-friends told me, ‘Ed you will be passing through two tests. One is about money. One is about women.’ I said where is the other one? It did not come along. (Laughs)
Did you realize how much money you “lost” because you were straight enough not to accept bribes, commissions?
I don’t usually ask that. I ask, ‘how much would the people lose if I subject myself to that culture?’
You must be a very tempered man. . .
It was not extraordinary for me because yun ang nakagawian eh. That’s what we have been doing.
I exercised principled leadership. On the question of the Christmas bonus, I requested a budget of P10,000 each but then the SP approved P20,000. I could have given away P20,000 each just to please the people but I didn’t believe it was really helping the staff because we talked over this. In 2008 I agreed to the request that they would get that amount. But we agreed that in 2009, a portion of the bonus would be based on performance. The union leaders said they know that and they said they remembered that. But they were swayed by the politics of SP especially by the vice governor who put me in a very precarious situation of having to make it appear that I was to give in to them.
Aren’t you being too legalistic, making it hard on people?
There’s palabra de honor or being true to what we have discussed. Those who work harder should receive more and the others who did not work that hard would receive less. Also if we gave all, that’s like taking from the people’s money. P20,000 is P40 million, because we have 2,000 workers, If you give in to them, if that’s rightfully theirs, it’s no problem explaining to the people.
Why didn’t you just accommodate so you won’t have headaches?
(Laughs) That’s the problem we have in Philippine politics. It has lots of accommodations and compromises. I don’t believe in that. I was even willing to lose the elections.
But did you realize you isolated many people with that kind of politics?
I know. But to me, I might be mistaken but I don’t think I’m mistaken, in the long run what is really important is to get the message across to them that we mean business here in politics.
Some say you lack administrative skills?
Could a person without administrative skills pursue and effect the elimination of corruption? But that was not my work alone. We worked collectively in the capitol.
You were not commanding.
I don’t. I worked within the context of a team.
Were there occasions when you got angry?
At one point I did. This was when an official of the Philippine National Bank did not want to honor the signatures of Attorneys Vivian Dabu and Aiza Velez because the SP did not want to recognize their appointments as provincial administrator and legal officer respectively. We could not take out money for the salaries of capitol workers or for projects. I ordered P300 million pulled out from PNB and transferred to the Land Bank of the Philippines because in the first place, the PNP was no more the government depository bank.
Your critics portrayed you as a bad person and bad leader. Did these cause regrets in you?
No kasi pag ginawa ko ang isang bagay na pinaniniwalaan kong tama, kahit mali sa iba at kahit nagbunga ng masama. I don’t regret because I was well-intentioned. I could have committed mistakes here and there. In reality, I think this will be my first time to say this to anybody. Although I lost, I am being drawn more and more to like politics and to pursue a political career. I’m enjoying it. (Laughs) I’m enjoying it because I believe I am able to contribute something to the real growth of politics in the Philippines. Everywhere I go I meet some people who tell me that you’re giving us hope. What I do in Pampanga is being affirmed and people see the value of it.
Did you have any regret that you joined politics?
No. None. But I could have reached out more to my inner circle. I could have spent more time to dialogue with other politicians in Pampanga.
Does that mean you will enter politics again?
No, no, no. (Laughs) Ten days after the elections, I went on a personal retreat. I just stayed in my room for two days and before the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel. I went back to the reason why I entered politics and it is very clear to me that I promised the Lord I will be here on a temporary basis, that my original intent was only to be here because nobody wanted to go into politics in 2007 in Pampanga to provide hope. And all the time, after 30 years of being a priest, I realized that my real vocation is for the priesthood, not for politics. For priesthood in the service of politics for social transformation but not as politician and I said I promised the Lord and to me my electoral loss meant for me a message from the Lord to call me back to priesthood.
Would you say that politics tested your priesthood?
Yes. Napatunayan ko na yung values ng priesthood, yung values nang pagka-Kristyano natin ay puedeng gamitin at dapat gamitin sa larangan ng pulitika.
Does the church see it that way?
The church doesn’t see it that way.
What are your frustrations?
I don’t have any of that. But frustrations in terms of what I expected to do and outcome that I should have had, a lot. Like the plunder case I filed at the Ombudsman against Bong Pineda which hadn’t move in two years’ time. That’s a frustration in that sense na yung kinagalit o isang bagay na sayang hindi nangyari, yeah in that sense frustrations. Like in the plunder case against the Lapids. Yung SP who played politics in terms of the quarry, SP making an ordinance of the quarry that is not in consonance with national laws.
What about programs that you would have wanted to continue but didn’t?
I felt helpless in terms of eliminating jueteng in the province. Helpless because I didn’t get the support that I needed like the police director that I wanted. The police were in cahoots with politicians. I felt they did not want me to succeed in this crusade. Not only was I not given the police director that I needed but also binaboy yung sistema nang pagtatalaga ng provincial director. Kaya sabi ko galit ako kay Noynoy (President Aquino), kaming dalawa ni Padaca (former Isabela Gov. Grace Padaca ) na nandito si Verzosa (Police Director General Jesus Verzosa) na binaboy o kasangkot sa pagbabababoy sa pagtatatalaga ng senior officer ng PNP na hindi man nanindigan against Interior Secretary Ronnie Puno. Hindi pina-experienced sa akin na umabot sa akin yung prosesong tama.
Bakit ka galit kay President Noynoy?
Because he retained Verzosa. To me that’s giving a wrong signal to the PNP leadership.
Can priests make good politicians?
(Laughs) To be blunt about it, do politics and religion mix? They should influence one another in a positive way. But in our present context, hindi nagbe-blend at this point in time. Like what we did in Pampanga. We didn’t ask for SOP (illegal commissions for government projects), jueteng money, illegal drugs trade money, and you fight the whole system and you’re fired up by your religious convictions. Since this is the kind of world of almost everybody in politics so they flush you out of the system.
Or is it that you failed to gel the two?
I think I was able to gel them. Yung alisin naming ang corruption sa paggawa ng mga kalsada at mga infra, hindi ba napaka-makatao nun, napaka-makaKristiyano nun? Siguro we can say values in politics do not mix with bad politicians. As Jesse Robredo (former Naga City mayor and now secretary of interior and local governments) say, we may be good public servants but bad politicians.
Was your victory in 2007 due to luck or because you were a novelty?
It’s a novelty with a confluence of factors. We were three candidates in 2007. Kung tatlo kaming lumaban ngayonng 2010 baka nanalo na naman ako kasi tumaas yung boto. Tapos yun nga novelty plus sawang-sawa na ang mga tao sa bad governance plus the priest factor, nakatulong yun. Yung track record din. People in Lubao voted for me not because they knew me but they know TPKI (a non-government group in re-lending projects) and Sacop (the social action hand of the archdiocese of San Fernando, Pampanga).
Why did you lose in 2010?
I lost for a lot of factors. One is napaghandaan kami. I should really give it to the other camp. They really prepared and they really spent. I was told they might have spent P6 billion to P7 billion. Sabi ni Jesse (Robredo), we should be good in politics and also as public servants. Sabi ko baka Jess kung ikaw ang tumakbong gobernador sa Pampanga at ginawa mo sa Pampanga ang ginawa mo sa Naga baka matatalo ka rin. You know six months to one year before election the staff of Lilia Pineda was in every barrio. Walang ginawa kundi maghanap ng maysakit, pinagamot. Hindi ko alam kong matatalo mo ang ganoon.
What about the factors in your group?
I was taking my time. I was busy in governance and thinking perhaps that I can pull it through again. Everywhere we went, people were still excited about us. The enthusiasm was still there. And then, there’s a perception that we didn’t communicate to the people that we really did so much. We were ill-prepared.
As you saw Philippine politics through Pampanga, do you think this is beyond redemption? Do you think we are not going to change even with Noynoy?
I feel that vote-buying and cheating in Pampanga have ruined our society, our soul so much that it could be difficult to rise from but with Noynoy, two things: The hopes of the people are so high, nag-express ng pag-asa ang mga tao. People were very highly spirited and oozing with a lot of hope. Expectations are high too. Aalisin ang corruption. We really have to help him.
But as a former governor, do you think it is easy to remove corruption?
He can do something about it. Magsisimula siya at pipili siya ng tao sa Gabinite na hindi lang magaling at mahusay kundi tapat at matino. Dito lang sa Pampanga, this is a mirror of the country. We have a reform constituency, those who voted for me and for Noynoy. Hindi binayaran eh. So if that is about one-third of the electorate, we can start with those people.
Looking back, was it worth the sacrifice?
Yes, the main fact that I was besmirched I take it to mean I was good. Modesty aside, because if I were like them, they would not have done that. Like my expose on the P500,000 cash dole out in Malacanang, I just told what happened. But (Vice Governor) Yeng Guiao, pulitiko at mayor dito, sinisiraan ko raw si Gloria. Tignan mo ang dalawang anggulong iyon? Hindi ba kabaliwan yun. Hindi raw ako nagsasabi ng totoo.
Where do you go from here?
The return to priesthood is my target but that depends on the bishop and the Pope if they allow me in. But whether I go back or whether I am not accepted back, what I can contribute to nation building, to civil society building, I am willing to share.