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JULY 14, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 27 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Edwin Tuyay for Asiaweek.
Young Congressmen Acosta (left) and Escudero.

The Hope of the Philippines
In Congress, more than half the members are fresh faces with familiar political names

The Spice Boys versus the Bright Boys sounds an alarming prospect. A pop-music contretemps? A spot of adolescent gang warfare? In fact the two factions represent leading lights in the Philippine House of Representatives — part of a wave of new, young blood that flooded Congress after the 1998 elections. In the 220-member House, 140 neophytes took their seats, changing the way some legislative business is done and the light in which politicians are regarded. "We never had anything like it before," says Alex Magno, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines. "This is probably the best Congress in terms of youth, education and diversity of its members."

Indeed, this new breed has infused the Philippine political scene with idealism, dynamism and activism. Although most virtually inherited their constituencies from relatives, this also allows them to tap into an educated and economic elite. While slightly stymied by a Congress seniority rule, whereby first-termers cannot assume chairmanships of House committees, that law also has led to the rise of the "Boys." The Spice Boys, who regularly irritate President Joseph Estrada on issues such as charter change, comprise a grouping from the opposition Lakas party. The Bright Boys, from Estrada's Lamp party, trade barbs while helping to steer through presidential priorities. And with Estrada's popularity in the doldrums, it is the younger men over whom savvy Filipinos are casting a speculative eye. Says former House speaker Jose de Venecia: "The Bright Boys and the Spice Boys are exciting young political leaders. They are the hope of the Philippines in the 21st century." Some of those hopes are profiled here.

Francis Joseph "Chiz" Escudero has his eyes firmly on the presidency — though at just 30 he knows he has some time to wait. A LaMP party member and representative for Sorsogon in southern Luzon, he finished law at the University of the Philippines in 1993 and his master's in international and comparative law at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He now teaches law and government, and dabbles in shooting, swimming and restoring old cars. "They are stress relievers," he says.

Some relief is probably necessary. Sorsogon is one of the 20 poorest provinces in the Philippines, with annual household income below $1,600 a year. Escudero hopes that by the end of this year, all villages will at least have electricity. "If you don't attend to your district, you won't be re-elected," he says.

A Bright Boy, Escudero learned about politics from his father, an assemblyman and minister of agriculture under Ferdinand Marcos. "Escudero is one of our outstanding young congressmen," says de Venecia. Certainly Escudero does not hide his intentions to seek a seat in the Senate after his Congress stint and his national profile is high through a daily radio program and weekly television show. When he married last year, among his godparents were President Estrada, Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Speaker Manuel Villar, and tycoons Lucio Tan, Eduardo Cojuangco and Menardo Jimenez.

The "baby" of Congress at 29, Alan Peter Cayetano is the son of an incumbent senator, lawyer Rene Cayetano and a Bright Boy inductee. Also a lawyer (graduating from Ateneo), he has a seven-point program for his Taguig-Pateros constituency in Metro Manila. Cayetano is particularly focused on education, because he believes that while many state universities provide quality schooling, low-quality teaching in public elementary and high schools prevents poor students from stepping up. "We are not just fighting our elders, but the system itself," Cayetano observes.

Electoral reform is another Cayetano bugbear. A LaMP member, he was elected vice mayor of Taguig-Pateros in 1995. But his victory was confirmed only 10 days before his three-year term was due to end. "If people are elected because of cheating, then they become accountable not to the people, but to money," he observes.

An accomplished boxer and martial-arts exponent, Juan Miguel "Migs" Zubiri, 31, is one of the feistier Spice Boys. A Lakas representative from Bukidnon, he is impatient with the sometimes glacial speed of Congress and not afraid to speak his mind. The son of a wealthy political family, he "inherited" his seat from his father, but has used his platform to try to spur reform and protect the environment. So far, Zubiri has filed 60 bills and resolutions. "We want a lot of change but the system won't allow it," says Zubiri. "A number of socially relevant bills sleep in committees forever."

A rancher by training and avocation, he studied agricultural management at the University of the Philippines. He notes that the country's public schools lack 59 million units of textbooks, yet the government "is spending more money for bullets than for books. The budget shows a preferential bias for the non-essentials." Along with the Liberal Party's Michael Defensor, a fellow Spice Boy, Zubiri rails against corruption and decries a general lack of competence and dedication in government. Says de Venecia: "[The Spice Boys] are bright capable, reformist and dynamic. They do their homework and they deliver goods to their districts."

He bills himself as the economist of the masses and Joey Salceda, 38, needs that skill to serve his constituency, which has an average per capita annual income of $330. To push growth, he believes that the country needs a savings generation, an entrepreneurial class and political modernization. The senior vice chairman of the House committee on trade and industry, Salceda brings to the job his extensive experience as a leading stock-market analyst. He worked for Barings Securities and Swiss Bank Corp. after graduating in management engineering from Manila's Ateneo University and adding a master's in business management from the Asian Institute of Management. "Many of us came from private business or the practice of our profession — unlike our elders whose main business was politics," says Salceda. "This gives you a Congress more sensitive to the global environment. There is a qualitative difference."

During his three-year term as a LaMP member, Salceda wants to raise $34 million in funding for his constituency (Albay province, Bicol, in southern Luzon). "The only way to approach poverty is through resource transfer, which means public [government] investment in infrastructure like roads, bridges and ports to lower the cost of doing business," Salceda says.

environment focus
An environmentalist, Nereus Acosta, 34, came well prepared for his Congress job. The son of a genetics scientist (one of only three in the Philippines) and a politician mother, he directed a Grameen banking project before being elected. The project, in his constituency of Bukidnon, focused on providing livelihoods for poor families — of which Mindanao has many. "Unless we solve the peace and order problem in Mindanao, we will continue to have zero tourism, threats of terrorist acts, a drop in GNP growth and a rough road ahead," says LaMP member Acosta. "The problem in Mindanao magnifies everything."

Acosta's academic record also is impressive. He finished political science at the University of the Philippines, a master's in international relations and political studies at the University of Pennsylvania, law at UP, a one-year course on policy and leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a Ph.D. in political science at the University of Hawaii.

Certainly his skills have benefited the environment. The House has passed Acosta's pet bills on clean air, wildlife biodiversity protection, caves resources management, coastal environment management and plant protection. "We have reason to believe we can make a dent, a difference."

With impeccable family ties, Gilberto C. Teodoro Jr. could be a perfect target for critics who dismiss the new congressmen as mere trapolitos (young traditional politicians). Observers complain that sons of scions are just warming seats for their parents, forced to take a congressional break after three consecutive terms. But political scientist Magno reserves high praise for 36-year-old Teodoro, who represents Tarlac constituency north of Manila — also the home of powerful Marcos-era businessman, Eduardo Cojuangco, Teodoro's uncle. "Teodoro is a legal luminary," says Magno. "He is wasting his time in Congress."

Perhaps, but Bright Boy Teodoro is also considered a strong bet for the job of House speaker when the next Congress convenes in July 2001. As the son of former social security administrator Gilberto Teodoro, a U.S.-educated banker, and former assemblywoman Mercedes Teodoro, Cojuangco's younger sister, Teodoro represents old wealth, New Economy thinking and vast political clout. A University of the Philippines law graduate with a master's from Harvard — plus a commerce degree from Manila's De La Salle University — he believes that government should concentrate on providing basic services and avoiding new laws.

As a top-notch barrister, Teodoro is impatient with long litigation. As a legislator, he finds congressional debates time-consuming and frets about administrative inefficiency: "We must have a leaner government or it will go bankrupt." Says former speaker de Venecia: "He is brilliant, humble, hard-working and respectful."

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