Philippine Msgr. Walter Cerbito takes a boat to campaign for governor in far-flung areas of Northern Samar province. (Photo courtesy of Cerbito's campaign staff)
A Catholic priest is running for governor in one of the poorest provinces in the central Philippines to end political dynasties and curb corruption.
"Turning my back on an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people (in Northern Samar province) is one thing I would not forgive myself for," said Msgr. Walter Cerbito.
"Not everyone is given that opportunity, so cross the Rubicon I must, even if the electoral process is not cut out for a priest like me," said the former vicar general of the Catarman Diocese.
Msgr. Cerbito resigned from his post as vicar general when he announced his candidacy for governor. He also defied an order from his bishop to not seek elected office and faces being defrocked should he be elected.
Msgr. Cerbito is running against Jose Ong Jr., the incumbent governor of Northern Samar province, who is seeking a second term in office.
Ong, whose family has ruled the province for more than two decades already, is one of the wealthiest governors in the Philippines with estimated assets of US$6.5 million.
Ong's sister-in-law Madeleine, currently a town mayor, was governor from 1998 to 2001, while a nephew sits as member of the provincial board.
Ong was a member of Congress from 1987 to 1992. His brother, Emil, who used to head the National Food Authority, has been a congressman since 2007. Emil’s son, Edwin, is running unopposed for his father’s position this year.
For decades, politics in Northern Samar province has been marked by a fierce rivalry between two influential families — the Ongs and the Dazas.
Raul Daza, deputy speaker of the House of Representatives, served as a governor from 2001 to 2010. He was succeeded by his son, Paul, who won as governor in 2010, but lost in the 2013 midterm elections to Ong.
Paul used to be a member of the provincial board from 2004 to 2007 and a member of Congress from 2007 to 2010.
Raul Daza is seeking reelection as a member of Congress against Harlin Abayon, the provincial governor from 1988 to 1998.
Last year, the rivalry between the Ong and Daza families made a turn when they united to support the candidacy of administration presidential candidate Manuel "Mar" Roxas.
Unpaved and flooded roads are among the features of Northern Samar province in the central Philippines, one of the poorest provinces in the country. (Photo by Jimmy Domingo)
On a mission
Cerbito and his team know they will be fighting giants on May 9, but they are unfazed.
"We dream of a place where the will of the electorate is reflected in the ballots, not by the politician's billions, neither by their goons, nor their deceptions," said Reyzandro Unay, a lawyer who volunteered to back the candidacy of Msgr. Cerbito.
"We're on a mission to eliminate the influence of money, of force, and of power in the determination of the people's true will," he said.
Msgr. Cerbito vowed to demolish the "structural dysfunctions" of the provincial government if elected to office.
"If God wills that I should serve the government, I shall serve for only one term and prepare the stage for the next generation," the priest said.
Msgr. Cerbito said "rampant corruption," especially in the procurement of goods and services, has become standard practice in the provincial government.
"No wonder, the quality of infrastructure that we have in our province is so inferior that they're deeper than substandard," he said.
"This cycle must be stopped," said Msgr. Cerbito.
In 2012, Northern Samar was listed as the 12th poorest province in the country. In 2015, it was in ninth spot with 43.5 percent of its people considered as poor.
"There are various indicators that manifest the correspondence between a political dynasty and its contribution to the worsening poverty in the province," said Msgr. Cerbito.
Support from the poor
It was not easy for the priest to launch his campaign for governor.
At 65 years old, Msgr. Cerbito has to walk several kilometers to meet voters and explain why he is running and what he intends to do when elected.
His campaign is drawing support from the poorer sectors of the province. Many have volunteered, especially in far-flung areas. Others offer food for the campaign staff and free use of vehicles.
"Father Cerbito is garnering broad support for his crusade against political dynasties, corruption, and moral denigration," said his campaign spokesman, Father Ricardo Melendres.
"Every day we receive vegetables and root crops from farmers and dried and fresh fish from fishermen," said Father Melendres.
The support of the masses, however, made Msgr. Cerbito a target of what Father Melendres described as "black propaganda."
Ong has accused the priest of getting the support of communist New People's Army rebels.
"It is public knowledge that the New People’s Army is actively supporting Msgr. Cerbito," said Ong in a statement posted on his social media account.
The governor said the rebels prohibited his supporters from campaigning, "tyrannically forcing them to endorse Msgr. Cerbito and threatening to harm them if they refuse."
Ong said Msgr. Cerbito and his supporters are "worse than traditional politicians" for invoking Christian doctrines and the church in "propagating a mountain of lies to deceive the people."
"As the father of this province, it is my sacred duty to expose these hypocrites and to warn [the people] of the hypocrisy," said Ong.
The governor said he will expose "others pretending to be servants of God but in reality acting completely against the teachings of Christ."