IRIGA, Philippines — The noisy night rally of farmers, fishermen and their families suddenly grew quiet as Ramon Mitra Jr., candidate for president of the Philippines, dramatically lowered his voice to tell a painful personal story.
"All candidates say they're going to do something about poverty," he said in soft, soothing tones. "I don't doubt the sincerity of their words. But do they really know how it is to be poor? Do they really know how it is to be hungry, really hungry? I do.
"Do they know how to throw a fishing net, how to fish from a boat through the long night? I do. . . . The farmer who follows the carabao, what he thinks and what he feels, is something I know very well."
With that, the white-haired, white-bearded candidate confessed he was a "love child" born out of wedlock, reared barefoot and hungry, who caught crocodiles as a youth and was shunned by his affluent father. From those humble roots, Mitra--widely known by the nickname "Monching"--rose to be a lawyer, diplomat, millionaire rancher and now Speaker of the House of Representatives. He is one of the nation's most powerful politicians.
But the compelling story and polished campaign style have been carefully honed to help hide Mitra's other, less-palatable public persona. He is widely seen as the consummate "traditional politician," a reputed master of back-room deals and back-door access to the provincial power brokers and political clans who traditionally control millions of votes in this impoverished land.
It is his patronage-driven election machinery, not his biography, that analysts say may give Mitra the winning edge against six rivals in the hotly contested May 11 balloting to succeed President Corazon Aquino, who is stepping down after her current term.
Mitra, 64, heads the Struggle of Democratic Filipinos, the nation's largest and best-organized party. It is a powerful if fractious coalition: backing Mitra are 10 of 23 incumbent senators, 121 of 198 congressmen, 43 of 73 governors and nearly half the 1,538 mayors.
"As long as he's able to provide patronage for his people, to continue supporting his ward leaders with pork barrel, he can swing the majority of the rural vote," said Joly Macuja, coordinator of the Center for Social Policy at Ateneo University in Manila. "And that is how elections are won."
"Organization is everything here," agreed Edward J. Rollins, an American consultant to Mitra whose own skills were honed as political director in Ronald Reagan's White House and manager of Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign.
Rollins, who has visited Manila twice, has helped Mitra script his rags-to-riches campaign pitch and "address issues people care about." It hasn't been easy. "Everything I've learned in 30 years in American politics seems totally irrelevant in the Philippines," Rollins said. There is, for example, what Mitra's campaign manager, Luis Villafuerte, calls "the politics of warlords." By most accounts, corrupt and despotic provincial warlords, often backed by private armies, have regained strength under Aquino's increasingly weak government.
"Whoever has the most warlords will have a major advantage," said Villafuerte, governor of Camarines Sur province. "And most of them support Mitra. Why? Because they understand he is the most pragmatic."
In a country of colorful politicians, Mitra is bland, even dull. Polls are unreliable here, but he has yet to lead one. Despite 27 years in public life, critics contend he is more respected for breeding fighting cocks than pushing progressive legislation in a scandal-marred Congress. Still, his skill at forging compromises and winning allies has served him well.
His current coalition includes relatives of Aquino's late husband, Benigno S. Aquino Jr., as well as her own brother and close adviser, Rep. Jose Cojuangco Jr. It includes right-wing Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, who once jailed Mitra under martial law, and ex-Communist leader Bernabe (Commander Dante) Buscayno, who now runs farmers' co-ops. Mitra also has the personal blessing of Cardinal Jaime Sin, the powerful Catholic prelate in Manila.
Indeed, the only significant missing figure is Aquino herself. She has endorsed one of Mitra's rivals, former defense secretary Fidel V. Ramos. A key reason, Aquino aides say, is Mitra's friendship and business dealings with her estranged cousin, presidential candidate Eduardo Cojuangco Jr.
Cojuangco made millions in monopolies granted by Marcos in what was called "crony capitalism." Along the way, Cojuangco lent money to Mitra to back his increasingly successful copra and cattle concerns. Mitra, in turn, worked as Cojuangco's lawyer.
"Monching Mitra is the crony's crony," complained Tomas Gomez III, Aquino's former spokesman.
If elected, Mitra insists he will continue so far unsuccessful government efforts to prosecute Cojuangco for alleged abuses under Marcos. Mitra also promises that his running mate, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Marcelo B. Fernan, will take charge of fighting government graft.