Tatay Nene is how his family and also his friends, colleagues, and ordinary people call the late Senate President Aquilino Pimentel, Jr.
But I call him Tio Nene, for my brother-in-law Abet, a De la Llana, is related to him by affinity. Tita Bing, Tatay Nene’s wife, is a De la Llana. Tita Bing, a composer and lyricist, is as politically sharp as Tio Nene, and likewise served as Tio Nene’s political confidante.
I will remember Tio Nene in a personal way. It is subjective but nevertheless factual. Although I came to know the name of Nene Pimentel in the early 1970s as an intrepid and principled democrat, the personal relationship came much later — when a De la Llana became part of my family and my sister became part of the De la Llana family. Filipinos are typically clannish. So on special occasions like birthdays, weddings, and funerals, our families gather.
But because I am a political activist espousing progressive causes, I paid attention to Tio Nene’s brand of progressive politics — essentially social-democratic but yet sympathetic to the national-democratic movement. (For the unaware, social democrats and national democrats in the Philippines have had an intense, even antagonistic, rivalry, despite both being Left and radical.)
In this light, remembering Nene Pimentel is likewise remembering his politics, including the victories and the defeats.
So let me count the ways I will remember Tio Nene.
• Nene Pimentel voted “No” to the 1973 Marcos Constitution and did not sign the Constitution that legitimized the dictatorship. He, together with a few Constitutional Convention delegates who constituted the progressive bloc, campaigned hard against the ratification of the Marcos Constitution. It was in an assembly in Pasig, that I, a high school student then, first heard Nene Pimentel lambast the dictatorship and the Marcos Constitution — a hoarse and fiery yet enthralling speech.
• Despite the odds of losing because of systemic fraud and coercion, the anti-Marcos opposition, including Nene Pimentel, formed the Lakas ng Bayan coalition party to contest the 1978 Interim Batasang Pambansa elections. Led by Ninoy Aquino, Lakas ng Bayan fielded 21 candidates in Metro Manila. As expected, cheating and coercion dictated the outcome of the elections, resulting in the opposition’s total defeat. But what was politically significant was that the election campaign created a huge and energetic mass movement that presaged the people power movement that toppled the dictatorship in 1987.
The revolutionary Left in the Metro Manila region was instrumental in unleashing the mass movement by participating in the elections, even fielding its own candidates, namely former student leader Jerry Barican, labor leader Alex Boncayao, and urban poor leader Trining Herrera. It likewise actively supported the progressive candidates in the coalition, including Nene Pimentel, Teofisto Guingona, and Charito Planas. Regrettably, the leadership of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) rejected the participation of its forces in the elections and the alliance with the “bourgeois reformists” or the “anti-Marcos reactionaries.” This dogma shaped its decision to boycott the snap elections in 1987. But the 1987 election campaign created the groundswell and the uprising that fell Marcos.
The political isolation arising from the boycott led to an acknowledgement from the revolutionary Left of a “tactical blunder.” I argue though that this was a strategic blunder, which could explain the problems that continue to hound the Left. I likewise argue that if a popular front materialized then, the progressive forces, including those associated with Nene Pimentel, Pepe Diokno, Tanny Tañada, et al. could have gained more political leverage in building the post-dictatorship institutions.
• Nene Pimentel formed the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino (PDP), which could have been the model of a truly mass-based, programmatic, and ideological party. It is said that that the only genuine Philippine political party — in terms of discipline, mass membership, and ideology — is the CPP. But the CPP has rejected parliamentary struggle as the main arena and has stuck to a strategy of armed revolution. That has created a vacuum, which the PDP could have filled.
In a private conversation with Tio Nene, with the benefit of hindsight, he attributed the decline of the PDP (only to be resurrected under Rodrigo Duterte’s candidacy, but no longer as an ideological party) to its pragmatic merger with the Lakas ng Bayan, operated by Peping Cojuangco, which was heavily populated by trapos (traditional politicians). The merger gave the upper hand to the trapos, effectively making PDP no different from the other traditional political parties. The rotten system swallowed many.
A handful shouldered on, conducting seminars on values, ideology, and platform. Along this line, an institute for leadership and governance was named after Nene Pimentel.
A prolific author, Tio Nene wanted to write about the lessons, including the sad ones, from the PDP experience. But his physical condition weakened, preventing him from doing what remained in his bucket list.
• Nene Pimentel’s nationalism was consistent. Most representative of this was his Senate vote in 1991, rejecting the extension of the US bases treaty. He was among the so-called Magnificent 12 Senators who voted “No” to the treaty. This of course dismayed then President Cory Aquino, who was personally close to Pimentel. Here was a case in which friendship, without breaking it, had to give way to a higher cause.
• The 1992 national elections saw the formation of a progressive force to contest the topmost positions. Then Senate President Jovito Salonga teamed up with Nene Pimentel to run for President and Vice-President, respectively. This was similar to the attempts of a reformist “third force” associated with grand names like Claro M. Recto, Lorenzo Tañada, and Raul Manglapus to capture political power. Their candidacies helped revived a coalition of small political parties and diverse groups that constitute civil society. But their machinery and their resources did not match those of the dominant parties, and they did not get Corazon Aquino’s support. In short, Salonga, Pimentel and the progressive forces got clobbered.
Till now, it is most difficult for reformists, much less the radicals, to win elections for the highest posts. But it can be done, as shown by the tantalizing victory of Leni Robredo in the 2016 vice-presidential election.
• Again, Nene Pimentel had to subordinate friendship to values and principles when he, exercising leadership in the Senate, demanded the opening of an envelope that contained sensitive bank information. The information would have been the evidence to convict then President Joseph Estrada in an impeachment trial. He was outvoted, even if he was then the Senate President, leading him to voluntarily resign from the position. This episode triggered a new “people power” movement that ultimately resulted in the extra-legal ouster of Estrada.
• Nene Pimentel was the intellectual fountainhead of local government reforms. The media and other institutions describe him as the “Father of the Local Government Code.” The gains at the level of local governance can be attributed to the pioneering effort of Nene Pimentel.
But these gains are still limited; they are called pockets or islands of success. What has bedeviled the likes of Nene and other reformists is that good initiatives like decentralization and devolution of power and political party reform have to contend with binding institutional constraints. Such deep problems like the transactional nature of Philippine politics or the short-term political horizon result in pieces of reforms having sub-optimal outcomes.
• Nene Pimentel made his mark as an elected official when he became the mayor of Cagayan de Oro city. He governed the city well, in spite of being deprived of additional resources by the dictatorship. And he used Cagayan de Oro and the whole of Mindanao as his support base in fighting the dictatorship.
Mindanao was solid in opposing the dictatorship. The Moro armed struggle helped weaken the dictatorship. The CPP and its forces in Mindanao primarily contributed to the advance of the revolution that became a strategic threat to Marcos. But politics was in command, and in this context, the politics of radical reformism promoted by Nene Pimentel and other legal oppositionists in Mindanao (including Rodrigo Duterte’s mother Soledad) was most significant in cutting down the Marcos regime.
• It goes without saying that Tio Nene and I also had differing political positions. He did not favor legislation of reproductive health because of his being Katoliko saradong and his interpretation of the Philippine Constitution with respect to this issue. He supported the candidacy of Rodrigo Duterte because of his preferential ranking of issues, in which his principal advocacy is federalism. (Later, he said that his version of federalism is different from what the Duterte administration is pushing). With respect to Duterte’s behavior on human rights, one can quote Tio Nene’s TV interview, wherein he said that Duterte “should pay for that, but it has to be done in accordance with the law.”
• On a more personal note, I will miss the singing of Tio Nene. His favorite song: “You are my Sunshine.” On some gatherings, my late wife Mae and Tio Nene would sing this song as a duet. In the Great Beyond, Tio Nene and Mae will reunite and sing:
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are grey.
You never know, dear how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.