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Culture Spotlight

Nene Pimentel’s one true legacy

He was the political visionary who rightly foresaw the role of strong but independent LGUs as pillars in a restored democracy.
Philip M. Lustre Jr. | Oct 21 2019

AQUILINO “Nene” Pimentel Jr. did what was probably the most difficult task in the restoration of democracy in the Philippines. Named Minister of Local Government by Corazon Aquino when she was newly installed as president, Pimentel did what could be regarded a herculean job, a mission almost impossible to fulfill. He dismantled the entire martial law apparatus on the local government level by replacing en masse incumbent officials with handpicked officers-in-charge or OICs.

Then Mayor Aquilino Pimentel Jr. inside his office. Photograph courtesy of the Pimentel family

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This occured immediately after the 1986 EDSA Revolution that toppled the 20-year rule of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. When Cory gave Pimentel the green light to reorganize the local state apparatus, he proceeded with tremendous energy, decisiveness, and fervor to replace the local officials who were known supporters of the fallen dictator.

Pimentel encountered many criticisms and accusations with regards the wholesale extraction of the Marcos subalterns. He was accused of favoritism, selling coveted local government posts for a fee to favored politicians, and destabilizing the fledgling Cory Aquino government. But none of these stuck—because none of the accusers could prove there was truth to their claims.

Aquilino Pimentel Jr. with Cory and Ninoy Aquino. Photograph courtesy of the Pimentel family

It was Pimentel’s shining moment. Had he blinked and dilly dallied, the Cory government would lose momentum. Dismantling the Marcos dictatorial state apparatus and its subsequent reorganization deprived Marcos of the warm bodies that would constitute the political forces for a comeback.

The post-Marcos blueprint showed the restoration would start by the dismantling and reorganization of civilian and military components of the Marcos dictatorship, the establishment of a revolutionary government, the drafting of a new constitution, and the holding of new elections, all in a single year. It was not an easy task as the blueprint was pursued amid six military coups and continuous destabilization attempts by pro-Marcos forces.

Pimentel did not limit his efforts to changing the local government structure. He stoutly defended Aquino from criticisms and acted as her buffer of defense. He had verbal tussles with the likes of Juan Ponce Enrile and reputed Marcos lackeys, who kept on trying to diminish the new admin. In return, Aquino rewarded Pimentel by naming him one of the 24 senatorial candidates in the 1987 elections, the first to be held after 13 years of Marcos dictatorial rule.

After speaking at this gathering in 1984, Aquilino Pimentel Jr. was kicked out of Batasan. Photograph courtesy of the Pimentel family

Because of the enmity developed towards him in local levels, Pimentel landed in the 22nd spot. He was junked by local public officials. But he endured being slayed at the polls. Part of politics, he told himself.

As senator, he performed a big part in restoring and strengthening democratic structures and processes. He authored and co-authored important legislations. His legislative presence was felt when Congress enacted landmark legislations that put the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law in place, as well as the Office of the Ombudsman, the Metro Manila Development Authority, among others.

Pimentel’s biggest accomplishment as a lawmaker came when he shepherded the enactment of the crucial Local Government Code of 1991. For at least four months, the senator stood in the plenary hall explaining and defending  the Local Government Code that has become pivotal to initiate a revolution in local governance. Nene was the political visionary, who rightly foresaw the role of strong but independent local government units (LGUs) as pillars in a restored democracy.

Imprisoned four times by the Marcos dictatorship, Nene saw how power concentrated into the hands of a few could lead to political persecution of its critics. This was why he opposed a strong central government. He favored LGUs with keenly devolved powers as instruments of democracy. This has been the theme and credo of his Local Government Code.

Aquilino Quilingquing Pimentel Jr. was born in Cagayan de Oro City on December 11, 1933. He was married to Lourdes dela Llana, and their union was blessed with six children. He finished law at Xavier University and had a fairly lucrative law practice when he ran and won in 1970 to represent Cagayan de Oro City and Misamis Oriental in the 1971 Constitutional Convention that sought to replace the colonial 1935 Constitution.

First PDP Convention in Cagayan de Oro in 1983. Photograph courtesy of the Pimentel family

Pimentel rose to national prominence when he opposed provisions to prolong the stay of Marcos in power in the new charter. He was among members of the opposition whom Marcos had arrested upon the declaration of Martial Law in 1972. He was among the handful of delegates who did not sign the 1973 Constitution which later became the blueprint for the Marcos dictatorship. Apart from serving jail time, he had to endure various forms of political harassment by Marcos and his minions.

Pimentel’s career encompasses four major chapters of the postwar Phippine political experience: the Marcos dictatorship (1971-1986); EDSA Uno (1986-2001); EDSA Dos (2001-2016); and the Duterte era (2016-). He had demonstrated profound political and intellectual influence throughout these changes in government.

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Aquilino Pimentel Jr. in jail. Photograph courtesy of the Pimentel family

Mayor Aquilino Pimentel Jr. with Juling Ouano and Pimentel became friends as he was interned in Cebu. Photograph courtesy of the Pimentel family

The Pimentels, surrounded by security guards, as they go to church. Photograph courtesy of the Pimentel family

Aquilino Pimentel Jr. campaigns for Cory Aquino. Photograph courtesy of the Pimentel family

Philippines Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide (R) and Senate President Aquilino Pimentel (right) talk as star prosecution witness Luis Singson (not pictured) testifies at the historic impeachment trial of Philippine President Joseph Estrada in Manila,13 December 2000. Singson, the self-confessed "bagman" for Estrada, testified that the president pocketed millions of US dollars in payoffs from illegal gambling syndicates. Photograph by Romeo Gacad, AFP

Opposition senators, from left, Tessie Aquino-Oreta, Aquilino Pimentel, and Vicente Sotto Ill, raise their hands as they vote against the counting of votes from Sweden during the counting of presidential ballots at Congress in suburban Quezon City, north of Manila, Monday June 7, 2004. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said a plot to destabilize the government, which includes huge protests designed to derail a count of the May 10 presidential ballot, has failed to get the support of the military, police and poor Filipinos. Photograph by Aaron Favila, AP

Senators launch the Gloria Resign Movement at the Senate on April 5, 2005 with Minority Leader Aquilino Q. Pimentel Jr. spearheading a sticker campaign that coincided with the birthday of President Arroyo. Among those who supported the campaign were Senate President Franklin Drilon, Senators Jamby Madrigal, Panfilo Lacson and Jinggoy Estrada. Photograph by Joseph Vidal, PRIB

Senator Koko Pimentel joined by his wife, Kathryna Yu-Pimentel, and father, former Senate President Nene Pimentel, took his oath today, June 10, 2019, as Senator of the 18th Congress before Marikina Mayor Marcy Teodoro at the Marikina City Hall. Photograph from Koko Pimentel's Facebook account

In the EDSA Dos era, Pimentel briefly assumed the  Senate presidency, although he had established his reputation as an enemy of corruption by heading the powerful Senate blue ribbon committee that conducted inquiries “in aid of legislation” of major scandals. He was also remembered for holding the copy of the Holy Bible when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took her oath of office at the EDSA Shrine in Ortigas in 2001.

Nene retired when his third Senate term ended in 2010. He could have enjoyed his retirement, but chose to support the presidential bid of Rodrigo Duterte and the failed shift of the current unitary government into a federal form. This did not sit well with myriad pro-democracy forces, triggering severe backlash with his political choices towards the end of his illustrous political career. But until the end he remained true to his advocacy for local autonomy and the devolution or power from "imperial Manila" which aligned with Duterte’s political agenda.