MANILA, Philippines – Except for the haggard appearance, Brother Eduardo “Eddie” Villanueva showed no sign of fatigue, gamely answering questions. His replies tended to be kilometric, and he couldn’t help but be repetitive in giving context and background on issues. This was no surprise – he is, after all, a preacher.
“Asked me any questions,” he told us. But then he slightly flinched when we pointed out: You have lost in two elections; maybe God is telling you not to venture into public service anymore. Villanueva contested the presidency in 2004, placing last in a field of 5 candidates; and in 2010, placing 5th out of 9 candidates.
He said he does not think that the two failed bids were a sign from God that he should give up his political plans. “There is no room for me to say this is a [sign from the Lord],” Villanueva said. On the contrary, he sees failure more as a challenge, for him to keep on trying until he succeeds.
His decision to run in 2013 came after the ruling Liberal Party dropped his son, Joel Villanueva, from its list of possible senatorial candidates.
Unlike other half-baked senatorial candidates, Villanueva said he was more prepared than what he is given credit for. “I know the political anatomy [of the country]. I am exposed to the public affairs of the nation.”
He stressed that he is also an economist and an educator, citing his 10-year stint as regent at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines before he became a well-known evangelist. He was also a student leader, fighting the Marcos dictatorship while working to send himself through college. He was jailed twice before for his political beliefs. At one point, he considered joining the communist movement.
There is should be no question on whether it’s proper for religious leaders like him to participate in secular affairs, said the 66-year-old founder of the Jesus is Lord Movement. If a smuggling lord or even a drug lord can become a lawmaker, why not an evangelist like him who seeks to espouse moral governance?
As in his 2004 and 2010 campaigns, Villanueva now relies on an army of volunteers, which he calls the “Brave Hearts.” These volunteers pay for Villanueva’s campaign paraphernalia. He attracts an eclectic mix of supporters from the academe, professional groups, and celebrities. The Valenciano showbiz clan, for one, has been ardent supporters since 2004.
Journalist Evelyn Katigbak, a college professor and chairperson of Kalayaan College’s Department of Journalism, said she is taking a time out from the academe to help in Villanueva’s campaign—free of charge.
Former Socio-Economic Planning Secretary Cielito Habito is also a long-time supporter of Villanueva and was one of those who convinced the evangelist to seek the presidency in 2004. To him, Villanueva “can be a unifier” in a divisive political environment. “He had the right motivation. He would have made a good President,” Habito said.
Also backing up Villanueva is former Chief Justice Reynato Puno.
But Villanueva as a “unifier” is debatable. His 2004 presidential candidacy was not supported by a number of Christian denominations because some of them believed that he should not run because of the separation between Church and the State.
Villanueva argues the separation of Church and State has been misinterpreted and such common misconception is used by some “to dissuade godly people to run for public office.”
Unlike other religious leaders or self-styled evangelists – say, Bro. Mike Velarde of the El Shaddai Movement – Villanueva has so far managed to keep his nose clean from any scandal.
He also has few critics, managing to maintain cordial relations with both the administration and the opposition camps.
In fact, Villanueva said he was invited by former President Joseph Estrada to join the United Nationalist Alliance slate at the time that the opposition camp was considering dropping Senator Loren Legarda, Francis Escudero, and Grace Poe as common candidates with the administration.
“Erap (Estrada’s nickname) came to my house more than a month ago,” he said. But he declined Estrada’s offer, saying he wants “to preserve moral ascendancy and my role as peacemaker.”
Villanueva, however, admitted that among the factors that he considered in turning down Estrada is the fact that his son, former party-list Rep Joel Villanueva is now director general of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority .
With his son in President Aquino’s Cabinet, him cozying up with the UNA camp might not be a good message to the public, he said. “That’s a secondary reason why I turned down Estrada’s offer.”
Getting the numbers
Despite his failed electoral bids, Villanueva, using simple arithmetic, believes that he has a shot this time for the senatorial race. In each of those two elections, when voters had to pick only one candidate for the presidential post, he got almost 2 million votes. This time, in the senatorial race, there are 12 slots available, and voters can pick him along with 11 others.
His optimism is not backed by pre-election survey results. Pulse Asia, in a survey conducted from March 16-20, showed Villanueva far from the winning orbit, placing 20th to 23rd in a field of 33 senatorial candidates. It is not a very encouraging number.
An earlier survey released by SWS, conducted March 1-15, showed him being preferred by only 13 percent of the respondents. On the other hand, those in the top 12 got 35-37 percent.
Like most candidates who do not fare well in such surveys, Villanueva was quick to dismiss their validity. The results can be “fabricated,” he said.
Still, Villanueva expects a boost on his campaign following the open endorsement by Sarangani Rep. Manny Pacquiao when the boxing champ hosted a political gathering for UNA bets in General Santos City last March 24. At that rally: he was the only one whose hand Pacquiao raised.
Ironic for someone who owns a TV station (ZOE Broadcasting Network, which is operated by GMA Network) he’s had only a few TV campaign ads, citing limited resources. The last time he checked, he said, an ad placement in primetime now costs P800,000.
Asked how much he has spent so far on his campaign, Villanueva said he has no idea.
To maximize his limited resources, he and good friend and fellow independent candidate Puerto Princesa City Mayor Edward Hagedorn have struck an alliance to help promote and campaign for each other. “We have an unwritten covenant.”
Refusal to fail
To be sure, failure is not in his vocabulary. After all, he was able to build the Jesus is Lord Fellowship from a motley 15 members in 1978 to more than 5 million at present. It has churches in China, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. To give up “is not Brother Eddie Villanueva,” he stressed.
If elected, Villanueva said he will push for the modernization of agriculture, fisheries, and tourism, which he said could easily translate to 3 million jobs.
Will he impose his own belief? And to what extent shall his faith affect his legislative agenda?
Villanueva assures that his religious background should not pose a worry. “I respect all religions. We do not impose,” he said.
In fact, he is quite liberal for a religious leader.
These are the things we learned from Villanueva from the interview:
“I am a full blooded Democrat. I respect the political and civil rights of the people,” he stressed, when asked for his view on same-sex marriage. (This statement, however, runs counter to his previous statement on the legalization of gay marriage when asked by gmanetwork.com. Replying to the issue of gay marriage, Villanueva said: “The Good Book says, do not follow the examples of Sodom and Gomorrah because that will led to the ruin of a country.”)
When told that he was not conservative at all, considering his religious background, he said he gets that reaction all the time. And once more, he stressed, “I do not want to be affected by religious dogma.”