Koko Pimentel: His father's son, the President's 'protector'

MANILA, Philippines – It seemed like fate. The man who had to fight long and hard for his place in the Senate now leads the chamber.

On July 25, 2016, Senator Aquilino Pimentel III made history by becoming the first second-generation Senate president.

Pimentel’s PDP-Laban has stood by party mate and fellow Mindanaoan Rodrigo Duterte since 2015, when the presidential candidate lagged in surveys and was not yet deemed as a real contender. With Duterte's come-from-behind win followed Pimentel's rise to the Senate leadership.

"Number 1: Who fielded Duterte as presidential candidate? My party, PDP-Laban. Who, in effect, partially convinced him to run? I was also there. When he was running, who justified it? Me, PDP-Laban. I did all these things because basically nag-a-agree ako sa kanya (I agree with him)," Pimentel, president of PDP-Laban, told Rappler on Friday, March 24.

Now, he is among the main supporters of the Chief Executive in the Senate. He has even urged his party mates to continuously "protect" the President amid alleged efforts to oust him.

"We need to protect the President. We need to help the President because we noticed the increase in attacks against him," Pimentel said in a separate interview.

Prior to 2016, Pimentel was allied with former president Benigno Aquino III and his Liberal Party.

In fact, in 2013, he ran under the Team PNoy slate. He made the decision after a long-time family friend and political ally, former vice president Jejomar Binay, insisted on the inclusion of  Juan Miguel Zubiri in the senatorial lineup of the United Nationalist Alliance.

Zubiri was the supposed beneficiary of stolen votes that cost Pimentel his Senate seat.

As is the case in politics, there are no permanent friends and enemies, and in this case, stand on issues.

Now, Pimentel and Zubiri are allies of Duterte while Pimentel and LP, his senatorial vehicle in 2013, are on opposite sides of the fence, actively going at each other. Pimentel has also noticeably changed some of his views on key issues such as the death penalty and martial law.

From neophyte to Senate president

Pimentel, a bar topnotcher, only served one year and 10 months of his 6-year first term. He was proclaimed senator only in August 2011, after a protracted and bitter election protest against Zubiri. 

In his early years in the Senate, Pimentel focused on the youth, and on electoral and judicial reforms. He also decided to join the majority bloc supporting the Aquino administration.

At the time, Pimentel said he would not be a "lapdog," adding that his support for the Aquino administration would be "issues-based." After all, he opposed the passage of the Reproductive Health bill and the postponement of elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

"I will not be a lapdog. I cannot yield if the disagreement would involve fundamental principles," Pimentel said in 2011

After Duterte won in the 2016 polls, it came as no surprise that Pimentel, as the President's only party mate then in the Senate, would be the leading contender to be the next Senate President. 

The bloc of Senators Vicente Sotto III and Franklin Drilon's Liberal Party backed Pimentel's bid for the Senate presidency – a fact that would haunt Pimentel to date, after he supported the ouster of LP senators from their key posts.

Barely a year in his post, there have been whispers of ousting him – a non-issue for Pimentel, who said whoever gets 13 votes can readily replace him anytime.

Asked if he’s afraid to be ousted if he disobeys the President’s wishes, Pimentel told Rappler: "I’m not afraid. I am not, really, because primus inter pares (first among equals) ka naman eh. As of the moment, with the consent of your colleagues, they are allowing you to be the leader, foremost member as of the moment. So once they change their mind, I should be willing to let go."

For one majority senator who refused to be named, Pimentel still "needs improvement." Under Pimentel’s term, the Senate already had major reorganizations, with continued bickering among its members.

"He is not really a politician. He is still a work in progress as far as people skills are concerned. He has to be more firm and show leadership," the senator told Rappler.

Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III debunks this, saying Pimentel is "almost a carbon copy of his father," former Senate president Aquilino "Nene" Pimentel Jr.

"He is serving with honesty, integrity, and sincerity. I’ll take [that] anytime over people skills. De Venecia style 'yung people skills (People skills are De Venecia's style)," Sotto said, referring to former Speaker Jose de Venecia.

For neophyte Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, Pimentel is "a good consensus builder" and is “very humble and approachable."

Senator Joseph Victor "JV" Ejercito said Pimentel is still learning.

"He is still a young politician being in politics for just 5 years, hence he is still learning and improving. The nice thing about him is that in spite of being a [bar] topnotcher, he is willing to listen and learn," Ejercito said.

For Senator Risa Hontiveros, who has known Pimentel since college, the latter has changed. She recalled how she and Pimentel joined the fight for democracy after former senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr was assassinated.

"Our shared struggles in the past led me to believe that his leadership had the potential to push for a strong and independent Senate, which would allow for critical collaboration with the executive and our counterparts from the House of Representatives," Hontiveros told Rappler.

"Sadly, we no longer share that view of the senator. I am also disheartened by some of his recent statements, particulary on the threat of an impeachment of the Vice President and those addressed to the Senate minority," she added.

Despite this, she expressed hope that Pimentel will stand for truth and justice "when the time comes."

"The optimist in me holds to the belief that Sen Koko still shares many of our progressive values. I know that he is under a lot of pressure. But I hope that when the time comes that we all need to draw a line in the sand and plant our feet firmly on the side of principle, he will stand on the side of truth and justice," Hontiveros said.

Compromise, contradictions

Known to peers and family as "very logical" and methodical, Pimentel faces criticism for supposedly bending over backwards for Duterte – a view he strongly denies.

He pointed out it was he and his party that fielded Duterte as a candidate and defended him during the campaign. It just necessarily follows, he said, that he would support his bet.

“'Yung mga taong criticizing me, what have they been expecting? Na may manok ako tapos against pala ako sa manok ko? They should expect na ang manok ko nanalo, ‘di ba dapat matuwa ako and support him. Why should I now fight him?”

(Those people criticizing me, what have they been expecting? That I have a bet and it turns out I am against my bet? They should expect that since my bet won, I am happy and supportive of him. Why should I now fight him?)

In the same breath, he said his agreement with the President is not absolute, as he is not a “clone” of Duterte.

“There is no 100% agreement, I was also supportive of PNoy but no 100% agreement. I am supportive of Duterte but too much to expect 100%; para na kaming (it's like we're) clones. We are supporters but we are not clones,” Pimentel said.

For the Senate President, it’s compromise. He said there are core issues that deserve more weight while the rest are just peripheral.

Case in point, Duterte’s support for federalism and for the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. He had to weigh which is more important – the life-long advocacy of his father and their party or their opposition to the hero’s burial of the man his father fought hard against?

Ang tanong ko lang is (My question is): Even during the campaign, iba stand ko sa mga pronouncements niya (I had a different stand on his pronouncements). But should that be a deal breaker? Should you cease to support somebody who believes in federalism like you do just because he wants Marcos buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani?” he asked.

Referring to Duterte's infamous habit of cursing almost anyone, including priests, Pimentel said: “Minumura ang mga pari, ayaw ko 'yun. ‘Di ako agree doon. But he also believes in federalism. Tapos na, let go na ako sa federalism? Hindi eh. There are more important issues and there are peripheral side issues. Who among the politicians can achieve federalism? Siya lang.”

(He's cursing priests, I don't like that. I don't agree with that. But he also believes in federalism. So should I let go of federalism because of it? No. There are more important issues and there are peripheral side issues. Who among the politicians can achieve federalism? It's only him.)

“Kung may 100 issues sa bansa, you agree in 80, you disagree in 20. Iiwanan mo na siya? Depende na 'yun kung what is the 20, kung deal breakers ba o hindi,” he added.

(If there are 100 national issues and you agree with the 80 and disagree with the 20, are you going to abandon him? It all depends on what those 20 are, if they are deal breakers or not.)

Asked if this means he is standing by the President until the very end, he said, in between pauses: “Dapat lang, dapat lang, dapat lang. Dapat lang unless napakasama ng krimen sa taong bayan na wala naman, dahil corruption 'yun. Talagang for 20 years na city mayor siya ni walang issue ng corruption. Ngayon pa na presidente na at 71 years old, di na nya gagawin 'yan."

(I should, I should, I should. I should unless there is a heinous crime committed against the people, which he has not committed because that is corruption. For 20 years as city mayor, he had no corruption issues. What more now that he is president and is already 71 years old? He won't do it.)

But minority Senator Antonio Trillanes IV claimed Duterte and his family have billions in secret bank accounts and challenged the President to release his bank records, something that Duterte has not yet done.

Koko vs Nene: The inevitable comparison

If there’s one thing he learned from his father, the senator said it is to “follow your conscience” in making decisions. It has been his guiding principle in leading the chamber.

"Well, follow your conscience when you decide. Follow what your conscience tells you that’s best for the people, best for the circumstances," Pimentel said.

PDP-Laban. In this photo dated 2001, then-Davao City 1st District Representative Rodrigo Duterte took oath as a member of PDP-Laban before then-Senate President and Party Chairman Nene Pimentel Jr. Photo from Pimentel's Facebook

PDP-Laban. In this photo dated 2001, then-Davao City 1st District Representative Rodrigo Duterte took oath as a member of PDP-Laban before then-Senate President and Party Chairman Nene Pimentel Jr.

Photo from Pimentel's Facebook

With the criticisms come the default comparison between father and son – both lawyers, senators, and Senate presidents.

Pimentel admitted feeling pressure over comparisons to his father, among the hallowed statesmen to have walked the august chamber. But he said times are now different.

"Oo, pero siyempre, different times na (Yes but of course we are now living in different times). If I had been in my father’s place during martial law, then I would have acted or decided similarly. But this is different; we are not under martial law now. We have such a free press. We have people anonymously expressing sentiments online. The spread of news is very fast. What happens here, criticisms here reaches the international community in real time," Pimentel said.

It's difficult not to compare the father and son, especially as they have different takes on major issues such as the impeachment complaint against Vice President Leni Robredo, the restoration of the death penalty, and giving the President the power to appoint barangay officials if the October polls are reset. (READ: Robredo's UN statement not an impeachable offense – Nene Pimentel)

Some have criticized the younger Pimentel for failing to emulate his father and the values he embodies, but for the Senate President, such is politics.

"It’s part of public service. You will really be compared to your father but comparing the 1980s-1990s decision with the 2000s – the context of the situation is different. You just accept that people are free to express own opinion, 'di sagutin na lang nang ganitong paraan, na I believe you’re wrong (then I will just answer it this way, that I believe you're wrong). I have the right to express my opinion also," he said.

The elder Pimentel rarely gives his son advice. Even with different views on controversial issues, he said he wants his son "to earn the respect of the people on his own merit."

"I do not interfere with the work of Koko now because I want him to earn the respect of the people on his own merit, not because I am teaching this to him. Ayaw ko 'yun. In all honesty, I haven’t talked to him about death penalty. You know very well I’m opposed to it," the elder Pimentel told Rappler.

"I want him [to] define on his own what is good for the nation at this present time because time does not stand still. Circumstances vary. Therefore, it's hard to say you do this, you do that. You have to look at the situation. If you feel you are doing the right thing, go ahead. I am not going to say, 'Don't do it,'" he added.

On repeated comparisons between him and his son, the former senator leaves it up to the public but said: "They should judge Koko based on what he does, not because of anything I have done."

Needless to say, the former senator beams with pride over what his son has accomplished, so far.

Asked if he is proud of his son, he said in jest: "Alam mo, ang tanungin mo nanay niya, hindi ako (You know, it's better to ask his mom, not me). That will be overstating what is very clear."

Turning serious, the former senator said: “As a parent, what do you want your children to achieve? [To] achieve something good for the people. And what is more important is that he does it democratically, in accordance with the law.." – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is a multimedia reporter focusing on media, technology, and disinformation.

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