MOST OBSERVERS IDENTIFY THE FIRST BATTLE in the 2010 campaign as having taken place in November 2008, when Manuel Villar Jr. resigned the Senate presidency rather than be deposed by his peers. Other possible presidential contenders had to deprive Villar of a position traditionally seen as a major stepping-stone to the presidency.
It was Edsa II that made Manuel Villar’s presidential dreams a realistic ambition. Whether or not he entered the House of Representatives in 1992 with more modest ambitions, in 1998 he was able to maneuver his election as speaker. Being fourth in the national hierarchy tends to foster dreams of rising even higher.
As speaker starting on July 27, 1998, Villar had power but lacked the kind of popular standing a third-termer with ambition needed, if he was to have a chance of moving further up the political totem pole. He had barely warmed the speakership when he got mired in controversy on Aug. 17, 1998 after Rep. Joker Arroyo, his rival, accused him of land-grabbing, using government connections to bail out his failed Capitol Bank, and other instances of bending or breaking the law for private gain. His SWS net satisfaction ratings started at +22 in September 1998; then ranged from +31 to +38 from November 1998 to June 1999, dipped to +31 in October 1999, sank to +16 in December 1999, and improved to +26 in March 2000.
Speakers may be powerful, but they tend to be fairly unpopular in national terms, in large part because they are perceived to be fixers primarily concerned with wheedling patronage out of the presidents whose favor makes possible their office. When he did a Pearl Harbor on President Joseph Estrada, Villar’s highest net satisfaction rating of +42 was already behind him (reached in July 2000 and marginally lower than the net satisfaction of +46 Jose de Venecia Jr. enjoyed at the height of his popularity in June 1997). He was deposed from the speakership but took advantage of every opportunity to keep a high profile during Edsa II in a campaign to keep himself in the public eye as was being conducted by Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
In May 2001, his gamble paid off a double jackpot when he was elected to the Senate (coming in seventh) and became Senate president pro tempore, second banana in the upper house until 2003. In May 2007, he was re-elected, coming in fourth and was elected, at last, Senate president. He achieved his highest net satisfaction rating of +59 that December. Although by the time he had to relinquish the Senate presidency in November 2008 his net satisfaction was on the decline, losing nine points from +52 in June down to +43 in September (still the highest among top government officials), as Senate president he had always registered higher ratings than his predecessor, Franklin Drilon. His successor Juan Ponce Enrile has also never come close to Villar’s net satisfaction ratings.
But Villar deployed his resources not to recapture the Senate presidency but to hit the critical 25 percent threshold in the surveys by August 2009. Villar is unique in being the first self-made man to have a fortune large enough to give him the freedom to pursue the presidency however he wants, regardless of cost.
If his political rise has been marked by a combination of shrewd deal-making (clinching the speakership in 1998, the Senate presidency in 2007), high-stakes gambling (Pearl Harbor versus Estrada) and patient marshaling of resources (his presidential campaign is like the Soviet Red Army and its deep operations doctrine: simultaneous parallel attacks to induce a catastrophic defensive failure in the enemy), it’s because of his personal fortune.
Shortly before the 2007 elections, the Securities and Exchange Commission approved the share swap involving Vista Land & Lifescapes Inc. (his holding firm), and C&P Homes Inc. In mid-June 2007, the SEC approved Vista Land’s proposal for an initial public offering (IPO) of stocks (up to 2.12 billion new shares and 1.265 billion shares held by Fine Properties, Polar Property Holdings and Adelfa Properties, expected to raise 13.2 billion at a median price of 6.50 per share). In the end, the IPO raised P21 billion, starting with public listing on June 25, 2007 and follow-on offerings when “Chairman emeritus” Villar rang the bell to kick off the sale.
Two months later (on July 28), the SEC allowed Villar to sell Polar Property’s shares amounting to an 8.5 percent stake in Vista Land, exempting it from the 180-day (or five month) lock-up imposed on shareholders who own at least 10 percent of a company’s outstanding shares when it goes public. This freed up 722.61 million shares to dispose of in the market worth P4.696 billion at P6.50 a share precisely at a time when Villar’s presidential plans were already unabashedly in play.
By August last year, Forbes Magazine calculated Villar’s net worth at P25 billion ($530 million). Officially, his Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth reports a growth in net worth from P328.691 million in 1998 to P1.046 billion in 2008 (his net worth prior to Vista Land’s IPO was P915.6 million).
Fine Properties, Adelfa Properties, and Polar Property Holdings at present have 35 percent, 18.2 percent, and 5.35 percent stakes in Vista Land, but Mark Villar has declined to confirm whether his father retains a direct stake, telling reporters last August that his father had “no official position in the company.” On the other hand, Vista Land president and chief executive Benjamarie Therese commented that it would be “presumptuous” to divest ahead of the 2010 elections.
In many ways, the parallel story of Villar as businessman is even more interesting – and barely understood by the public – than his public career. Does seeking public office mean that money is merely a means to an end or is it public office that is merely a means to an end?