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Death lulls action-packed Batangas gubernatorial race

With only a week to go before election day, gubernatorial candidates all over the country are busy charming their constituents to ensure victory in the May 10 polls. But in the province of Batangas, all is quiet on the electoral front for now. It hardly seemed that way two Sundays ago, when former Governor Armando Sanchez was courting the support of the local village chiefs of Bauan town to help him claim back the post he had lost to film celebrity-turned-politician Vilma Santos-Recto in 2007. On the opposite side of the electoral trenches, Santos — the first-ever woman governor of Batangas and Sanchez’ rival — was also occupied with campaigning to keep her hold on the top provincial seat in the land of barakos. Both candidates could barely keep up with their grueling schedules. When we asked Santos's aide about sortie schedules, the reply we got was that nothing was definite except constant changes in the schedules. The folder containing Sanchez's daily agenda was likewise filled with erasures due to repeated alterations. Two days later, all their plans were put on hold. The 57-year-old Sanchez collapsed during a campaign sortie, eventually leading to his death. Brain hemorrhage Edwin Ermita, Sanchez’s running mate, said the former governor was addressing employees at the Ladeco feed mill in Lipa City in the scorching noontime heat last April 26 when he suddenly fell unconscious. He was immediately rushed to the Lipa Metropolitan Hospital, but doctors there advised that he be transferred to Mary Mediatrix Medical Center for a CT scan. At Mary Mediatrix, doctors performed a three-hour brain surgery on Sanchez. But the brain damage was so severe that physicians expected a 5 to 10 percent survival rate. At 7:20 p.m. Tuesday, Sanchez was pronounced dead. Dr. Robert Magsino, president and medical director of the medical center, said the official cause of death was "brain hemorrhage." Magsino explained that the hot weather on that fateful day, Sanchez's diabetes and hypertension problems, and over-fatigue because of the demands of a strenuous campaign, might have triggered his blood pressure to shoot up, which eventually led to the swelling of his brain. Tired A day before he was hospitalized, Sanchez held a dialogue in Batangas City with about 30 barangay executives from Bauan town. He arrived about 20 minutes late for the 1 p.m. luncheon meeting. During the meeting, the politician was apparently tired. Clad in a baggy orange shirt and black pants, the ex-governor, who was physically stout, lumbered his way around the spacious function hall of the Batangas County Club to greet the barangay officials. His hair was ruffled, he was sweating, and his eyelids drooped. The noontime heat and the punishing pace of the campaign seemed to have taken its toll on him. Sanchez would crack jokes once in a while but his voice was hoarse. And when it was the local chieftains’ turn to take the floor, Sanchez was seen closing his eyes from time to time. A sweet smile would shine across his plump face whenever a local chief pledged to give him victory in the coming elections. Elusive Sanchez was a two-term mayor of Santo Tomas town from 1998 to 2004 before becoming Batangas governor from 2004 and 2007. He ran for reelection in 2007, but lost to Santos. The former governor also became popular for two things. First, for turning Sto. Tomas town from a fifth-class to a first-class municipality during his 2001-2004 term, and second, for being an alleged jueteng operator in the province. Jueteng is an illegal numbers game popular throughout Luzon. Jueteng operators, commonly called jueteng lords, are generally seen as a big source of bribery for local politicians and police officials, who are supposed to stamp out the game but often look the other way or even profit from it. In an interview with GMANews.TV before his death, Sanchez admitted to being involved in the illegal numbers game but refused to elaborate on his participation. “Meron pa bang jueteng ngayon? Matagal na yon. Wala naman nakakasabi ng buhay ng tao (Is there still jueteng now? That was long ago. No one can be dead-sure about how people want to live)," he said. He was elusive in granting the interview and wanted Ermita to just speak on his behalf. After much prodding, he relented but stressed that the conversation should be kept short as he had other commitments. Absentee governor? If Sanchez had a choice, he said he would not run again. But he has already given his word "to certain administration officials." He also said that had Santos been efficient as chief executive of the province, he would not have tried to reclaim the post. What made him decide to run again was when Santos — at the height of typhoon Ondoy — was abroad and busy promoting her movie “In My Life." She “goes to the provincial capitol only on Mondays," he charged. Santos admitted that she was abroad when Ondoy struck last September, but denied being remiss in her duties. “Wala akong tigil, wala akong tulog, naka-connect ako sa kanila sa speaker phone. Then habang nagmi-meeting yung provincial council, nakikinig ako so tinatanong nila what to do Gov[ernor] so nandun yung aking participation," she said. (I was relentless, I was sleepless, I was connected to them by speaker phone. Then while the provincial council was meeting, I was listening, so they were asking me what to do, so I had some participation.) Santos — affectionately called "Ate Vi" in the movie industry — unseated Sanchez in a landslide victory of more than 100,000 votes. Before seeking the gubernatorial post, Santos was a multi-awarded mayor of Lipa City. She has also been commended for “putting Lipa City on the world map" when her "Mga Munting Ngiti" dental program bested all finalists in the International Association of Pediatric Dentistry Bright Smiles Bright Futures Award in 2005. The allegations against her as a bad governor are mere black propaganda, she said, adding that the "administration officials" supporting Sanchez and Ermita's candidacies were the same people who convinced her to run as vice president "because of her untainted name." "And because I did not agree to run for vice president, I am now the worst governor for them," she said. Proxy war The two-cornered fight between Santos (Liberal Party) and Sanchez (Nacionalista Party) has been perceived as a proxy war between presidential candidates Senators Benigno “Noynoy" Aquino III and Manuel Villar Jr. — the two presidential front runners based on past pre-election surveys conducted by Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations. Santos, who moved to LP because she wanted “change," said this year's election is "much tougher" compared to 2007 because she is now up against three parties — NP, Lakas-Kampi, and the Nationalist People's Coalition — which coalesced in the province to ensure her defeat. In 2007, Sanchez and Santos were members of two administration parties Kampi and Lakas, respectively, which is why Malacañang declared Batangas a "free zone" in order to give both candidates a fair fight. Sanchez claimed that politics of convenience was not the reason why he obtained the support of other parties. Officials compared his and Santos's track records, he said. "Ni hindi niya nabibigyan ng projects [ang] mga barangay (She can’t even give projects to the barangays)," he said. A local village chief of Bauan town interviewed by GMANews.TV said she hardly had any projects under Santos's term. Among the projects she proposed include the construction of basketball courts. When pressed for the reason why her proposal was rejected, the official — who refused to be named — said: "Santos wanted to prioritize medical facilities." Where is Ricky? Sanchez also dared his rival to produce her brother-in-law Richard “Ricky" Recto, who allegedly masterminded the foiled assassination against him in 2006, which claimed the lives of his close-in aide and driver. He said Santos, as a public official, had the moral obligation to surrender Recto to the authorities so that he could face the murder charges that were filed against him. Santos, for her part, denied knowing Recto’s whereabouts. “I am not my brother-in-law’s keeper," she said, adding that she would never meddle with the case. Ceasefire Both camps were in the thick of campaign when the former governor died. Santos was in far-flung Tingloy Island, while Sanchez was in urbanized Lipa City. On the same day also, Sanchez’s legal counsel Ferdie Topacio sought the disqualification of Santos for her allegedly oversized billboards, which, if true, constitute a violation of election law. The NP camp, meanwhile, said they will field Mayor Edna Sanchez of Sto. Tomas town to replace her husband. Mayor Sanchez was emotional when she announced her decision to substitute for her husband’s vacated candidacy, at a press conference held last Friday at a covered court where the remains of her husband lie. (See: Widow to replace deceased Batangas gubernatorial bet) Their bitter word war would have to stop now, said Santos. Asked about her concrete plans now that the campaign has reached the homestretch, the actress-politician said: “I don’t know." "I don't have any idea [how to push through with the campaign]. I don't know what our next step will be, I don't know how the other camp will deal with this. But right now, my only priority is to express condolences," she said. Santos has also “indefinitely postponed her campaign sorties" as a sign of respect to her deceased rival. She said she could not stomach the thought of answering allegations and discussing political issues before her constituents while her rival’s family is mourning. “I don’t know what our next step will be but it’s ceasefire for now," Santos said. - JV, RJAB Jr., GMANews.TV