Among other meanings, “puno” means tree, and Interior and Local Government Secretary Ronaldo Puno won’t let us forget it. The DILG website has a slide show and YouTube videos which all feature Puno as the source, the “puno,” of all good things in that department. There he is, inspecting new police cars with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. There he is again, this time in a camouflage police uniform, pinning a medal on the chest of some policeman. And there he is with a little girl, extolling the virtues of the Philippine National Police’s Women and Child Protection Desk.

The website also proclaims that “’Pag maganda ang puno, Maganda din ang bunga” (a good tree bears good fruit), which is the exact same message of the Puno “public service” ads that have been running over TV for some weeks. Those ads, said a Puno spokesman, were paid for by the Friends of Ronnie (FoR), which he says is a group supportive of Puno’s advocacy of “empowering local government units” and “developing a new breed of law enforcers.”

Despite the nobility of that alleged intent, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago still wants Puno prosecuted, along with Augusto Syjuco, chair of the Technical Education Skills Development Authority (TESDA); Vice President Noli de Castro; Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) chair Efraim Genuino; Health Secretary Francisco Duque; Makati Mayor Jejomar Binay; Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) chair Bayani Fernando; Education Secretary Jesli Lapuz; Public Works Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane; and Agrarian Reform Secretary Nasser Pangandaman.

What these worthies have in common is that they all want to run for senator in 2010, except for Binay, who’s a possible opposition candidate for either president or vice president, and de Castro, who could be the presidential candidate of whatever coalition the Arroyo administration can cobble together by next year.

In implicit recognition of the power of television, the agencies they head (in the case of de Castro, the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council [HUDCC]) have also been furiously airing “public service” TV “infomercials” about their “achievements.” Naturally—or, to be more precise, unnaturally—the ads have to show Puno, de Castro in action. De Castro thus argued during the Senate hearings on the ads that his presence in them has boosted the amount of housing loan applications the Council has received.

Give us a break. No one with an IQ of at least two digits could possibly fail to conclude that Puno, de Castro, and company are campaigning early by making sure the electorate remembers them come May 10, 2010. (Viewers remember who they saw in TV even if they don’t usually remember what they said.) Disguising the ads as public service infomercials is a creative way of breaking the law, there being a campaign period specified by the Election Code. In addition, said Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, if these early birds accepted funds from non- government sources, they also violated the Code of Conduct of Public Officials, which penalizes officials for accepting a gift or anything else of value.

And then there’s the possibility that public funds were used in some if not all of the instances. Santiago said P218 million in public funds have been spent for the above agencies’ ads, which demands investigation by the Commission on Audit and the Ombudsman.

Santiago’s Economic Affairs Senate committee heard last week the testimonies of some of the above officials during a hearing on the use of public funds for the ads. By the end of it Santiago was delivering a privilege speech in which she referred to the officials as rhinoceros that should be “shot on sight,” presumably for being thick- skinned and ferocious.

Hear, hear, although the comparison might have been insulting to rhinoceros, which are herbivorous, in contrast to some of these officials who dined with Arroyo in Bobby Van’s Steakhouse in Washington, DC.

The good senator, however, didn’t bring some of her fellow senators to task for campaigning early, if not for using public funds.

Her explanation was that her colleagues in that category, most prominently Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, and Manuel Villar, have been spending their own money for the putrid ads they’ve been running.

Villar has run several. The latest has Boy Abunda, a TV personality far too many people think is a journalist, asking him questions like And where did you bathe?, as Villar tours him through the house in Manila’s working class Tondo district where he (Villar) grew up with ten siblings. Never fear, the ad tells viewers, despite his possessing the riches of Mammon, Villar, who’s the wealthiest senator of the country, is still one with the legions of the poor.

One website which seems to make it its business to evaluate the ads of people it still insists on referring to as “presidentiables” (sic!) describes this ad as “effective” because it feeds into what’s “common fair” (sic!!) for Filipino TV viewers.

Indeed. The fruits of Villar’s ads, unlike the fruits of Puno’s tree, are evident. He’s now leading the other possible candidates for president in 2010, including Joseph Estrada (who insists he can still run in 2010 despite his conviction for plunder and his having been president from 1998 to 2001), de Castro, who used to be number one, and Senator Manuel “Mar” Roxas II. TV advertising costs (e.g., P475,000 for a 30-second ad aired during prime time). But it also pays.

Their effectiveness is unquestioned. But assuming that he did spend and is spending his own money for his TV ads, does that exempt Villar from the charge of campaigning early and violating the Election Code? And doesn’t the idea that it’s okay to spend as much as you can so long as you use your own money validate money politics? And isn’t it leading, this early, to another money race during the 2010 elections, thus assuring the election of the moneyed rather than the competent?

“Puno” also means full, and “punong-puno” means very full as well as fed-up, which aptly describes the state of the electorate. Public distress over the TV political ads is once again proving that far from being the source of all good things, your run-of-the-mill politician is the major cause of the distaste for politics among the population—and incidentally, the growing sense that someone like Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, who’s never in his life prematurely ran a TV ad extolling his virtues, could make the 2010 elections meaningful.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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  1. I really don’t like that Puno ad. For Sec. Duque, what he did were infomercials especially during AH1N1. For the rest, purely campaign materials.

    I would like to comment on Villar and the ducks. It was shown February 2009, when he wiped his hands on his shirt, no mud was at the end of the ad. Come March, it was gone for 2-3 weeks, then when it reappeared, there was mud, but rubbed the wrong way from the previous scene.

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