Tue, Nov 18, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Beer tycoon brews entry into Philippines politics

THE GODFATHER The chairman of San Miguel has launched his own political organization, with big consequences for next May's election

REUTERS , MANILA

Filipinos love to drink Eduardo Cojuangco's beer and eat his food, but his other role as a political godfather is having a much more divisive effect as the country gears up for a volatile election campaign.

The 68-year-old chairman of San Miguel Corp, seller of nine of 10 beers in the Philippines, kept a stony silence throughout a recent battle over the impeachment of the top judge that brought the country to the edge of a constitutional crisis.

But the fact that his own political machine launched the attempt to impeach Chief Justice Hilario Davide has left few Filipinos in doubt that he was pulling the strings.

The impeachment was stopped in its tracks last week when a majority of lawmakers agreed with a Supreme Court decision that it was unlawful.

The question now is -- how will Cojuangco react?

The answer could have a major bearing on next May's election when Filipinos go to the polls to choose a president for the first time in six years.

Analysts say that Cojuangco, a close enough friend of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos to have flown into exile with him in 1986, seems to be backing away from making a personal bid for the presidency. The only time he tried in 1992, he was thrashed by Fidel Ramos.

But he undoubtedly has the financial muscle and political connections to be a kingmaker, and the bitter impeachment row may have driven him further away from President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

"Many who know him would agree that he is like Don Corleone himself in Mario Puzo's The Godfather in that Cojuangco runs a tight ship, works quietly, moves with very little visibility but packs a lot of power," said William Esposo, a leader of a political action group critical of Arroyo.

His supporters say Cojuangco's no-nonsense business skills are just what the Philippines needs after years of economic mismanagement that have seen the country overtaken by its more dynamic neighbors and left millions mired in poverty.

They see him as a strong businessman coming to the rescue of a troubled nation -- a Philippine version of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra or Italy's Silvio Berlusconi.

Cojuangco's Nationalist People's Coalition (NPC) has been in a very loose alliance with Arroyo's ruling party for three years, often acting in opposition. The failure to have Davide impeached could prompt "The Boss," as friends and employees call him, to back another political horse.

Analysts believe Cojuangco is determined to oust Davide, during whose tenure the Supreme Court has issued several unfavorable rulings on a multi-billion-peso coconut levy fund that was used to buy a bank and shares in San Miguel.

Soon after Marcos was overthrown, the new government sequestered a 47 percent block of shares in San Miguel on suspicion it had been amassed using funds illegally collected from coconut farmers during his dictatorial rule.

Of this stake, Cojuangco has claimed about 20 percent as his own investment. The other 27 percent is claimed by coconut farmers and a private coconut producers' group.

Since the legal battle for control of the coconut levy fund began in 1987, Cojuangco has won victories at the anti-graft court only to suffer bitter reversals at the Supreme Court.

On December 2001, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that the coconut levy fund was public, or, in other words, belonged to the Philippine people. It ordered the anti-graft court to finally settle the case.

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