Edsa 20/20
20 Filipinos 20 Years after People Power

Jose Concepcion Jr.

‘Let us now look to tomorrow’

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Photos by Lilen Uy

IT SOUNDS like a hiccup, but then Jose Concepcion Jr.’s voice breaks as he tells a story that he says he remembers as if it happened only yesterday. The story takes place on Edsa in 1986, at the height of the uprising that toppled President Ferdinand Marcos, and how Concepcion felt as he walked there with other council members of the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel), which he headed. A group had begun shouting “Namfrel!” and before the hefty Concepcion knew it, he was being lifted onto their shoulders.

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“As they chanted Namfrel! Namfrel!” Concepcion continues, recovering his voice, “I knew that they realized that without Namfrel, this would not have been possible.”

He is not being arrogant, and even now no one denies Namfrel’s special place in the country’s history: it guarded votes and kept careful tally, acts that were far from being simple in a dictatorship, and which became key links to a chain of events that eventually led to Edsa 1. Funded largely by contributions from leading business executives and staffed by middle-class and parish volunteers, Namfrel was an expression of the political center’s desire for electoral democracy: by bringing about change through the ballot, Namfrel volunteers hoped to provide an alternative to those presented by a regime that was stubbornly clinging to power and a communist insurgency that was raging in the countryside.

Namfrel — and Joe Concepcion — also represented the activism of the business community and its catalytic role in bringing about political reforms in the last 20 years. Without Namfrel, Marcos would have gotten away with his Batasang Pambansa’s declaration that he had won. Of course, Marcos still did take his oath in Malacañang; such was the stubbornness of the man who wanted to be president forever. But Namfrel’s count had beaten the government’s machinery with its sheer speed, broadcasting the tally not just to the Philippines but to the world, showing he had lost to the widow whom he had dismissed as “walang alam,” a know-nothing.

The “snap” election of February 7, 1986 was one of the bloodiest and dirtiest in Philippine history. In the capital alone, a tenth of the voting population was not even able to cast any ballot. Sixty-five people died on election day; the death toll was 116 in the entire two-month campaign period. All over the country, Namfrel volunteers guarded the vote literally — nuns sat on ballot boxes, students linked arms to barricade precincts, volunteers kept vigil through the nights.

“All of them,” Concepcion says proudly, “gave themselves in order to protect the sanctity of the ballot.” For truly in many places, Namfrel volunteers were terrorized, chased, mauled, taken hostage, or killed. Two days after the election, then Manila Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin exalted Namfrel workers, saying he was “overwhelmed” by their sacrifices and called them “men of peace.”

In Mambusao, Capiz, as the teachers were counting the votes, three men barged in to the polling precinct and tried to snatch the ballots. Farmer and Namfrel volunteer Rodrigo Ponce Jr., quickly took a Philippine flag that was in the room, used it to wrap the ballots, and ran out. But he didn’t make it far; he died after being shot three times as he fled.

Concepcion was in Mambusao when Ponce was buried. “I met his wife and we embraced,” he recalls. He had gone there to give Ponce’s family some comfort, but the trip took him to other places, too. “Wherever I went, the people came, and they could never forget the role that they played,” says Concepcion. “It was their organization, it was their victory.” The pride in the man’s voice is pure.

BUT THESE days Namfrel is no longer being met with warmth by some of the same people who embraced it readily 20 years ago. Today the group, which its founders had organized in evening meetings at Concepcion’s Forbes Park home back in the 1980s, is faced with a particularly ugly accusation: that it was an instrument of fraud in the May 2004 presidential election.

New-media pioneer and activist Roberto Verzola, for instance, says Namfrel’s tally was manipulated so that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would look like she had beaten closest rival Fernando Poe Jr. Verzola says Namfrel hastened the canvassing in Arroyo’s bailiwicks and delayed those in FPJ’s. When it eventually aborted its count, Verzola says, Namfrel left huge numbers of votes uncounted in the FPJ areas. He further claims that Namfrel doctored the precinct totals and tally completion percentages and that it canvassed tampered election returns (ERs). The implication is that the manipulation was done with full consent of Namfrel’s top leadership.

But Concepcion will not let any besmirching of Namfrel’s name. “That’s mere extrapolation,” he says of Verzola’s statistical analyses. “And the extrapolation has no scientific basis.”

“We have always been dependent on our quick count,” he adds. “And based on our quick count, the president received that number of votes.”

Concepcion also says, “It is not our job to proclaim who won. All we are saying is that based on the ERs this is the number of votes that she got.”

But Verzola is not the only one who has been insisting that Namfrel be called to account for sanctioning the outcome of the presidential race. Last May, no sooner had Namfrel begun its quick count did opposition politicians start harping along the line that would be repeated later by Verzola: the citizens’ election watchdog was “trending” for an Arroyo win.

Concepcion is adamant Namfrel did not. In the same way that thousands of Namfrel volunteers guarded the ballots in 1986, so now does the organization’s 75-year-old leader take pains to defend it.

It is in some ways déjà vu for Concepcion-Namfrel’s independence had been questioned in the past. In 1986, Concepcion’s being part of the Ninoy Aquino Foundation was used by those from the Marcos side of the fence to imply that Namfrel could not be a genuine election watchdog. To silence Namfrel’s critics, Concepcion resigned from the Foundation.

Concepcion says Namfrel remains relevant even in a democracy. But he says he has not stopped dreaming about the country having an efficient and modernized electoral system. Under such a system, Namfrel would no longer conduct quick counts, which would be a task left with confidence with the Commission on Elections. Instead, Namfrel could focus on educating voters at the barangay level, “making sure,” Concepcion says, “that the people are involved.”

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“BARANGAY” IS one word that Concepcion knows well. Though primarily an industrialist and business leader, he is also chairman of Barangay Forbes Park in Makati. Elected to that post in 1999, Concepcion has consistently shunned suggestions from well-meaning friends, including Jaime Cardinal Sin, that he run for a national post.

“My involvement in the barangay shows what can be done to bring about transformation at the grassroots,” says Concepcion. Only then, he says, does “people power” take on the meaning it lost as the post-Edsa euphoria subsided and the more difficult task of nation-building set in.

“We elected Cory and the others, but we left it to them to bring about the necessary changes,” he says. And it is clear, he says, that it did not work. He muses that “40 years ago, we were second to Japan” in economic strength. He ticks off the problems that he says continue to get in the way of our progress: poverty, graft and corruption, unemployment, the absence of a clear economic strategy.

What will work then? For Concepcion, a master plan is necessary to steer the economy toward the right direction. Such a plan, he says, will be carried out with a clear vision of the long term and live over many administrations. It will strive to create jobs, produce the goods that we need so that we become self-sufficient in our basic needs, and increase the purchasing power of the ordinary Filipino.

“Let us now look to tomorrow,” he says. “If we take measured steps we will move toward that direction (that) will give hope to our people.”

But any economic plan, no matter how sound, can only be executed by an inspiring leadership, one that is not “saddled by too much politics.” “What destroys this country is too much politics,” he says, adding that he was himself a victim of it.

He relates that upon the advice of family and friends, he had turned down President Cory Aquino’s offer for him to take the trade and industry portfolio in 1986. They had warned him that if he joined the government, he would be crucified. But the new president persisted, and Concepcion eventually relented. Other leading figures of Namfrel, such as such as Vicente Jayme, Joey Cuisia, and Christian Monsod, also ended up as part of the Aquino administration.

“How true it was,” Concepcion now says. “I was crucified.” He faced allegations that he had misused public money. To this day he maintains he was unfairly accused, and that those funds went, properly, to an undersecretary.

Since leaving the government in 1991, Concepcion has been back at work in his family’s conglomerate, where he is now chairman of the board of RFM Corp. and CEO of Swift Foods. He also holds top posts in various business groups, such as the East Asia Business Council and the Non-Aligned Movement Business Council. He is chairman of his family’s charity vehicle, RFM Foundation, as well as of the regionalization and anticorruption committees of the Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference of the Philippines.

Concepcion, however, remains very involved in politics, saying his “desire to bring about change” is as keen as it was two decades ago. In 2000, as evidence was coming out about Joseph Estrada’s excesses, Concepcion was among the most vocal private-sector leaders who called for the president’s resignation. When interviewed by journalists, Concepcion spoke of what Filipinos expect of a leader: someone who can inspire, give direction, achieve economic growth, and address poverty. In all those points, he said at the time, “Estrada fell short.”

Tough words from a man who looks and usually sounds very pleasant. And, by most accounts, also very simple in his ways, although he is obviously a wealthy man. Nothing gives him more joy than taking time off to be with his grandchildren.

Concepcion’s hopes for the country, today as in 1986, are just as simple: with enough faith in God and in ourselves, Filipinos will be able to steer the country to a brighter future. — Vinia M. Datinguinoo