By FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JEJOMAR C. BINAY
He was a voice of opposition to martial law from Cagayan de Oro, and his fiery presence disproved the regime’s propaganda line that those fighting martial rule were only a minority from Metro Manila. Nene Pimentel ignored the easy path of collaboration and dared to risk life and liberty in the name of freedom.
He founded the Partido Demokrartiko Pilipino (PDP), which would later merge with Lakas ng Bayan (Laban) of former senator Ninoy Aquino. These two political parties played pivotal roles in the struggle against the dictatorship. As the biggest opposition political party during the twilight of the Marcos regime, PDP-Laban fielded Cory Aquino as its presidential candidate in the 1986 snap elections.The rest, as they say, is history.
Both Nene and myself were given front-row seats in the historic events of February, 1986, and the rebuilding of democracy that followed. It was during this period that Nene and I formed a bond of friendship that endured despite the shifting tides of politics.
As President Cory Aquino’s minister of interior, Nene presided over the dismantling of the Marcos regime’s local political apparatus, earning him the ire of entrenched local political interests that nearly cost him his senatorial bid. But Nene had a job to do, and it was for a worthy cause: to protect the newly installed revolutionary government from local political allies of the ousted dictator and their possible attempts at political restoration.
It was during those years that Nene would see the PDP-Laban’s ranks decimated by political turncoatism and opportunism on a mass scale. Together we would nurse the party at its lowest period. At one point, the PDP-Laban was the butt of jokes among political circles. We were the original “Volkswagen party,” a party so small that its entire membership could fit inside a VW Beetle. Another joke went that whenever Nene and myself would meet, the party would have a quorum. But we endured the political ribbing. Nene in particular was not inclined to open the party to just about any politician without having the applicant go through the mandatory seminar on the party’s basic principles and ideology.
During our tenure at PDP-Laban, Nene and I were in agreement that we prefer quality over quantity, conviction over convenience, commitment over accommodation.
Perhaps, one of Nene’s misgivings was to see our shared vision for a new era in Philippine politics — where principles and ideology take precedence over personal ambitions — failing to materialize after the EDSA Revolution. What came in EDSA’s wake was the resurrection of the monolithic party system of the late dictator.
But Nene ignored these political setbacks, forging ahead in his work as a senator which saw him crossing swords not only with fellow legislators but even with the Cory administration on matters of principle. He joined 11 other senators in rejecting the US bases agreement, thus ending decades of American presence on Philippine soil. It was an issue that was non-negotiable to Nene.
He is singularly credited as the father of the Local Government Code, the groundbreaking legislation which changed the dynamics between the central government and the local governments. Yet very few recall that when this push for greater power for local governments began, Nene was a voice in the wilderness at the Senate.
Local executives found an ally and advocate in Nene. He shared our belief that local governments are the true engines of economic growth and that social and economic development can be attained if we empower local governments. He would always point to Makati as an example of a local government where autonomy has transformed the lives of people for the better. The University of Makati (UMAK) honored Nene’s legacy when it opened the Pimentel Center for Local Governance, which he chaired.
In many respects, Nene was a man alone. But it is this courage of conviction — to stand apart from the crowd, to shun the popular and stand by his convictions even if it exacted a high political cost — that makes Nene a statesman, a true patriot, and a true Filipino. His passing has left a void in our political landscape that will be hard to fill.
Last Saturday, I attended Nene’s internment at Heritage Park. I saw familiar faces, compatriots in the fight for freedom, democracy, and human rights. When all of us sang “Bayan Ko” — the unofficial anthem of the protest movement against martial law — with our clenched fists raised, I could not hold back my tears. For that brief moment, the spirit of resistance epitomized by Nene was alive. At that moment, Nene was not alone.