MANILA (Reuters) - A self-made billionaire who once lived in Manila’s slums wants to become the next president of the Philippines, saying his entrepreneurial acumen and experience as a politician would be vital assets in leading the nation.
Manuel Villar, 59, has headed both the Senate and the House of Representatives in a political career that has lasted 17 years. His family owns Vista Land & Lifescapes (VLL.PS), a real estate firm with assets worth 48 billion pesos ($1 billion).
“The next president of this country, whoever he is, should on day one know how to manage this country, day one,” Villar said in an interview on Sunday in an austere office that serves as his party headquarters in one of the three malls he owns in Manila.
“There is no OJT (on-the-job training) anymore, we cannot afford it. At the very least, you must have shown capability to manage, capability to lead.”
Villar is viewed as a formidable candidate because of his ability to fund a costly election campaign that would need at least 2-3 billion pesos ($41-61 million), a huge sum for a country where nearly 50 percent of households live on less than $2 a day.
“I believe that while a lot of us will be announcing our candidacies, in the end there will just be a few who will remain,” Villar said. “If you can’t even raise one billion pesos, why even run?”
Villar is the only politician so far who has declared his candidacy for the presidential polls, to be held in May next year.
Other leading figures, mostly senators, in the Philippines’ multi-party political system are considering their chances and have started touring the provinces to push their candidacy.
Independent pollster Pulse Asia’s latest survey showed Villar tied with former President Joseph Estrada in second place among choices to be the next president. Vice President Manuel “Noli” de Castro, a close friend of Villar, was on top.
The son of a low-ranking government worker and a seafood vendor, Villar set up a construction supply firm that made him a peso millionaire at age 26. He later graduated to selling low-cost houses which swelled his total assets to the billion dollar mark just before the 1997/1998 Asian financial crisis.
He says he wants to use lessons gained while running his business and reviving it from near-total failure during the Asian crisis to boost the local economy and uplift the poor.
“The first thing I want to do if I become president is to collect more revenue ... All of the solutions require money, so you start with that first,” Villar said while sipping brewed coffee, one his few addictions. He drinks nine cups a day, his aide said.
“If you have high revenues, then you can invest in infrastructure, you can invest in agriculture,” Villar said, adding widespread corruption in the country would be reduced if wages of government workers were raised.
Despite being the country’s wealthiest legislator, with more than 1 billion pesos in personal assets, Villar is known for his mild manner and simple tastes.
He is adept in political maneuvering, and known for changing allegiances, even seeking the blessing of Estrada whom he helped oust from the presidency in 2001.
Villar’s success is partly due to his father-in-law, a former mayor from a well-known political clan, who opened doors for him in business circles and started him off in politics.
Villar has a relatively clean image in the endemically corrupt world of Philippine politics, but has been accused of inserting an additional 200 million pesos for a road extension project in the capital in a budget bill, from which his companies benefited.
Shortly after the controversy, he was ousted as Senate president.
“That’s nothing, I don’t even think about that, I’m very proud of my C5 (road project),” Villar said when asked about the charges. “It’s for the benefit of 5 million of my constituents.”
Known as a comeback kid for rebuilding his empire after huge dollar debts and steep interest rates during the Asian crisis caused the near collapse of his property firm C&P Homes, Villar said that period was the toughest he ever endured in business.
“It was very embarrassing, humiliating even. Before, you were the darling of the stock market ... and then suddenly people think you are stupid,” he said. “But I survived.”
He sent his sons to schools overseas, one went to Wharton while the other attended the University of Pennsylvania, but his daughter stayed in the country.
His Wharton-trained son is now Vista’s chief finance officer.
Villar said he has no major benefactors from big business, unlike other presidential candidates.
“With me, what you see is what you get,” he said. “With some candidates, you’ll have to ask, who’s behind you? They say there is one golden rule, he who has the gold rules.”
Editing by Jerry Norton