The Philippines lost another dedicated public servant last Dec. 31 when ex-Manila Mayor Gemiliano “Mel” Lopez Jr. passed away at the age of 81.
Mel Lopez started his political career as a city councilor in Manila. Running for a seat in one’s city council may seem like a typical starting line for every aspiring political leader back then, but Lopez’s political plans were not easy to pursue. He was, after all, running in Manila, the city where politicians play hardball all the time, even outside the election season.
Despite a 1948 law declaring Quezon City the capital of the Philippines, Manila was where real politics took place. The iconic Plaza Miranda—which hosted political rallies where national and local issues were debated, and where candidates for national and local public office submitted themselves to the scrutiny of the electorate—was in the heart of the city. Manila was definitely the political nerve center of the country, and as Vice President Salvador “Doy” Laurel once said, “Where Manila goes, so does the nation.”
Since Lopez was a fiery speaker, he easily got elected. Because he kept his campaign pledges, he easily got reelected.
Lopez’ reelection bid in 1971 almost cost him his life. On August 21, 1971, two hand grenades exploded at the proclamation rally of his anti-Marcos political party at Plaza Miranda (mistakenly referred to as a miting de avance in some print and video materials), causing death and injury to many. Lopez was seriously injured, but timely medical attention saved his life.
Although Lopez’ political allies blamed President Ferdinand Marcos for the incident, Marcos insisted the communists planned it. From revelations of ex-communist cadres made public after 1986, it turned out that Marcos was right—Jose Ma. Sison of the Communist Party of the Philippines orchestrated the bombing and correctly predicted that the people will blame Marcos for it.
Lopez was reelected, but his political career was cut short by martial law in September 1972. Soon thereafter, Manila Mayor Ramon Bagatsing, who was elected under the anti-Marcos political party, switched sides and became a Marcos ally. Many in the Manila city council followed suit.
Since Lopez refused to be a political butterfly, he was eased out of the corridors of power in city hall by Bagatsing and his minions. Consequently, Lopez became a staunch supporter of political opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. Lopez also became a stalwart in Doy Laurel’s anti-Marcos political party Unido—the United Nationalist Democratic Organization.
Six seats were alloted for the City of Manila in the May 1984 elections for the Batasang Pambansa. Lopez was one of five opposition candidates for assemblyman who won in Manila under the UNIDO banner. Those who won with Lopez were Eva Estrada Kalaw, Gonzalo Puyat II, Carlos Fernandez, and Jose Atienza, Jr. A sixth opposition party candidate, Jose Lina, lost to Arturo Tolentino of the pro-administration political party, the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan.
After Corazon “Cory” Aquino seized the presidency in February 1986, she designated Lopez as officer-in-charge of the City of Manila, replacing Mayor Bagatsing. In 1988, Lopez was elected city mayor in his own right.
While he was city mayor, Lopez upgraded support services for the city’s out-of-school youth, and exposed a rice cartel which was manipulating the market price of the prime commodity.
It was during Lopez’ tenure as mayor when the famous city hall clock tower was finally fixed to tell the correct time, everytime. As the dominant landmark of the city, Lopez saw to it that the clock tower was well-lit every evening to remind everybody that Manila is and remains the capital city of the Philippines.
Lopez thought that his loyalty to Ninoy Aquino will be reciprocated by President Cory Aquino. In the end, Mrs. Aquino abandoned Lopez and supported ex-National Bureau of Investigation Director Alfredo Lim, Lopez’ main rival for the top post in city hall. Sadly, Lopez lost to Lim.
Losing his interest in elective public office, Lopez concentrated on sports development, particulary in boxing. He worked very hard to train Filipino boxers in the hope of having at least one of them win a gold medal in the Olympics. With Lopez’ gone, that quest may remain a national dream for quite some time.
Unknown to many, Lopez has a quaint place in the history of the University of the Philippines (UP). When UP President Edgardo Angara increased tuition and other school fees in UP by as much as 350% in 1984, UP student leaders led by the now famous Louis “Barok” Biraogo challenged Angara’s directive first, in the Quezon City Regional Trial Court, and ultimately, in the Supreme Court. Assemblyman Lopez came to the rescue when, upon Biraogo’s request, he whole-heartedly sponsored the photocopying of the voluminous papers the students-petitioners were required to file in the Supreme Court.
Truth to tell, Biraogo did not know Lopez personally. Biraogo simply went to the Batasang Pambansa one evening, saw Lopez preparing to leave the building with other assemblymen, recalled seeing Lopez on the television news as an leading opposition leader, approached Lopez and identified himself as a UP student, and narrated to Lopez his group’s dire need for assistance in their court battle against Angara.
Without much ado, and true to his role as a public servant, Lopez agreed to help and directed his assistant to assist Biraogo and his group.
Since a deadline was imposed by the Supreme Court, the help Lopez provided truly saved the day for the UP students.
In January 1986, Biraogo’s fraternity, the Upsilon Sigma Phi, organized a political rally in UP Diliman for the candidacies of Cory Aquino and Doy Laurel, who were running for president and vice president, respectively, in the “snap” presidential elections. Accepting Biraogo’s invitation, Lopez was one of five exclusive speakers in what eventually turned out to be, on account of the thousands who attended it, the biggest political rally every held in UP Diliman.
Farewell, Mel Lopez. May God give the Philippines more public officials like you.