Vice President Leni Robredo, a Tatler Asia's Most Influential honouree, has re-energised the political landscape with a campaign unlike any other in Philippine politics
When Leni Robredo won the vice presidency in the Philippines’ 2016 elections, it was an occasion for euphoria, at least in some quarters. Videos of watch parties and campaign war rooms were uploaded on social media, showing jubilant supporters erupting in cheers as Robredo took the lead by the narrowest of margins over Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.
It was a victory both strategic and symbolic: Though her presidential running mate lost to Rodrigo Duterte (as the president and vice president are elected separately in the Philippines), it was hoped that Robredo would stand as a check against Duterte’s authoritarian tendencies; moreover, her win against the son of deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos was also considered a moral victory, a statement of public opposition to the Marcos family's return to power. All this made Robredo’s election all that much sweeter, if also fraught.
Vice President Robredo might have made an obvious target, but she made sure she wasn’t going to be an easy one. The Office of the Vice President (OVP) had a limited mandate and not a lot of resources, while the political environment was extremely difficult for a VP from the opposition. Nevertheless, Robredo—who prior to her election was a rookie congressman and a lawyer who worked with the marginalised—was determined to elevate the vice presidency from its hugely ceremonial role to an active, advocacy-heavy post.
Since the beginning of her term, she has endured a never-ending barrage of political challenges and personal affronts, not the least of which is a constant deluge of fake news on social media, accusing her of everything from being stupid to hiding a pregnancy. At first, Robredo met these challenges with a dignified silence, never rising to the bait herself and letting her supporters come out in her defence. As time went on, however, Robredo seemed to find her footing, issuing strong statements that sometimes put her in direct opposition to Duterte.
While Duterte's drug war has earned him widespread international condemnation and an investigation by the International Criminal Court, Robredo has stood among the small minority of Philippine politicians who have called for an end to the killings. For her criticism, President Duterte named her, as a dare, co-chair of the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD) in November 2019. Duterte must have fully expected her to blink, but Robredo took it on, attending the meetings and submitting reports and recommendations to the president. Nineteen days later, Duterte removed her from the position for meeting with representatives from the United Nations, citing his lack of trust in her discretion.
“I would not say that we were prepared for the difficulties—actually in the middle of the game, we wondered how we would surpass these difficulties. Because there really were many hurdles,” Robredo now says, speaking to a panel of journalists over Zoom: “…When I was booted out of the cabinet, when the administration decided not to include me in any of the official functions of government—I remember I would just get invited to functions of the military and nothing else—when I was offered to be the ICAD co-chair, and everyone was saying for me not to accept that because it was a trap but I still decided to go, to go on with it…”
Despite all these challenges—or perhaps because of them—Robredo has managed to rally more public support for the Office of the Vice President than when she began. The OVP’s disaster relief and poverty alleviation programs have threatened to outshine the administration’s, answering the problem of a shrunken budget with volunteer armies and donations from private sectors.
"I think the difficulties of the last five and a half years definitely toughened me up. What kept us going was the fact that I was fully aware that I would be here only for six years."
Today, Robredo’s supporters have dusted off their 2016 battle cry of “Laban, Leni” (literally, “fight, Leni”) for this year’s presidential elections in May, again facing off against Marcos Jr in what promises to be another tight race.
Is she ready for the presidency—or at least for the very difficult campaign set against the context of an ongoing pandemic and in the wake of a devastating typhoon?
“I think the difficulties of the last five and a half years definitely toughened me up,” Robredo acknowledges. “What kept us going was the fact that I was fully aware that I would be here only for six years. I had a mandate to fulfil, and I was very determined not to let the difficulties get in the way of doing what we wanted to do.”
Now near the end of her term as vice president, she says, “Looking back, I do not have any regrets. I would like to think that I can look anybody in the eye and say that I did the best that I could, given the limitations that were given to me.”
And that would have been that, if Robredo had her way. Over the past year, she had been publicly trying to unify the opposition to find a common candidate for the presidency, while she herself was choosing between retirement from politics or a modest run for office on the local level.
But the talks failed by September last year, and in a matter of weeks the clamour from the public and from civic groups led Robredo to announce her candidacy on 7 October 2021.
So now comes Robredo’s third act. Though the campaign officially launched only on 8 February, the few months since Robredo announced her run have been marked with a wave of volunteerism perhaps never before seen in Philippine politics. Scores of online groups have sprung up to support her campaign, while marketplaces like Shopee and Lazada offer everything from Laban Leni tarpaulins and T-shirts to stickers and bandannas for pets. No other candidate in the history of Philippine politics has stirred up the voter base enough to spur them to spend their own money on this scale for a campaign.
“Like the VP, I didn’t expect it. I hoped for it, but what’s happened exceeded my every hope, much more my expectations,” says Barry Gutierrez, the vice president’s spokesperson. “That outpouring [of support], the initiative is what strikes me the most. They don’t wait for instructions or even resources from the central campaign—they’ll organise on their own, plan on their own, spend their own money. And that’s really blown me away over the course of the last three months.”
The potential of that much-vaunted Filipino bayanihan spirit was on full display when Typhoon Rai cut a large swath through the Philippines in December 2021. While the government struggled to muster the resources for disaster relief, volunteers and donations poured into the campaign office, even as the VP called for a pause in the electioneering. By the end of the month, over five thousand volunteers had turned up at Robredo’s operations centre, working through the night to organise relief goods; additionally, they raised over PHP70 million in cash and in kind.
Unexpected as it may be, this newfound civic-mindedness in a significant part of the population may yet turn into a new way of governance beyond the elections, one that is marked by a cooperation between the government and the governed on a scale never before seen in Philippine politics.
Robredo points out that this isn’t new; not only would a Robredo administration be ready to work bayanihan—the Filipino concept of community spirit and civic cooperation—into the very fabric of government, but it’s already something they’ve done with the OVP’s signature Angat Buhay program. “Angat Buhay is really a collaboration with many different groups. The very concept of Angat Buhay is that we try to find a community that needs help, and we try to help this community in many facets of the things that they need by looking for partners.”
But there is a key thing that Robredo brings to the table that is key to this cooperation. “If we are able to institutionalise [bayanihan], and have people help the government, napakalaking bagay [it is such a big deal]. But we can only do this when people trust government. That’s something we've worked very hard for. Angat Buhay only became successful because we worked very hard in building that trust.”
The presidency is within reach, but the latest polls show her coming in second to Marcos Jr, and pundits have noted that her “mild-mannered personality”—and her gender—is a disadvantage when campaigning in a culture that still holds old-school macho values. She continues to be the target of disinformation campaigns online, and her detractors are just as loud on social media as her supporters.
But her supporters are in it to win; many feel like this will be a watershed moment in Philippine history, and they are prepared to give it their all. At the campaign kickoff in Naga City on Tuesday, Robredo’s speech was interrupted with the loudest cheers from the crowd when she said, “I am not afraid. I am not apprehensive. Because when I called on you to awaken the strength that still sleeps, you answered.”
Leni Robredo is a 2021 Tatler Asia's Most Influential honouree.