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.