The Country’s Only Shield Against Bongbong Marcos
by Wilfredo G. Villanueva
I wrote about her in this same blog but hadn’t seen her in person. I have seen her on tv, heard her voice, saw her in posters and leaflets.
Little did I know that she stood a little over five feet tall. I thought she would be commanding in height because she had big ideas and she could take a crisis without flinching, such as her husband’s sudden death. But she had command of her audience, and when she flashed her Leni-Robredo smile, it’s all done, the charm kicks in, and you listen enthralled.
When did I feel like this last? In the Cory days, of course. Which may have led Ballsy and Kris Aquino to say that she reminds them of their mother.
Cory the First versus Marcos the First. Cory the Second versus Marcos the Second. It comes down to this. God provides contrast for clarity of purpose.
A few more days and we’re off to the polling precincts. After hearing all the arguments, after taking part in office, home and friendly discussions, watching the debates, reading reams of paper or soft copies in social media of the reasons they should be the chosen one, we are down to perception. Which one will we vote for?
Oh yes, one may say, I will not waste my vote, a natural human response to anything that’s counted, as in a race or contest. I will go with the winner. In the vice-presidential race, Leni Robredo looks every inch, every sound byte, every flash of recall, a winner.
She did say it in her rallies. She doesn’t promise anything. But as a lawyer, she cannot provide legal guidance if you have money to pay for legal services. Her first job as a lawyer was at the Public Attorney’s Office, and she was cheek and jowl with the poorest of the poor. She gets the loudest applause when she says this. Really? The audience would say, she doesn’t charge a single cent for legal service? Wow. Loudest applause.
I followed her sorties last April 23, her birthday. It was the first time she spent her birthday away from Naga city, in Bicol, her hometown. Maybe that’s why her mother Sally Gerona was in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass held to celebrate the occasion in the Camarin civic center in Caloocan city. It’s a clean and well-organized community at the edges of Caloocan and Quezon city, where the air is both city and provincial.
Joy and Comfort. She had her balloons, song, birthday cake. She blew out the candle, and people shook her hand and she’s all smiles as if born to campaign, at home in all socio-economic classes, finding joy and comfort in Filipino ordinariness.
Presidential sister Kris Aquino was there to give support. She was early by an hour, respecting everyone’s time. The Mass started on call time, at 8 o’clock in the morning. About 2,000-3,000 people were crammed in the civic center, a covered basketball court actually, with many more ringing the audience on the streets surrounding the venue.
In Montalban, Rizal inside the cavernous hall in stifling heat where a few electric fans gave relief from 30-degrees Celsius, Cong Leni recounted the time in August 18, 2012 when she insisted on looking at her husband’s remains for the last time. She can still remember the smell of the sea in the former secretary of Department of Interior and Local Government, retrieved from the plane three days after it crashed and sank in the sea off Masbate coming from Cebu. He was still wearing his polo barong with a DILG seal, a pair of black pants, black shoes, his watch still keeping time, the only thing left alive in the person of the spark-plug 2000 Ramon Magsaysay awardee in government service. Mayor Jesse Robredo is credited for moving Naga city from a “dispirited former queen city of the Bicol region” to a first-class urban center, regaining its former robust self when the mayor gave flesh to programs that basically gave power to the city’s 120,000 inhabitants, especially the poor. The mayor wanted to be one with his constituents, and would be lost in the crowd riding a bike, wearing t shirt, a pair of shorts and tsinelas (slippers) which has become the symbol of his brand.
Part of the citation read: “Robredo prioritized the needs of the poor. Through his Kaantabay sa Kauswagan (Partners in Development) program, over 4,500 once-homeless families moved to home-lots of their own. They became part of Naga’s revival. So did a revitalized city government. Applying techniques from business, Robredo raised performance, productivity, and morale among city employees. As a culture of excellence overtook the culture of mediocrity at City Hall, Naga’s businesses doubled and local revenues rose by 573 percent.”
What’s a 47-year-old widow to do, having honed her legal skills in cases handled pro bono, having three children to feed, clothe and educate, and a husband who didn’t engage in under-the-table deals and therefore didn’t grow rich in the job?
“Nilakasan ko ang loob ko (I bit the bullet),” she said. Jesse was the center of the family, but when trials come, womenfolk find the strength to take on the challenge, she said, addressing the women in the audience.
She had wanted to lead a quiet life with her daughters, to be both mother and father to them, but Jesse’s political party could not find common ground, because their leader was gone. At the last day for filing of candidacy, upon the prodding of her party mates, Leni became the candidate for congresswoman of the third district of Camarines Sur. She couldn’t stand to watch the dissolution of her husband’s political legacy, not while she could do something about it.
She was up against an entrenched dynasty, having ruled the province for 40 years. Of the 80 mayors, only one was with her. Of the 186 barangays, only 25. Everyone was afraid of the consequences of going against the tide.
20-Person Meetings. The grieving widow proved equal to the task. The opponent could summon audiences by the thousands with rallies complete with brass bands and raffle prizes. Leni could answer with small meetings, 20 people tops, with a small public-address system and a lapel mic, going house to house. She didn’t look back, making every 20-person meeting count. At poll tally, she won 80 per cent of the votes.
“Money is not that important,” she said, “what’s important is what’s in the heart.” Passion and conviction is what Leni is all about. (Hey, isn’t that how we managed in 1986, when Cory ran against Marcos?)
A congresswoman for the first time, she would spend Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in Batasan Pambansa, catch the long bus ride home Wednesday night, reach Naga at 7 in the morning, shower, and work her district going up mountain trails, crossing rivers and tiptoeing across rice paddies the whole day up to Saturday. Nighttime Saturday, bus back to Manila. Sundays is when she’s a mom.
Robredo is considered a champion of the Freedom of Information Bill, has been a strong supporter of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, and was one of the primary authors of the Tax Incentives Transparency Bill. Robredo has said that the burden of paying income tax should be placed upon those who could afford to pay it. Robredo initiated the Local Poverty Reduction Action Team (LPRAT) to help alleviate poverty in the Philippines (Source: Wikipedia).
As a candidate for vice-president, she started at the bottom. The survey leader had 44 per cent preference, she one per cent. In the latest Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey conducted April 18-20, she climbed to 27 per cent, is now frontrunner, in a statistical tie with Senator Marcos who has 26 per cent.
Frontrunner. What made this happen? The debates have a lot to do with her rising in public opinion. In the first debate in the University of Santo Tomas on April 10, she insisted that the Marcoses should return stolen wealth. To which Senator Marcos replied, “I cannot give what I do not have, I have no knowledge of.” Cong. Robredo wanted him to acknowledge not just the human-rights abuses but his family’s ill-gotten wealth, asking for its return.
Addressing Senator Escudero, she asked if he did anything about discretionary funds such as the Priority Development Assistance Fund—PDAF—during his nine years in the House of Representatives. Pressing, she asked if the senator had taken steps to get rid of the PDAF before the controversy broke out. Escudero said he implemented the Supreme Court order abolishing the PDAF and wrote it into the General Appropriations Act. Robredo replied: “Even us in Congress we implemented that. But that’s not my question. You were in Congress for a long time. What did you do to remove the PDAF?”
Such is the way the lady jousts in debate. She is quick to clarify issues, such as the Freedom of Information Bill. Coauthor of this bill in the House of Representatives, she said her version of the measure was “different from the Senate version,” in that it requires government to release public documents even without demand.
She said that in the fight against corruption—accountability, transparency, as well as people’s participation is important. A believer in equal opportunity, she pointed out the importance of passing the Anti-Political Dynasty Bill. A recent study showed that the presence of political dynasties ties in with poverty, she said.
Her closing statement in the first debate brought the house down, sealing her reputation as the audacious lady congressman: “I am a mother who will always look after her children. I will always look after our country. To the six of us, may the best woman win.”
Robredo and Cayetano emerged as the perceived winners in the first debate.
After the first debate, Robredo was alarmed that her rival Senator Marcos leads vice presidential surveys.
She, however, emerged as the winner of the second vice presidential debate organized by ABS-CBN last April 17. This was validated by Bilang Pilipino Social Weather Stations Mobile Survey. (Source: newsinfo.inquirer.net)
Last Monday April 25, Cong Leni took the lead in survey, with Senator Marcos right behind. SWS conducted the survey April 18-20. She had a preference rating of 26 per cent, one point better than Marcos in the poll first published in BusinessWorld. The two candidates are statistically tied in the survey of 1,800 registered voters with sampling error margins of ±2 points.
Robredo posted the biggest jump, improving by seven points from her rating in the previous SWS face-to-face survey conducted on March 30 to April 2. Senator Marcos dropped one point from his previous rating. Senator Escudero was at third with 18 per cent, a three-point drop from his previous rating. Senator Cayetano followed with 16 percent. Senators Trillanes and Honasan took five and two per cent, respectively. (Source: www.gmanetwork.com)
Idealism is Back. Yes, who would have known? Less than four years since she was widowed of a man who was the center of their family, 25 years married almost to the day she lost him, dutiful wife with no other purpose other than to serve husband and children—much like Cory but with a background giving free legal aid to the “laylayan ng lipunan”—Leni is now the country’s shield against a dreaded Marcos comeback.
She’s come a long way since 1983, when as a second-year Economics major in the University of the Philippines in Diliman, she was touched by the assassination of Ninoy Aquino. That event began her journey in political activism. Thirty-three years later, she stands in the way—the country’s shield—against the return of the Marcoses to the pinnacle of Philippine politics. confident that the country hasn’t forgotten the egregious excesses of the dictatorship.
Listening to her talk to audiences in Camarin, Caloocan City, Montalban and San Mateo in Rizal province, I am transported to a time when I was young and a dreamer. That was the time when youth made you dream of how things should be, without compromise. You hear her talk, and you ask yourself, is she for real, that she can talk of ideals again, a widow of a person recognized for his ideals, herself invested in the same perfection in government service?
She comes from Naga City, commercial and educational center of the Bicol region, center as well of Marian devotion in the country. It’s not farfetched to say that she is an answered prayer for a leader: a new face, check; honest and straightforward, check; unblemished of character, no vices, simple lifestyle, check; a family name to protect from allegations or even just a whiff of corruption, check; a stand against political dynasties, check; street smarts, check; legislative experience, check; executive experience, check; vision and sense of mission, check; and don’t forget, having fun doing it to connect with the new generation, check. The Robredo brand of tsinelas leadership has captured hearts and minds across the country.
Bring it on, Senators Marcos, Escudero, Cayetano, Trillanes, in electoral battle. The lady congresswoman has got you in her sights, not the sight of a gun, but the sight of a better country for us all.
From the odd politician struggling with a tiny mic reaching 20 people, she is the aspiring vice-president, with a mic that reaches thousands upon thousands, millions even, counting traditional media broadcasts and social-media shares, telling her own love story with the man she misses, reminded of her mission every time she sees her children who were raised in politics of the ideal from birth, reminded of her distinct love for the poorest of the poor, that they may attain what Ramon Magsaysay said, that “those who have less in life should have more in law,” a living and breathing Mother Teresa of Philippine politics, impoverished as it is.
Is she for real? Is she the gift we have been waiting for? All signs say yes.