A Tale of Two Women: Presidential and VP Races Heat Up in the Philippines
March 23, 2016
March came in with a bang. In this month of International Women’s Day, two Filipino women stand out: Senator Grace Poe and Congresswoman Leni Robredo. Both are running for the two highest elective posts in the May 9 elections in the Philippines – Poe for president, Robredo for vice president. Both were thrust into the political limelight after the death of their loved ones: Senator Grace Poe lost her father, and one of the Philippines’ most famous movie stars turned presidential candidate in the 2004 elections; and Congresswoman Leni Robredo, who lost her husband, former secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government, in a plane crash. Both are politicians, both are successful, both are mothers. But the comparison stops there. After May 9, however, their paths just might be linked again.
On March 8, the Philippine Supreme Court reversed the Commission on Election’s (COMELEC) orders disqualifying Senator Poe in her run for president. In December 2015, the COMELEC had disqualified Poe as a candidate after receiving complaints that she had moved to to the United States, where she had obtained citizenship and lived for several years before returning to the Philippines. The court’s ruling was controversial, to say the least. And the reversal was, too. One of the dissenters of the reversal, Justice Teresita Leonardo de Castro, said that declaring “foundlings” like Poe (who was adopted) to be natural-born citizens and thus eligible to run for national elective posts was beyond the bounds of the constitution and could have far-reaching and dire consequences on the constitution and the national interest. Meanwhile, a Bilang Pilipino SWS mobile survey launched a week after the ruling showed that three out of five Filipinos backed the court’s go-ahead on Poe’s presidential bid.
Nevertheless, with the disqualification issue now behind her, Poe has been able to focus more on her campaign. In the March survey of voter preference for president, she has taken the lead among the presidential candidates, garnering 27 percent. Voters can now set aside the emotional discourse on her being a foundling and focus on her qualifications and track record. Grace Poe has repeatedly stated that she will continue the legacy of her adoptive father, Fernando Poe, Jr, who ran and lost in the 2004 elections. To wit, critics say there is no legacy aside from his career as an actor. They minimize her track record, saying it’s limited to having served as head of the MTRCB and a senator for only three years. But many politicians have succeeded with far less storied political careers than that. In addition, some of her actions, such as her public statements on allowing former President Marcos to have a hero burial (his remains are in a refrigerated crypt in Ilocos Norte), and dismissing Eduardo Cojuanco’s culpability on the Coco levy fund controversy do not sit well with human rights activists and survivors of Martial Law. Even her lavish lifestyle, including a luxurious house that she maintains in Washington, D.C., and an Instagram photo of her son’s expensive Nike tennis shoes, has also received flak.
While Senator Poe snagged the limelight in the first half of March, Congresswoman Leni Robredo has been quietly creeping up the ratings chart with her no-nonsense responses in various public fora and vice-presidential debates.
On March 15, a nationwide Pulse Asia survey showed Congresswoman Robredo as the biggest gainer among the vice-presidential candidates, up three percentage points to 21 percent. A similar Social Weather Stations survey showed Leni Robredo’s steady rise from 0 percent in March 2015 to 24 percent in March 2016.
What accounts for Congresswoman Robredo’s rise in the public perception surveys? Analysts suggest her no-nonsense, what-you-see-is-what-you get persona and smart responses to political issues is working in her favor among voters. Leni Robredo has been compared to former President Corazon Aquino, both widows who joined politics, and both considered to be women of integrity. Both opposed the Marcos dictatorship. However, unlike President Cory, Robredo was no housewife. Robredo worked as a lawyer with Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal (SALIGAN), a group that provides legal services to the poor and marginalized in her hometown. In 2009, the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption recognized her as the Most Outstanding Private Prosecutor. She served as a member of Congress in Camarines Sur after the death of her husband, Jesse Robredo, whose legacy of good governance has also helped put her in good stead. In 2013, she was elected to Congress, beating out other scions of political dynasties. While her husband was alive, they lived a simple life in a two-story house that is typical of middle-class families and owned just one family car. Even while she was Congresswoman, she took the public bus to and from her Naga residence to Manila for Congressional duties. While in Congress, she sponsored important bills such as the Freedom of Information Act, the National Food Security Bill, the People’s Participation in Budget Deliberation Bill, and the Full Disclosure Bill, among others.
A reluctant vice presidential candidate, it took months of discernment before she accepted the nomination of the Liberal Party. She took the limelight during the vice-presidential forum organized by Go Negosyo with her position on Martial Law. While VP candidate Bongbong Marcos (son of former President Marcos) stuttered in his feeble defense of Martial Law (citing the communist insurgency and Muslim secession as main reasons for its declaration), Leni Robredo was persuasive and strong in her criticism of Martial Law and its excesses, and reiterated the need to find justice for the Martial Law victims.
Forty-seven days into the elections, both women will continue to face endless public scrutiny, be dissected like frogs in lab experiments, turned inside and out, and gossiped about in both traditional and social media. Let’s hope that as the layers and layers of lifestyle, work ethics, habits, and pronouncements are peeled off, their true characters will surface. They will be weighed, and hopefully, not found wanting. In this season of Lent, politics will momentarily take a back seat, but voters should also pause and reflect on the true meaning of public service.
Maribel Buenaobra is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in the Philippines. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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