How Leni Robredo became a mother to the Filipino people

From eating at street stalls to visiting the rural poor and making a 12-hour bus journey to her vice presidential proclamation, Leni Robredo seems to embody a new kind of politician in the Philippines.

A Leni Robredo supporter. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN
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In an unprecedented move, incoming Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte told newly-elected vice-president Leni Robredo last week that he was not going to hold a joint inauguration ceremony on June 30. It was a brusque move which suggested that Duterte was unwilling to work with a duly elected individual from an opposition party.

The press expected fireworks. Hostility. A vitriolic exchange between the two camps.

What they got was this short statement from Robredo’s team: “We respect their decision and will begin our own preparations for a simple and modest ceremony.” Robredo, they said, will be sworn in by the chairperson of the “smallest, farthest and poorest” town in her home province of Camarines Sur.

The response was consistent with Robredo’s reputation as a quiet force in Philippine politics.

Three weeks ago, on the day she was officially declared the winner of the vice-presidential race, Robredo arrived at the proclamation ceremony in a novel way. While members of the Senate and Congress travelled to the venue in chauffeur-driven luxury vehicles, Robredo arrived via a public commuter bus she took from her home in the eastern city of Naga. The overnight trip took nearly 12 hours

The incident embodies the modesty of a 52-year-old woman who has captivated the nation with her work ethic, down-to-earth attitude and personal story.

A former human rights lawyer who defended the rural poor, Robredo was catapulted into the public eye after the death of her husband, interior secretary Jesse Robredo, in a plane crash in 2012. Nine months later, she was elected to Congress, where she passed 14 laws in the next three years.

Robredo, the mother of three girls, was initially reluctant to run for national office until she was convinced by the public’s call for an alternative to a slate of vice presidential contenders led by Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the son of the former dictator. Polling at just 1 per cent seven months before the May 10 election, Robredo managed to win more votes than her opponents – five male incumbent senators – to become the country’s 14th vice president and the second woman to be elected to the post.

“The last man standing is a woman,” Robredo quipped during her campaign.

“She won because we wanted somebody new. Somebody who had no history of corruption, somebody who lives like an ordinary Filipino,” says Leticia Corpus, a 49-year-old public schoolteacher in Naga. “Her win is also symbolic because for the second time in Philippine history, a widow has beaten a Marcos.”

This is a reference to former president Corazon Aquino, who was thrust into politics in 1986 after the death of her husband, opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.

Robredo’s soft-spoken motherliness contrasts with president Rodrigo Duterte’s brash rhetoric and brutal approach to criminality. But they see eye-to-eye on leadership style.

Both are nothing like the country’s previous heads of state: as former mayor of the southern city of Davao, Duterte personally drove taxis past midnight to make sure his citizens got home safe. As a congresswoman, Robredo visited far-flung rural areas to check on residents. During their campaigns, both were spotted wearing flip-flops and eating in humble street stalls.

Duterte said he refuses to live in Malacañang, the presidential palace, while Robredo has shunned the Coconut Palace, the residence of the vice president, because it is too costly to maintain. Instead she plans to set up “simple but presentable” satellite offices across the country to aid her advocacy on rural development.

“I’m nervous but I’m more excited because I’ve been given a rare chance to make a difference,” Robredo said during her proclamation. “This is proof that winning is not exclusive to the wealthy.”

Because Philippine presidents are limited to serving a single six-year term without the possibility of reelection, Robredo is expected to run for the top post in 2022.

“When you look at the country’s list of public servants right now, she might just be our best choice,” says Norbert Torres, a political strategist in Manila. “But she has to prove she’s her own person, and that she’s not going to be easily swayed by the agenda of her advisers, or by veteran politicos who want to use her, or even by Duterte himself.”

Robredo has few vocal critics but there is a question mark over her political affiliations, a sense that she could yet be tarnished by association.

As Robredo takes office on June 30, one of her first major challenges is to prove she is her own person, unencumbered by her political backers.

During the election, her running mate, former interior secretary Mar Roxas, ran a flawed presidential campaign that depicted him as out of touch with the common Filipino. Their endorsement by outgoing president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino further distanced her from those who want a fresh face in government.

But Karol Yee, a director in the country’s Commission on Higher Education and a volunteer consultant on policy for Robredo’s campaign, believes she has what it takes to be a productive second-in-command.

“I haven’t seen any leader who knows exactly where she stands in issues. She knows what her principles are – and they’re always with the concerns of the marginalised.

“She has no political baggage and is unencumbered by the usual things that hinder leaders from truly representing their people.”

On the afternoon of May 27, the country’s National Board of Canvassers certified the tally of votes and announced that Robredo had officially won as vice president after garnering 14 million votes, beating Marcos by just over 260,000 votes. That day also happened to be the birthday of her late husband Jesse.

“It’s as if everything happened in perfect timing,” Robredo told reporters. “If this is not providential, what do you call it?”

A former arts editor at The National, James Gabrillo is studying cultural spectacle in the Philippines at the University of Cambridge.

This article was updated on June 21 to include information about Leni Robredo’s inauguration ceremony.