Asia Pacific / Politics

Next Philippine VP, Leni Robredo, helped topple Marcos and beat son in vote


Leni Robredo was a college student three decades ago when she rose with multitudes of Filipinos in a largely peaceful revolt that ousted Ferdinand Marcos as the world watched in awe.

Now a neophyte 52-year-old politician, Robredo defeated Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son and namesake of the late dictator, in a cliffhanger race for vice president last month. Congress proclaimed her vice president-elect Monday, along with President-elect Rodrigo Duterte at the House of Representatives.

Prodemocracy activists had feared a Marcos win could have threatened to reverse the legacy of the 1986 “people power” revolt, part of the anti-dictatorship resistance that Robredo says sparked her “political awakening.”

Robredo was a university student in 1983 when she joined mourners in a long line at a Catholic church to view the bloodied remains of anti-Marcos politician Benigno Aquino Jr., who had been assassinated by his military escorts at the Manila airport. The brazen killing of Aquino, father of current outgoing President Benigno Aquino III, sparked protests that climaxed in the uprising.

“I joined so many rallies which eventually led to EDSA,” she said during the campaign, referring to the main Manila highway where more than a million Filipinos massed in 1986 to topple the dictator.

Robredo’s rise has been compared to that of Corazon Aquino, the widow of Benigno Aquino Jr. who catapulted to power after helping lead the revolt. Both became politicians only after the deaths of their husbands. Both were associated with the color yellow, connected to both the revolution and the ruling Liberal Party.

“For the second time, a widow in yellow has defeated a Marcos,” said Julio Teehankee, a political analyst with De La Salle University in Manila.

Robredo’s late husband, Jesse Robredo, was interior secretary when he died in a plane crash in 2012.

He was popular for the reformist and clean image he had built in a country long exasperated with political patronage and corruption — social ills he had fought as a longtime mayor of Naga southeast of Manila. He won a Ramon Magsaysay award — regarded as Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize — in 2000 for good governance.

Leni Robredo, the eldest child of a trial court judge in Naga, was a soft-spoken lawyer before her husband’s death. She worked for the Public Attorney’s Office, which defends the poor, and later joined a nongovernmental organization of lawyers who journeyed far to hinterland villages and island communities to provide legal services to impoverished rural people, teach them their rights and help them get access to services and opportunities they weren’t yet aware of.

A year after her husband’s death, Robredo was persuaded to run for a seat in the House of Representatives and won overwhelmingly, defeating a member of a long-entrenched political dynasty in her home province of Camarines Sur.

In Congress, she introduced legislation to foster transparency and accountability among officials, public involvement in budget deliberations, social equality and an end to all discrimination.

Yet like her husband, she is also known for simple day-to-day acts that shunned the trappings of power and resonated among ordinary folk.

Like the poor villagers he served, her husband often wore sandals and as mayor went about his city on a bicycle. As a congresswoman, she would travel alone by bus regularly from her province to the capital and back, often at night, using the long trip of at least seven to eight hours to sleep.

Filipinos are long used to politicians being driven around in Mercedes-Benzes or SUVs with armed bodyguards, so when a picture showing Robredo waiting for a passenger bus one night along a Manila highway appeared online, it quickly went viral.

President Aquino backed Robredo’s vice presidential candidacy and campaigned against Marcos Jr., whom he criticized for refusing to apologize for widespread abuses under his father’s dictatorship.

Still, Marcos won more than 14 million votes, just 263,000 fewer than Robredo. His strong showing underscores his family’s continued clout, as well as public disappointment over the poverty, corruption, insurgencies and law-and-order issues that have persisted through five presidencies since the elder Marcos’ fall.