Robredo now more assertive on issues
In the middle of a news conference two years ago, newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte got on his phone and said, “Ma’am Leni, good afternoon.”
He was apparently talking to the newly elected Vice President, Leni Robredo.
Then, right there, in front of journalists, he offered her the leadership of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council.
Earlier that month, Robredo paid the President a courtesy call, offering her support as he ascended to his new office, while he, in turn, was “good-natured, very respectful,” as she put it.
Supporters even “shipped” them briefly, painting the President as a father with a will of iron and Robredo as a graceful mother, the parents the Philippines needed, #partnersforchange.
It was a partnership that would turn sour before long.
In looking back on the Vice President’s two years in office, it’s impossible not to talk about the President. The performance of her office has very much been shaped, if not limited, by his.
Things were promising at first. Robredo, widow of Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, was known for her work with women and the indigent. She worked for many years at the Public Attorney’s Office in Naga City when her husband was mayor.
She also enjoyed a short, productive stint in Congress, with a reputation as a humble public servant. One recalls the viral photo of her waiting for a bus to Naga at a gas station along Edsa.
‘Laylayan’ of society
She later rose to the vice presidency with one clear platform—to help lift Filipinos from poverty, focusing on those on the fringes (“laylayan”) of society.
She spoke of poverty as the root of the many evils plaguing the nation, and spent her early days in office trekking up mountains and into settlements, seeking out those on the fringes to directly consult them about their needs.
She was warmly welcomed at her first Cabinet meeting as housing chief, and held the “Angat Buhay” Partnerships Against Poverty Summit. Pulse Asia found that she was trusted by “a sizeable majority.”
She mustered support for important bills, including abuse against the elderly and the Social Security pension increase. She was dedicated to her duties as Cabinet member, opting to be a titular, rather than active, head of the Liberal Party (LP).
But all was not well. She was dogged from the very beginning of her term by the electoral protest filed by defeated vice presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who demanded a recount of the votes.
Her objections to extrajudicial killings that arose from the Duterte administration’s war on drugs soon also cast a shadow on her relationship with the President.
By July 2016, after more than 100 drug-related killings had been reported, she warned against the “growing culture of vigilantism and violence,” and cautioned that the drug war lacked the element of rehabilitation.
She decried the mudslinging between the President and Sen. Leila de Lima. And she became the subject of flirtatious comments by the President about her legs, which she called tasteless and inappropriate.
All of these, amid rumors fanned by administration supporters of an alleged LP plot to unseat the President.
But it wasn’t until the burial of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at Libingan ng mga Bayani that things really went downhill. Robredo was among those who expressly condemned the move, which had been pushed by the President and allowed by the Supreme Court.
Not long after, the Vice President was given instructions to “desist” from attending Cabinet meetings, with Cabinet Secretary Jun Evasco citing “irreconcilable differences” between the President and Robredo.
She resigned from the Cabinet in December 2016, saying: “This is the last straw, because it makes it impossible for me to perform my duties.”
She also hinted at plots to unseat her, and vowed that she would not allow the vice presidency to be stolen.
The shots fired between her and the President toed the line of civility.
In a formal letter to the President, she said she had “exerted all effort to put aside our differences, maintain a professional working relationship, and work effectively despite the constraints because the Filipino people deserve no less.”
For his part, the PResident said he had given her the Cabinet position as a sort of favor, because the Vice President “had no job.”
Thereafter, she was even more fair game at the hands of pro-Duterte bloggers and news outlets.
There was “Leni Leaks,” a series of e-mails reportedly part of a plot to oust the President, and “Naga Leaks,” linking the late Jesse Robredo to illegal drugs and gambling.
She wasn’t a silent target; she sent out a video message critical of the drug war that went viral, and for which she was later accused of betraying public trust.
In the middle of all of this, what’s a beleaguered Vice President to do?
Robredo decided to focus on using the resources of her office to pursue her advocacies.
She has maintained a radio program called “BISErbisyong Leni,” and remains vocal against Malacañang policies that she finds dangerous or unhelpful, such as the rush to Charter change and federalism.
Her Angat Buhay program has flourished quietly with the support of private groups and the limited budget of the Office of the Vice President, which has been among the first responders to several natural disasters.
Bongbong Marcos, chafing on the sidelines, has continually sniped at her, claiming she has done nothing. Recently, the President also called her “incompetent” and said he wouldn’t step down and give her the reins of government in the event of a transition to federalism.
But Robredo is unfazed. She has announced that she’s ready to take the lead role in creating a unified opposition — a challenge, undoubtedly, given the motley crew opposed to the administration.
On the one hand, she has been accused of timidity, of allowing the administration to bully her out of the Cabinet and almost out of the vice presidency.
On the other hand, even to those who would prefer to distance Robredo from the legacy of the Aquinos, she somehow resembles a familiar figure — Cory Aquino, a widow standing up to a strongman laying waste to human rights and democratic institutions while remaining, in Sen. Francis Pangilinan’s words, “the voice of reason, calm and sobriety.”
How will Robredo fare in the last four years of the Duterte age, as the President’s allies gather to push for the revision of the Constitution for a change in the form of government that might end up removing her, and her office, from succession?
The latest polls appear to show the Vice President’s more assertive stance on issues getting the approval of the public.
Robredo’s approval and trust ratings are up in June, according to Pulse Asia, with Classes D and E, the poorest sectors of society, giving her the highest approval.
She would need all that public backing to grow into her role as leader of the opposition, as the Marcos election protest gets even more heated at the hands of a Supreme Court, acting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal, that is now seen by many as also compromised and thus potentially imperiling her vice presidency; and the issue of succession to the Duterte presidency, which makes her an even more choice target for political hardball and dirty tricks as the clock ticks to 2022.
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