Leni, De Lima and the courage of conviction
Among all the rulers in modern times, the French King Louis XIV most fully embodied the megalomaniac principle of “L’etat c’est moi” (“I am the state”). Also known as the “Sun King,” Louis XIV transformed medieval despotism into modern statecraft. Single-handedly, he pioneered authoritarian absolutism, the gold standard of personality cult and one-man rule later replicated by a wide range of leaders from Stalin to Mao to Marcos.
In power for almost seven decades, Louis XIV was one of the longest-serving monarchs in human history. At the heart of his absolute and long-lasting reign was unbridled sycophancy. It was dictatorship through complicity, thanks to a feckless and self-serving ruling elite. As historian Robert Massie explains, the Palace of Versailles, built to celebrate the glory of the Sun King, was the epicenter of unfettered political opportunism. “Dukes helped [the King] to pull off his nightshirt and pull on his breeches,” with everyone shamelessly “jostl[ing] for the privilege of presenting the King with his chaise percée (his ‘chair with a hole in it’), then crowded around while the King performed his daily natural functions.
“So glorified was the monarch that even when his dinner was passing by, courtiers raised their hats and swept them on the ground in salute, declaring respectfully, ‘La viande du roi’ (‘The King’s dinner’),” writes Massie.
Arrogant, self-absorbed and viciously inconsiderate, Louis XIV, who sent countless ordinary Frenchmen to death through mindless wars, managed to hold on to power precisely because no one dared to challenge his absolute rule.
A century later, however, France became a beacon of freedom and republican democracy, thanks to the revolt of the masses under conscientious and patriotic leaders who saw the state as the servant of “the people” rather than an instrument of despots.
Today’s authoritarian populists have eagerly sought to emulate the “Sun King,” with one even hailed by some of his supporters as “the best president in the solar system.” Thankfully, we also have our own version of freedom fighters who are willing to break the shackles of absolutism. While much of the Philippine political elite have defected to our own “Sun King,” a few brave souls have stood their ground. One is the duly elected Vice President, Leni Robredo, who, with her undaunted fire of conviction and quiet dignity of public service, has bravely survived a years-long destabilization campaign against her democratic mandate.
Thanks to Robredo’s tenacity, President Duterte was forced to effectively acknowledge her democratic mandate by appointing the VP to colead his dearest policy, the war on drugs—an appointment Robredo accepted, despite it being a risky move opposed by many of her closest allies. But Robredo rightly chose national interest above her own political safety. Now, she can help revamp a broken drug war, which has led to thousands of deaths among the poorest Filipinos while failing to produce even a single high-profile conviction.
Social Weather Stations surveys have shown that 9 out of 10 Filipinos oppose extrajudicial killings, while 7 out of 10 Filipinos fear ending up as victims to the mindless violence. Consistent with this public demand, Robredo has called for an end to the bloody “antipoor” tokhang operations, the use of body cameras on law enforcers to ensure due process, and the recognition of public health-based and rehabilitation-focused solutions to the drug problem.
In effect, the VP is following exactly the advice of top experts and the former Colombian president César Gaviria, who had warned Mr. Duterte in a New York Times op-ed that “the war against [drugs] cannot be won by armed forces and law enforcement agencies alone.” This was the same president who, unlike Mr. Duterte, actually neutralized “big fish,” including the most infamous of them all, Pablo Escobar.
Robredo’s struggle for sound policy and political sanity owes much to kindred souls such as Sen. Leila de Lima, who has sacrificed her personal freedom to stave off a catastrophic public policy. Soon, the senator will be marking her third year in captivity, based on what many human rights groups and experts have decried as trumped-up charges. Long before Robredo’s Phoenix-like transformation, De Lima led the march for freedom against darkness. The arc of history perhaps does bend toward justice, and the last man standing would be these steely, truly formidable women.