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Martyr Leila, convenor Leni

/ 04:00 AM February 16, 2021

Last week, for the first time since the pandemic collapsed like a straightjacket on an unprepared country, Sen. Leila de Lima attended her ongoing trial for alleged conspiracy to commit drug trading. It was the first time she was seen in public in almost a year, and I must admit that seeing the images of the opposition senator that filled social media on Feb. 9 — wearing a mask and a face shield, extending her right arm for the remote thermometer, waving at her physically distanced supporters — moved me deeply.

In a personal way, it reminded me of the Nelson Mandela moment many in my generation remember best. When the great South African dissident was released in 1990 after 27 years in prison, I was struck by how imposing, how regal, he looked. Like many others, I guess, I expected him to look like a broken man, diminished by injustice, but instead he radiated strength. When he emerged, dapper in his suit and dignified in his bearing, he looked like he had mastered fate itself.

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It has been a year or so since I last visited Senator De Lima in her detention quarters in Camp Crame; having seen her graciously receive her visitors, speak forthrightly after Mass, display a lively sense of humor, keep up to date with the latest news affecting her beloved country, and write her notes and letters in bright blue ink, I knew that the rank injustice she has suffered had not broken her. Many of those who visit her to comfort her in her time of need leave feeling comforted instead, by her air of serenity, and at the same time strengthened by the unmistakable steel in her soul.

Still, seeing her after a year and even if only through pictures on social media, I was touched by her presence: She looked unchanged, serene but still steel-strong, and in good spirits. Here, truly, is a martyr of Philippine politics: harassed in the corridors of Malacañang and the halls of Congress; demonized by fake sex-video accusations; arrested on trumped-up drug-related charges; victimized, twice, by a pusillanimous Supreme Court (the first time when it refused to protect her after prosecutors changed the case against her without conducting a new preliminary investigation, the second time when it refused to protect her in her habeas data petition against the President); abused by a justice system that stretched her cases over many years despite fatally weak evidence. And yet there she was, fighting the good fight.

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She is a martyr, but her continuing martyrdom must be understood not only in Christian terms, as the power to suffer, but also in Rizalian light. We must prove, Rizal said, that “we are superior to our misfortune,” and De Lima, who will mark four years in unjust detention next week, is yet more proof that we can master our fate.

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Also last week, Vice President Leni Robredo addressed all election talk as premature. I think the Vice President is wrong. The elections ARE near; certificates of candidacy must be filed in a mere eight months. The right time to start preparing for the 2022 elections was yesterday.

There is a natural logic to her reasoning, of course. “I have to admit that, in the deluge of work we face every day… for me, at least in our office, we’re just doing our jobs. I don’t think it’s right that I should prioritize politics in a time of crisis.” This is Robredo’s character, a personal approach to public office shared with and shaped by her late husband, Secretary Jesse Robredo.

But it is precisely because we are in a time of deepening crisis (even President Duterte says so, with his talk of an economy “sinking deeper and deeper”) that we should prioritize politics. Because it has become clear that the solution to our many grave problems must also be political. The administration self-evidently cannot hack it; its political coalition must be replaced in the 2022 elections.

Last December, in “Take our country back,” I argued that the “true scope of the opposition to what President Duterte is doing to the Philippines is not limited to the political; the only way the political opposition can do its part to take our country back is to welcome and work with all those who want to return home.” I think that reading still stands.

What this means, firstly, is that the choice of opposition presidential candidate cannot be the decision of the Liberal Party alone. Akbayan has its work cut out for it: Ensure the reelection of Sen. Risa Hontiveros and return Akbayan to the House of Representatives through the party list system. The leftist party list groups have never fielded a candidate for national office who drew 7 million votes; that’s only half of what a winning senatorial candidate needs today. Various civil society groups are raring to take to the hustings, but for all their energy, their anger at the “change scamming” of the last five years, they need to work with established players.

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That’s the role of the Liberal Party — but the party must recognize that its thorough defeat in 2019 means it must relearn its place in the system. Recognizing the plain fact that Robredo is the true leader of the (still weak, still disorganized) opposition, the Liberal Party must allow the Vice President to serve as convenor of a wide alliance of political forces. She must personally convene this alliance at the soonest time, work with them to complete a full, 12-person slate of senatorial candidates (including reelectionists De Lima, Hontiveros, and Kiko Pangilinan, and ex-senators Bam Aquino, Sonny Trillanes), forge linkages with local governments and likely candidates in friendly regions, draft a common platform with proven popular appeal (including pushback against Chinese aggression and a new legislative franchise for ABS-CBN), and begin raising funds. Not least, she must decide, soon, whether she will accept her fate as presidential candidate.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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TAGS: John Nery, Leila de Lima, Leni Robredo, Newsstand
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