Risa Hontiveros: The politics of conviction
Once, a friend asked me, “How can you stay so hopeful about our country, despite everything?” That friend knew how much harassment I have faced over the years for expressing my political conscience. She also knew how I have obsessively papered over the disastrous blunders and inimitable shenanigans of our political leaders through the years. My answer is this: I believe in the Filipino people. I feel indebted to our national heroes such as Jose Rizal, and I know that we still have leaders whose political lives are centered on conviction rather than on the blind pursuit of power.
One of them, without a doubt, is Sen. Risa Hontiveros, one of the bravest and most sincere souls to have made it to our highest chamber. It’s precisely progressive leaders like her, undaunted in the face of peril and unforgivable calumny, that should give us hope about the future of our country.
From a tender age, I was at once fascinated and repelled by politics. On the one hand, I couldn’t shake off the repulsive image of schmoozing politicians with their greasy hands and protruding bellies cutting backroom deals. Even more deplorable is the whole business of organized hypocrisy — what the one-time politician and lifelong economist Joseph Schumpeter memorably described as the “psychotechnics” of “party advertising, slogans and marching tunes,” which dominate modern political campaigns. At the same time, I was always inspired by the audacity and vision of ancient statesmen, while the drama of mass politics, like the magic ring of “The Hobbit,” always tickled my curiosity.
My attitude toward politics, however, gradually changed when I decided to work as a foreign policy consultant for my former professor and lifelong mentor, Walden Bello, when he entered the Philippine House of Representatives. I realized there were people — in reality and, yes, in our country! — who are willing to throw their hats into the political ring without abandoning their convictions.
Within a few years, Bello would take the unprecedented decision of relinquishing his congressional seat in protest at the former administration’s mishandling of the Mamasapano operation, which claimed the lives of 44 police patriots.
I also had the privilege of meeting countless other genuinely progressive advocates, from Etta Rosales to Joel Rocamora, who have selflessly dedicated their lives to the betterment of the Philippine nation.
It was during these years, in the halcyon of youth, when I first met Risa Hontiveros, then also a member of Congress. For some reason, our first exchanges didn’t go as well as I had hoped. At our very first meeting, I foolishly mistook her for another progressive legislator, thanks to her distinctly colorful scarf; also, that legislator’s first name wasn’t too different from hers. You can guess who. And that surely didn’t impress Risa.
But I was always amazed at her humility and sincere commitment to her cause. Over the next decade, I saw her transform into a lightning rod for the feminist movement and reproductive rights campaign, as well as a passionate advocate for social justice and the economic rights of the Filipino people.
Undaunted by several electoral defeats, including a razor-thin loss in one of her first senatorial bids, she eventually made it to the country’s highest legislative body, thanks to the sheer force of her conviction, her personal charisma, and the strategic acumen of her staff as well as the organizational prowess of her grassroots base.
Risa’s campaign wasn’t just another bid for power; it instead represented, to use the words of progressive scholar Ernesto Laclau, an emancipatory movement, aiming to create “a new agency out of a plurality of heterogeneous elements” against a deracinated oligarchy.
Over the past four years, she has fought for human rights and democracy, for social justice and decency, and took up the cudgels, often alone and at great personal risk, for the voiceless victims of the madness that is authoritarian populism.
Don’t be fooled by her soft-spoken words and gentle demeanor. In many ways, she has been the “iron lady” of the progressive movement in the Philippines. Hers is unmistakable conviction politics, which rejects both macho populism and vacuous liberalism. May there be more like her in our midst.
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