The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has not even been in power for six months, but it already seems like far too long. His constant amateur dramatics on international affairs generate catchy headlines, and a calamitous war on drugs that has cost more than 5,000 people their lives draws attention, if not strong enough condemnation. With little external pressure coming anytime soon, the strongman only faces internal opposition from two political figures – both are women, and both are well placed and well equipped to combat the macho autocrat.
The vice-president, Leni Robredo, resigned from her position in the cabinet this week and now openly presents herself as a desperately needed opposition force. Robredo has joined the good fight, alongside Senator Leila de Lima, who for the past six months has faced a tirade of misogynist abuse and a smear campaign that is only worth repeating in order to bring shame on Duterte and his acolytes.
Wild accusations that she is “a drug lord” who operated through prisons, and threats to broadcast a supposed sex tape of her in the Senate are just the tip of the iceberg. But, together, Robredo and De Lima represent all that is left of liberal courage in Filipino politics.
It’s a development that recalls the country’s idiosyncratic relationship with women in politics. While Robredo and De Lima are strong characters they also have plenty of good role models. Many have only recently paid attention to the country because of Duterte’s insults and the banal comparisons to Trump-popularism, but it is important to recall the rich history of Filipinas in politics, not least in replacing previous dictators.
When Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown in the People Power revolution in 1986, Cory Aquino became one of the world’s first female heads of state. The uncanny parallels between the two widows – Robredo and Aquino – are impossible to ignore. Aquino’s husband, Benigno Aquino Jr, was assassinated on the tarmac at Manila airport (now named after him) when returning from exile in 1983. Robredo lost her husband Jesse, then interior secretary, in 2012 in a plane crash.
Despite the Philippines holding on to archaic, heavily Catholic-influenced policies on female reproductive rights, the country has had more female leaders than most nations and many prominent women in public life. In 2001 Gloria Arroyo became the second female president (after having served as vice-president) and in 2005 was named by Forbes as the fourth most powerful woman in the world. The recent death of Miriam Defensor Santiago known as the Iron Lady of Asia, who even Duterte acknowledged, “ate death threats for breakfast”, was widely mourned. And even Imelda Marcos has to be acknowledged for her influence, and remains an elected member of Congress.
Yet despite such a feminist pedigree, in 2013 the World Economic Forum ranked the Philippines fifth (out of 137) in its Gender Gap Index, and in Duterte the country has elected an openly chauvinist candidate who has joked about rape. By wolf-whistling female journalists in televised press conferences, Duterte has been willing to risk considerable political wrath from women. The media and his supporters have either lapped it up or ignored it, though. But Duterte will at least have to respect De Lima and Robredo in private from now on, if he is to see off the considerable challenge they represent.
Paradoxically, De Lima was the one person who perhaps could have saved Duterte from himself and the country more pain. Her attempt to investigate the drug war could have led to reforms, if not staved off the growing spectre of a warrant from the ICC for his arrest. Alex Whiting, a Harvard law professor and former ICC investigator, has argued that the ICC should begin looking at the killings. The ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda could well be the next woman Duterte has to take seriously rather than just throw insults at.
For now Robredo and De Lima can lead an opposition on two fronts. First to the misogyny – a bipartisan social media campaign has already begun to counter the army of Duterte trolls and fake news stories bred by Duterte supporters. Second, in the Supreme Court, where they can oppose the decision to allow a hero’s burial for Ferdinand Marcos. Robredo has already taken to passive-aggressively shaming him on this issue through Twitter.
News story from The Guardian.