Running Under the Shadow of Death

From left: Liberal Party Presidential candidate Mar Roxas with President Noynoy Aquino and Liberal Party Vice Presidential candidate Leni Robredo. Photo from Liberal Party website.From left: Liberal Party Presidential candidate Mar Roxas with President Noynoy Aquino and Liberal Party Vice Presidential candidate Leni Robredo. Photo from Liberal Party website.

On Oct. 5, 2015, Representative Leni Robredo formally announced in Club Filipino her bid to run as Vice President under the Liberal Party.

The festive event was solemnized by remembering the legacy of the late DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo, vowing to continue the reform agenda of the daang matuwid in the Philippines. As much as the event attempted to establish an independent Leni Robredo before a gathering of friends, there remains noticeable proof of citing the memories and legacy of Jesse Robredo at work.

In front of a throng of supporters, Leni Robredo affirmed that she would continue the legacy of her late husband and cited her experience as similar to his. She expressly stated that without the death of her husband, her life in politics would be non-existent. Liberal Party stalwarts, including President Noynoy Aquino, would even cement this statement by consistently citing Jesse Robredo in reminding society the capacity of the vice-presidential candidate of the Liberal Party – as if Leni Robredo becomes an honorary Jesse Robredo.

Philippine politics has generally focused on personality and identity. As the battle of narratives continues, the Leni Robredo story seems to be founded upon the act of marriage. The struggle of Leni Robredo would be to establish her identity independently from her late husband.

Identity Crisis: Effects of Matrimony

British common law jurist William Blackstone, in his commentaries about marriage, pointed out that upon the celebration of matrimonial union, the identity of a woman is immediately set aside as she takes the identity of her husband. In fact, the wife is often called the appendage of a man’s identity. The dominant view on marriage is that two persons become one in accordance with law to enjoy a conjugal family life. In other words, marriage is seen as a practical means to ensure human survival, but has the tendency to remove the identity of a woman – this is called the law of coverture.

Jurisprudence in the United States, as summarized in Obergefell vs Hotges, moves away from Blackstone’s argument on the concept of marriage. In the Philippines, the case seems to be different. Marriage is seen as a sacred act of permanent union, in which coverture seems to be complacent with the culture adopted from the Western powers occupying the country. The Philippine Supreme Court, through our jurisprudence, affirms that the protection of marriage is an obligation of the State. Effectively, our take on marriage is given the highest value in this case.

Political Widowhood Discourse at Work: The Philippine Case

It seems that even at the point of death, politics will always remain. As dynasties continuously use the legacies of their families in entrenching themselves to power, widows often bank on the legacy of their late husbands in order to achieve political leverage against an opponent – especially to an established dynasty. Empirically, the Philippines experienced the effect of political widowhood discourse as a strategic move to secure victory in the polls. The Cory Aquino experience showed that despite the attempts of President Marcos, Aquino was able to secure her strong hold in the electorate who were obviously outraged by the death of her husband.

In the case of Leni Robredo, her victory during the 2013 congressional elections can be argued as a result of the Jesse Robredo brand of leadership transmitted to her. The law of coverture seems to apply in our society whenever Leni Robredo comes into play – if we read online news articles (e.g. Rappler, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Philippine Star), Leni Robredo is often introduced as Jesse M. Robredo’s widow. This was also used during her proclamation by the Liberal Party at Club Filipino.

Online platforms supporting her candidacy have the tendency to associate her brand of leadership to Jesse Robredo’s matino and mahusay leadership, which she always cited during her plenary speeches, sponsorship speeches and in her recent campaign speech. The narration by the media confirms the idea of Leni Robredo as the honorary Jesse Robredo. Anthropologist Mamphela Ramphele sees this phenomenon as detrimental towards women’s emancipation in politics since women are seen as having the tendency to depend on their husbands to achieve political leverage.

What seems to be surprising is the effective use of the Liberal Party in using the political widowhood discourse – in this case, strategic widowhood – in order to garner popular acclamation that may affect the survey polls on the vice presidency. Essentially, political parties tend to nominate widows because of the advantage of name recall and entrenchment to certain territories. It remains to be seen whether this will also work on the national scale.

Beyond Death

In choosing our national leaders, the Philippines seems to choose personality over platforms of government. With Leni Robredo running as Vice President, the electorate would look at her as the widow of Jesse Robredo rather than at her achievements as a pro bono lawyer to marginalized clients and as representative of Camarines Sur. The curse of the political widowhood discourse remains as long as media and society look at Leni Robredo as the widow of Jesse Robredo.

The Philippines should go beyond personality in assessing the competence of a candidate to national leadership positions. Leni Robredo should not be looked at as a mere widow of the late DILG Secretary. She should be seen as a candidate with an independent identity and a clear political platform to achieve a desired goal in the country. Setting the tone for Leni as an independent entity to her husband will be a difficult task to bear. But if we want our politics to mature and move forward beyond personality, this has to be established.

Let’s not disturb the dead in their final resting place. Let’s look at Leni Robredo based on her platforms and campaign promises – that is a burden that needs watching.

Brandon de Luna is a first year law student UP College of Law and a graduate of Political Science at the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, UP Diliman.