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Leni Robredo's Road to Malacañang: Can She Stop a Marcos for the Second Time?

In 2022, is the woman the last man standing?
by Arianne Merez
Oct 7, 2021
Photo/s: Noel Celis/AFP

Vice President Leni Robredo on Thursday declared her candidacy for president, asserting herself as leader of the opposition and setting the stage for an election rematch with ex-senator Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. whom she beat in 2016.

Robredo hopes to reignite the same upswell of support that helped her defy the lack of funding and years of preparation to beat the only son and namesake of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos for the vice presidency. This time, she has the additional burden of six years on the receiving end of fake news and criticism from administration supporters.

"Buong-buo ang loob ko ngayon. Kailangan nating palayain ang sarili mula sa kasalukuyang sitwasyon. Lalaban ako. Lalaban tayo. Inahahain ko ang aking sarili bilang kandidato sa pagkapangulo sa halalan ng 2022," said the 56-year-old mother of three and widow of beloved Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo.

From riding habal-habals to provide legal help to remote rural communities, to stopping a Marcos heir, Robredo's road to Malacañang is a political Cinderella tale. Her rise to power is reminiscent of the country's first woman president--the late Cory Aquino, who, just like Robredo, was catapulted to power after her husband's death.

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Will she emerge victorious to become the third woman Philippine president?

"Magtiwala kayo: Pagdating sa usapin ng halalan, isa lang ang nasa isip ko: Siguruhin na mawawakasan ang uri ng pamumunong ugat ng pagdurusa, paghihirap, at pagkamatay ng napakarami sa atin," Robredo said in a taped message in September.


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From public lawyer to reluctant politician

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A lawyer by profession, Robredo was thrust into politics after the death of her husband in an aircraft crash, earning the public's respect and admiration for her composure throughout the heartbreaking ordeal.

While she initially rejected politics to focus on raising her three daughters, public clamor for her to enter the political scene in their hometown Naga City in Camarines Sur was so strong that she was eventually persuaded to run for Congress in 2013 to represent her husband's old constituency. 

"In death, he gave my children that gift, a good name. And the best way we can all honor him is to guard that name and make him proud," Robredo said in her eulogy for her late husband in 2012.

She won as representative of the third district of Camarines Sur, defeating Nelly Favis-Villafuerte -- wife of former congressman Luis Villafuerte. Robredo's win in effect put an end to the congressional hold of the Villafuerte clan-- a known political dynasty in their home province.

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As a lawmaker, Robredo authored and supported bills that promote transparency in government and inclusivity such as the People Empowerment Bill--which seeks to increase public participation in policy-making, and the Comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Bill to prohibit prejudice on the basis of sexuality, gender identity and expression, disability, and ethnicity among others.

"It is a privilege to be given the task to continue his legacy kaya sabi ko I cannot afford to fail," she said in a 2013 interview.

"I really intend to work very hard not only to make him proud but so that I will not disappoint a lot of people. I am well aware that a lot of people voted for me because they see me as an extension of my husband," she said.

Rise as Marcos legacy slayer

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Robredo in 2016 emerged as the dark horse of the national elections -- defeating Marcos Jr. for the vice presidency by just 260,00 votes. It was a symbolic win too, one that she secured on the birthday of her late husband Jesse.

The win however was not without contest as Marcos insisted that he was cheated in the race, pulling all the stops that he could all the way to filing an electoral protest at the Supreme Court.

The protest was only resolved early this year, cementing Robredo's vice presidential win, with barely a year left for her in office.

"Nagpapasalamat tayo na halos limang taon na yung nakalipas, ngayong araw nanaig yung katotohanan," she said on the day the decision was announced. "Hindi lang ito tagumpay ko, hindi lang ito tagumpay ng aming team, tagumpay ito nating lahat."

Robredo is only the second woman to become vice president after Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It would be fair to say that Robredo's vice presidency was a challenging one with the popular Duterte as president and with the two of them coming from opposing political fences. 

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She grew to become the face of the opposition earning the respect of many of her colleagues, and the ire of President Duterte and his minions.

The President has made no secret his disdain for Robredo, calling her many names such as a "colossal blunder" and telling her that she has done nothing for the government.

Perhaps the most famous insult hurled at Robredo by her critics is "Leni Lugaw," a schoolyard slur that she turned around to her advantage by yes, distributing lugaw or rice porridge to remote communities as part of her Angat Buhay initiative--which reflects her grassroots political leadership.

Under Angat Buhay, the public and private sector work together to uplift the livelihood of the poor and marginalized sectors such as farmers, fisherfolk, and distant rural communities.

“My hope is that it is the legacy I left behind at the Office of the Vice President," Robredo said of the project in 2020.

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'Last man standing is a woman'

As the elections come close, Robredo was the obvious choice to be the opposition's standard bearer but the decision did not come easy for her even as #LetLeniLead calls made rounds on social media.

Prior to the filing of candidacies, Robredo met with presidential aspirants -- Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, Sen. Manny Pacquiao, and Sen. Panfilo Lacson--in the hopes of fielding a single candidate to go against the administration's bet to increase the chances of blocking a Marcos or another Duterte presidency.

"Tinitignan natin kung may pag-asa pang magsama-sama. Siguro merong iba na hindi na natin maaaya. Pero hanggang may communication lines pang bukas, patuloy ko yun ipu-pursue," Robredo had said last month in her radio program.

The talks however apparently fell through as all three men filed candidacies for president.

Robredo said she's running for president to shift the power dynamics in the country and provide more opportunities for all Filipinos to prosper.

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"Tatalunin natin ang luma at bulok na klase ng pulitika. Ibabalik natin sa kamay ng karaniwang Pilipino ang kakayahang magdala ng pagbabago," she said. "Ipaglalaban ko kayo hanggang dulo. Itataya ko ang lahat; ibubuhos ko ang lahat ng kayang ibuhos."

With her declaration, Robredo showed that she is no longer the reluctant politician she once was in 2013 and is ready to face-off with Marcos in a multi-party race for Malacañang.

"Buong-buo ang tiwala ko: Magtatagumpay tayo. Buong-buo pa rin ang pananalig ko sa Diyos at sambayanang Pilipino," she said.

While her chances of winning remain to be seen as pre-election surveys place her lagging behind Marcos and Moreno for the presidency, Robredo might just have another trick up her sleeve--just like how she surprised her political opponents in 2016.

And like what she said during one of the vice-presidential debates then, sometimes, "the last man standing is a woman."

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