If there is one word that best encapsulates Vice President Leni Robredo’s political travails, it is “agon,” the Greek term for “struggle.” Though the second-highest duly elected official of the land, she has faced unprecedented persecution and, accordingly, demonstrated unmatched perseverance. What her skeptics, including countless pontificating analysts, tend to miss is the extraordinary challenges she has faced over the past half a decade, from her improbable run for the vice presidency and her first few months in the Cabinet of President Duterte to enduring years of vicious attacks and smear campaigns at the hands of the most powerful forces in Philippine politics.
Here is a widow who has had to endure, confront, and transcend ceaseless and unfettered assaults not only from the scions of the Marcos dynasty, but also from the most powerful man in the Republic. Few, if any, could have survived, let alone thrived, under such tremendously difficult conditions.
Robredo has repeatedly overcome dubious assaults, both legal and personal, on her electoral mandate, while also demonstrating an extraordinary kind of leadership throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Amid the pandemic, the Vice President hasn’t only presented one coherently helpful speech after the other, she has also provided desperately needed leadership on the ground by visiting the worst affected communities reeling from natural disasters.
No less than the populist-in-chief in Malacañang has taken notice, unabashedly warning her against upstaging him. “Next time, do not make a mistake…Nagpapa-beauty ka (Don’t grandstand)…” the President warned. If she dared to run for the presidency against any of his anointed successors in 2022, the President warned, he will make sure “This is your nightmare.”
Regardless of how threatened others may feel by her demonstration of dynamic leadership, should she run for the presidency to begin with?
Lest we forget, Robredo’s majority-approval ratings have been comparable to those of the most celebrated female leaders in the world, from Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand to Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan and Angela Merkel of Germany.
One could easily imagine the Vice President enjoying skyrocketing approval ratings if only she were given sufficient resources commensurate to her office and, crucially, didn’t have to face a systematic campaign of disinformation, denigration, and delegitimization stretching back to her first day in office, if not earlier.
One could easily imagine a Robredo presidency handling the COVID-19 crisis with the same kind of scientific literacy and decisive leadership we have seen in the model nations of Taiwan, New Zealand, and Germany.
A product of the country’s premiere school of economics, Robredo would have certainly understood the need for combining effective public health policy with a massive economic recovery program, two elements that have been sorely missing in recent months.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Philippines will suffer the worst growth decline (-13 percent) in the world between 2019 and 2025, followed by India, Argentina, and Mexico. A key contributor to this economic meltdown was the well-intentioned yet delayed and excessively protracted lockdown.
This would have been avoided if only we carefully followed our more successful neighbors such as Taiwan and South Korea, that addressed the crisis head-on through the effective deployment of preventative measures, timely travel restrictions, and rigorous contact tracing.
What we clearly need is world-class leadership, which would allow us to overcome the economic and sociopolitical fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the worst affected are precisely the most vulnerable, from millions of overseas Filipino workers to those working in the informal sector, as well as millions of fresh graduates and millennials.
The IMF has warned the Philippines of “significant scarring effects (such as hysteresis and bankruptcies),” with the world economy facing “lasting damage” and “a long slog” due to the pandemic. In short, we can no longer afford vacuous and performative populism.
If ever Robredo decides to run for the highest office, she has to become a proactive leader and embrace the fact that, in the face of authoritarian populism, true freedom can only be achieved through what political scientist Chantal Mouffe described as “agonistic” democracy. For democracy demands political agon, a full commitment to the struggle for public good. In the darkest hour, said Mouffe, true leadership is the great struggle to “mobilize [progressive] passions towards promotion of democratic designs,” and “to keep the democratic contestation alive” through proactive leadership and political courage.
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