MANILA, Philippines — For newly elected Camarines Sur 3rd district Rep Leni Robredo, her victory in the 2013 elections shows that not all Filipino voters can be bought.
Despite what she describes as “institutionalized” vote buying in the province, Robredo managed to defeat a member of a well-entrenched political dynasty in Camarines Sur through a landslide victory.
“I think politicians do not necessarily understand that money is not the primary motivation. I’m the classic example,” Robredo says in an interview with Rappler’s #PHvote.
Robredo describes the alleged vote-buying activities in Camarines Sur as “systemic” and “institutional.”
She says she witnessed 3 kinds of “lists” to determine vote-buying tactics. First in the list are supporters who would be paid a certain amount to ensure their loyalty. Second are people targeted for “voter conversion” — those who are for the opponent and are paid larger amounts of money. Third are loyalists who are asked not to vote at all in exchange for money.
In her campaign, Robredo asked voters to accept the money but to not let it affect their votes.
While her opponents wooed voters equipped with what she says were “voters’ lists that looked like price lists of commodities,” Robredo instead worked on creating a personal connection with voters.
“It is not really that important if they get something. What they need is hope. If you become accessible, people are more hopeful that you will be there to help them. People saw me as a very accessible candidate,” she says.
“Everyone has my cellphone number. Everyone can text me anytime. Everyone can visit me anytime. I think if they can relate to you on such a personal level, they put so much premium on it. Other candidates would give groceries, would give money, would give everything yet they still voted for me” she adds.
Initially a reluctant candidate, Robredo did not set out to wage a fight against the province’s most formidable political dynasties. But she was convinced to run as a result of public clamor following the death of her husband, the late Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo. Residents and various groups told her that she alone could bring down the Villafuerte dynasty.
Results of the recent polls show Robredo won with a lead of 71,330 votes. Receiving a total of 102,694 votes, she garnered at least 78% of the total number of votes cast for post to defeat her closest rival Nelly Villafuerte, who received 31,364 votes. Villafuerte is the wife of outgoing Rep Luis Villafuerte Sr, whose clan has ruled the region for years. READ: In Camarines Sur, it’s the Villafuertes’ show (Part 1); Camsur among the poorest, with no new choices (Part 2)
Meanwhile, the votes garnered by two other candidates for CamSur 3rd district representative were far behind Robredo’s and Villafuerte’s numbers. Independent candidate Charina Fausto got at least 2,200 votes while PDP-Laban’s Oscar Arcilla Jr received at least 600 votes.
More than just Robredo’s wife
Robredo says she held meetings in “street corners, under the tree, inside houses.” She employed her husband’s ground-to-top “formula” — organizing representatives from active, empowered basic sectors to help her in her bid for a congressional post.
It’s not a strategy that is new to her. After all, Robredo started out as a community organizer and has been working as an alternative lawyer as a member of the Naga chapter of Sento ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal or Saligan.
“I have always been a people person,” she says. “For a very long time, I worked for peasant sectors, the urban poor, women, children. My orientation is really community organizing. I go around a lot. I go around the entire region.”
Her background, she says, helped her realize that a “theoretical approach” towards governance would not work.
“My realization from that kind of work was that one would be very effective in helping if you really immerse yourself in these communities, if you give enough time and effort to really feel what they’re going through,” she says.
It is the same down-to-earth approach that her late husband had come to be known for. But Robredo knew she could not ride on her husband’s popularity alone to win — and to serve.
Fight against vote buying
She found an advocacy in her fight against vote buying. Going against the advice of friends and colleagues, Robredo filed a case against Villafuerte for alleged vote buying in Camarines Sur at the height of the campaign period.
“I was telling people, I think if I win these elections, I would be giving a strong message,” she says. “Voters can not really be bought. People need money because they’re so used to it. People even wait for it. Days before the campaign, people were all over like it was fiesta. They were out on the streets waiting for vote buyers. It’s scandalous. Come election time, they still voted for me.”
Even if she won the elections, Robredo said she will continue to pursue the case. “People see you as a symbolic leader who will not tolerate these kinds of things,” she says.
Embracing new role
But her rival is not about to take defeat sitting down. Villafuerte plans to file a case against Robredo for alleged “computerized cheating” during the recent polls. Robredo is unperturbed.
“If the fear of retaliation would clip my wings, people would have nowhere else to go,” she says. “I would have to be a symbol of change.”
In Congress, she says she wants to legislate initiatives that her husband introduced in the Department of the Interior and Local Government, such as setting standards for good housekeeping. This seeks to penalize underperforming LGUs and provide incentives for well-performing LGUs.
She says she believes “people-participation” should be institutionalized. “Government should always be open to people participation because it’s the only way we can do good,” she says.
Camsur’s eyes — as well as the nation’s — will be on Robredo as she assumes her post when the 16th Congress convenes in July.
She seems intent on keeping a healthy relationship with power.
“Both my husband and I always looked at power as a means of changing a lot of things. But you know, power also diminishes character,” she says. – Rappler.com