2022 PH presidential race

The endgame: Rivals ramp up attacks as Robredo rides pink wave to May 9

Mara Cepeda
The endgame: Rivals ramp up attacks as Robredo rides pink wave to May 9

Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator Francis Pangilinan at the Ceboom grand rally.

For the Robredo camp and political observers, there can only be one reason for the ramped-up attacks: Rival candidates are finally feeling the sting of the lady in pink and her army of volunteers

MANILA, Philippines – Three weeks before Filipinos cast their votes to elect the successor of President Rodrigo Duterte, the attacks against Vice President Leni Robredo and her family sank to gutter level. Alleged sex videos of her daughters were fabricated, as the siblings led efforts to knock on people’s doors to court votes for their mother. 

Three male survey laggards practically ganged up on the sole female presidential contender in a joint press conference that left many scratching their heads. One of them thought it was a such great idea to ask her – currently the second-placer in polls – to withdraw so those behind her could have a shot at victory. 

Two days before her grand birthday rally in Pasay City on Saturday, April 23 – as word circulated that Robredo would secure the crucial endorsement of the United Bangsamoro Justice Party, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s political party – the Romualdez-owned Journal ran a report claiming that Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder Jose Maria Sison had allegedly come out as an “adviser” of the presidential candidate.

Even after the CPP categorically debunked the false report, several sites and YouTube channels continued to carry the false claim. Raising the communist bogey has been a favored tactic of rival camps against the Vice President, who has consistently said she would never forge links with any group that uses force to advance their agenda.

While Robredo had, in the past, merely urged her supporters to report fake news about her, this time she said her lawyers were looking into legal action “to hold accountable those behind this lie.”

For the Robredo camp and political observers, there can only be one reason for the ramped-up attacks: the other camps are finally feeling the sting of the lady in pink, whose army of volunteers has shown never-before-seen energy, passion, creativity, and willingness to go out into the streets that can rival even the most well-oiled and well-paid of political machineries. 

FRENZY. Supporters reach out to touch the hands of presidential candidate VP Leni Robredo during her grand ally at the RUSI Ballfield in Negros Oriental on April 20, 2022. Photo by VP Leni Media Bureau

“What’s surprising here is that there has been no survey so far where Robredo is leading, and yet among all the candidates, she’s the one taking all the hits from the other camps. To us, it’s probably because we have the clear momentum,” Robredo’s spokesman Barry Gutierrez told Rappler. 

“A very, very vibrant and energetic volunteer movement has coalesced around VP Leni’s candidacy, and I think a lot of people are running scared because of that,” he added. 

Major pre-election surveys on voter preference still indicate the late dictator’s son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. as the clear frontrunner, as he continues to enjoy majority ratings unseen in recent history. 

He still dominated Pulse Asia’s end-March survey with 56%, leading in all regions, except for Robredo bailiwicks Bicol and Western Visayas. But Marcos’ 4-point drop from February energized the “kakampinks” and even Robredo herself, who surged by 9 points to 24%. 

That’s still a difference of 32 points – big enough to make one wonder about all the attention and negative campaigning against the distant Number 2. But for those who have observed Robredo’s mammoth rallies – or seen the simple on-the-ground efforts of her supporters from all walks of life – the spirit of volunteerism and unity behind the female presidential candidate is so palpable that you can visualize a pink tidal wave catapulting Robredo to Malacañang.

MODERN PRINCESS URDUJA. Presidential candidate Vice President Leni Robredo’s supporters in Pangasinan liken her to the legendary Princess Urduja during their opening number for her grand rally in Dagupan City on April 8, 2022. Photo by VP leni Media Bureau
‘Who the gods want to destroy, they first make mad’

The intensified attacks against Robredo is an unspoken admission of her rivals that she is, in fact, gaining ground during the final, crucial stretch of the presidential campaign, according to veteran campaign strategist Alan German.

German likened this to the fourth quarter in a basketball game, when players and fans amp up the heckling of the other team to make the latter lose their focus. It won’t help them score points, but it can certainly distract the team that they want to defeat so badly. 

“Who the gods want to destroy, they first make mad,” German told Rappler. “So they can see that the VP Leni team is very focused on its game plan. They are very well-defined and intentional in their steps. The campaign is going well. It’s just a simple tactic to throw them off their game, make them mad.”

That Robredo critics are resorting to black ops does not come as a surprise for political analyst Michael Yusingco. After all, it is part and parcel of the upside down world that is Philippine politics. But what is objectionable, said the Ateneo School of Government senior research fellow, is the use of disinformation to bring down any candidate. 

There are no skeletons in Robredo’s closet, no cases of corruption that her rivals can unearth. So what do they do instead? Resort to smear campaigns hinged on lies. 

“You can’t throw anything at her…. She’s performed well. She can show what she calls her ‘receipts,’ the COA (Commission on Audit) high ratings and all of those things,” said Yusingco. “The programs that she has implemented have produced results. So if you’re a critic, what else can you throw at her besides using the old tricks?”

The endgame: Rivals ramp up attacks as Robredo rides pink wave to May 9

For both German and Yusingco, the Easter Sunday press conference where Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, Senator Panfilo Lacson, and former defense secretary Norberto Gonzales tried put Robredo in a bad light, if not directly attacked her, would actually help her bid. 

That joint press briefing only further fueled the resolve of Robredo and her supporters to continue focusing on their house-to-house campaign and grand rallies.

“This stunt won’t hurt VP Leni’s position because it doesn’t diminish what her campaign is doing well right now, which is mobilizing a volunteer movement led by the youth. I would even venture to say that it may even benefit her as it may sway to her side the soft and undecided voters who were utterly disappointed by the stunt,” said Yusingco.

The offensive against Robredo and her daughters came in the aftermath of her behemoth rallies staged even in known bailiwicks of her political rivals. These days, it’s a staple to see tens of thousands showing up at her sorties out of their own accord. 

Just before the Holy Week break, Robredo successfully pulled off a show of force in enemy territories: Davao del Norte of the Dutertes, Pangasinan of the Marcoses, and Pampanga, the turf of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the tactician who brokered the alliance between Marcos and Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte for the 2022 elections. 

For Gutierrez, these rallies are proof that the true strength of Robredo’s campaign lies in her bottom-up, volunteer-led people’s campaign. 

“This would be a campaign won on the strength on the support of ordinary Filipinos,” said Gutierrez. “Even if not a lot of politicians declared their support for her early on, it’s clear that what has brought her to this point and what has given her the momentum at this stage of the campaign is really the people’s movement.”

And they seem to be doing what they are intended to accomplish: project an image of strength for the Robredo campaign. 

SHOW OF FORCE. An aerial view of over 150,000 Cebuanos at the grand rally of presidential candidate Leni Robredo and running mate Senator Kiko Pangilinan in Mandaue City on April 21, 2022. Photo by VP Leni Media Bureau
When politicians follow the people’s will

Robredo has been able to clinch alliances even with the unlikeliest of politicians precisely because of the groundswell of support for her in what has been dubbed by some as the “pink revolution.” Her rivals have been losing their supporters to her with just weeks before election day. 

The “kakampinks” – the volunteers – are the not-so-secret weapon in Robredo’s uphill climb to Malacañang.

Erstwhile Duterte ally and Davao del Norte 1st District Representative Pantaleon Alvarez started thinking about dropping Senator Panfilo Lacson as early as February, as he likened the pink wave for Robredo to the presidential campaign he once helped run for Duterte in 2016. 

For political pundits, one indication of a candidate’s momentum is the tendency of political butterflies to switch their allegiances to that contender. Traditional politicians often place their bets on the candidate they believe has the better chances of winning – it’s all about political survival.

“The crowd sizes will be part of the calculations of local officials. It will get their attention and they will make their calculations on whom to support based on that,” said Yusingco. 

This is why there now seems to be a battle of optics during the grand rallies of Robredo and Marcos Jr., with both camps flexing their big crowds via drone shots. It’s the easiest way to control the narrative that would saturate people’s news feeds for the next couple of days. 

Must Read

‘I just became the symbol’: Robredo says people raring for change sparked pink wave

‘I just became the symbol’: Robredo says people raring for change sparked pink wave

The recent trend of politicians endorsing Robredo also speaks well of her ability as a political tactician, something her rivals often underestimate about her. 

Much of the alliances Robredo has forged in this campaign period have ties with the vast network she has been cultivating since her days as Camarines Sur congresswoman in the 16th Congress. Case in point: She was able to secure the support of the De Venecias of Pangasinan because matriarch Gina de Venecia has been a mentor figure to her

In her provincial visits, Robredo is often hosted by her friends from the so-called “Powerpuff Girls” bloc in the House, who are either seeking reelection as representatives or are running for governor or mayor in their localities. They include the likes of Laguna’s Sol Aragones, Nueva Ecija’s Estrellita Suansing, Zambales’ Cheryl Deloso-Montalla, and Sorsogon’s Evelina Escudero, among others.

Robredo, of course, is also aided by her close allies and friends from the Liberal Party and Akbayan. LP stalwarts Senate Minority Leader Frank Drilon, Quezon City 6th District Representative Jose Christopher “Kit” Belmonte, and former Quezon City 3rd District representative Bolet Banal have long been among her key political advisers. Former senator Bam Aquino is her campaign manager. LP vice president for internal affairs Teddy Baguilat Jr. is on her senatorial ticket. 

Gutierrez, Robredo’s spokesman, used to represent Akbayan in Congress. Former Akbayan congresswoman and now Dinagat Islands Governor Kaka Bag-ao is Robredo’s dear friend from their days as alternative lawyers, while former Akbayan representative Tom Villarin helps Robredo secure alliances in Mindanao.

They are among the key people helping Robredo do the necessary work on the ground to boost her chances of winning in May. They already know the things Robredo is willing to do on the campaign trail and, more importantly, the non-negotiables that should never be crossed. Alliances should not be transactional. 

“I have to win, but it’s clear with my colleagues what I am not willing to do. They don’t agree with me most of the time, in many of the political decisions. But they are already used to me being so hard-headed about it,” Robredo said in her sit-down interview with Rappler CEO and Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa. “I am so stubborn when it comes to things I’m very passionate about.”

The endgame: Rivals ramp up attacks as Robredo rides pink wave to May 9
‘A million Robredos knocking on doors’

What has been working well for Robredo in the homestretch of the campaign are the house-to-house efforts that even famous celebrities are now joining free of charge. 

Robredo supporters began taking the house-to-house efforts more seriously in February, when the Vice President’s voter preference rating fell to 15% in the Pulse Asia survey despite the frenzy of the “kakampinks” during sorties. That poll was released in mid-March, around the time rallies attended by thousands of supporters were just beginning to pick up. 

Much has already been written about how the disinformation networks of the Marcoses have severely tainted Filipinos’ image of who Robredo is as a person and as a politician. The damage has been so great that a part of Robredo herself regrets not having acted early enough to rally the people to push back against these lies. 

‘TAO SA TAO.’ Tricia Robredo shakes the hand of a woman wearing a shirt of her mother’s rival during her house-to-house campaign in Tondo, Manila, on March 27, 2022. Photo by Marie Martin/PonD News Asia

But the house-to-house efforts are proving to be a good strategy to counter disinformation. Reading posts debunking lies online can often feel impersonal, with a lot of room for misinterpretations. So face-to-face conversations are still king.

It is also a sobering reality check for Robredo supporters as many of them tend to just disregard Marcos Jr.’s survey numbers. But how can they be in denial now about the popularity of the dictator’s son when they encounter communities where a majority still support him? 

“So what she has done effectively is, she has created a million Leni Robredos who are knocking on doors. And although it’s not VP Leni herself, it is a close approximation of her – assuming they’re doing it right,” said campaign strategist German.

With just mere weeks left before D-day, the best thing Robredo and her supporters can do is to stay focused on their game plan.

“If there is one lesson I’ve learned in the past elections, it’s not over until it’s over,” Robredo told reporters on April 8. “So the supporters should not get tired of working hard, because what’s important is that they are now feeling the fruits of their labor.”

The battle against the return of the Marcoses to Malacañang is a battle against time – and Robredo does not have much left. If she loses to Marcos Jr., it would be because she did not prepare for the presidency early enough, unlike her rivals. 

So there’s no more room for distractions, no need to dignify sad boys whining about being bested by the sole woman in the race. They are just noise. 

Leni Robredo has a bigger fight to win on May 9, 2022. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.