2022 Philippine Elections

The Pink Wave: Robredo’s volunteer movement defies traditional campaigns

Michelle Abad
The Pink Wave: Robredo’s volunteer movement defies traditional campaigns

TAO SA TAO. Volunteers for Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator Kiko Pangilinan's 2022 electoral bids go house to house campaigning in April 2022.

Michelle Abad/Rappler

‘It inspires you stand up. It is no longer just about yourself. It is for everyone, especially for future generations. I feel like I am contributing to something bigger than myself.’

MANILA, Philippines – Pink baked goods, artwork, musicians writing songs for free, actors breaking into a song on the streets, hikers brandishing tarpaulins on mountain peaks, supporters walking and waiting for hours under the sun, and volunteers daring to speak face-to-face to voters hard set on a candidate that differs from their own.

These are glimpses of what the campaign of presidential candidate Vice President Leni Robredo and running mate Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan looks like. Students are unfazed by school deadlines, workers are taking leaves to go house-to-house, and farmers are marching across the country in a bid to convince Filipinos to choose the tandem as their next leaders.

All of this for a far second- and third-placer in pre-election surveys.

It’s a level of volunteerism some say has never been seen before in Philippine elections. Volunteers say it no longer looks like a campaign but a movement.

“This election is really unique and, to a certain extent, groundbreaking, because for the first time we have seen more and more private individuals or citizens participating directly in campaigns. We have not seen this extent in the past elections,” said lawyer Emil Marañon in an Ask Your Election Lawyer episode on Rappler.

The hundreds of thousands attending Robredo’s rallies may be promising, but no less than Robredo’s daughters themselves have reminded supporters that these do not guarantee a win. Despite the pink-clad behemoth crowds, pre-election survey frontrunner Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. retains an overwhelming strong lead over Robredo.

In the most recent Pulse Asia survey in April, Marcos maintained a 56% voter preference for president – unchanged from the March survey. Meanwhile, Robredo was practically steady at 23% in April compared to 24% in March.

Despite the one-point drop, the Robredo camp remains convinced of the shift on the ground. Robredo got to 24% with a 9-point rise from February. Her spokesperson Barry Gutierrez said the numbers “remain encouraging.”

The “kakampinks” (a play on the words “kakampi” or ally and “pink”) refuse to lose hope. In the last stretch of the campaign, the calls to cover more ground have only intensified.

Contextualizing a campaign
DOOR-KNOCKING. Leni for You volunteers go house-to-house campaigning in Barangay Nangka, Marikina City, on April 16, 2022. Photo by Michelle Abad/Rappler

Hello po, puwede po ba kayong maistorbo (Hello, may we interrupt what you’re doing)?”

Volunteers for Leni for You, one of the numerous groups helping the Robredo campaign, repeated variations of this question as they went house to house along narrow streets in Marikina City. It was humid, and the heat on this Saturday morning in April was particularly prickly, but the group of around 15 volunteers were in high spirits.

Leni Robredo was not often the first topic of conversation, even if volunteers’ pink shirts and armfuls of tarps and flyers gave away what they were there for. Volunteers would first ask locals about their jobs and aspirations. They asked about their families, what their concerns were, and what they looked for in a candidate – if they already had one.

One elderly man sat at a makeshift shed under a tree with his neighbor. They were both for Marcos. They liked how Marcos promised to lower electricity rates.

The elderly man was a public utility vehicle driver, who suffered an electrocution injury. This prevented him from renewing his driver’s license, but he hoped to drive again as he still could, he said. One of his six children provides for the family now.

DIALOGUE. A Leni for You volunteer converses with supporters of former senator Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. in Marikina City. Photo by Michelle Abad/Rappler

The volunteer spoke to them about Robredo’s pitch for unemployment insurance, where unemployed Filipinos would be able to receive 80% of their three-month salary to help them get by, together with other details of Robredo’s Hanapbuhay Para sa Lahat platform.

One conversation was not enough to convince the two men to vote for Robredo right away, but after the volunteer’s pitch for his candidate, they said that they’d think about it. Neighbors who already supported Robredo teased them as they accepted and wore Leni-Kiko ballers the volunteers gave.

This was already seen as a win for the volunteers – first, the openness to listen despite support for another candidate, and a promise of consideration. If locals did not want tarps, volunteers would leave fans and comics that contained Robredo and Pangilinan’s track records and platforms. 

This is the KAMPI framework that Leni for You volunteers use in going house-to-house, according to Floy Soriano, a mentor for the group. In this framework, volunteers relate the the listeners’ concerns to how Robredo plans to solve them.

Lalo na ’yung mga soft voters or undecided, kasi kulang lang ’yung impormasyon nila tungkol kay Ma’am Leni. Kaya ’yun ’yung kailangan talagang kausapin – alamin ano ang dahilan ng kanilang pagpili sa presidente na napupusuan nila. And then consider. We don’t force,” said Soriano.

([We use this] especially to soft voters or the undecided, because they don’t have enough information about Ma’am Leni. So those are the ones we really need to speak to – to know the reasons they are choosing certain presidential candidates. And then [we ask them to] consider. We don’t force.)

Volunteers also apply this framework when they engage in “pocket meetings,” where they gather communities with the help of homeowners associations or community members’ word of mouth. Here, volunteers do not lecture them about Robredo’s platform, but get to know them on a personal level: their contexts and dreams, and how Robredo might be able to be a part of realizing those dreams.

Noelle Cubacub, a core team member of Leni for You – Marikina, remembers when she was assigned to a group in a pocket meeting where no one was considering Robredo for president. The members of the group had preferences for Marcos, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, and Senator Panfilo Lacson.

“That was my first time, and I was so nervous because they were all older than me,” said Cubacub, college senior. She fought back thoughts telling her that she was a kid who did not have the right to talk politics to her elders.

Her anxieties were eased as she let the members of the group talk about the characteristics they liked in their candidates. Cubacub said Robredo had positive characteristics of her own, which were also what the community members wanted to see in their leaders.

Nag-focus kasi kami noon sa pangarap nila sa buhay, so pangarap nila na makatapos ’yung mga anak nila or apo nila, ta’s from there, ’pinasok ko na, ‘Ah, si Leni, alam ‘nyo po ba na may ganito ganyan?’ kasi important na super malapit sa personal nila ’yung programa ni Leni na ’binebenta natin,” she said.

(We focused on their dreams in life, and they dreamed of their children or grandchildren finishing their education. From there, that’s where I took my cue: “Do you know that Leni has this and that?” Because it’s important that Leni’s programs, which we are trying to sell, are close to their personal aspirations.)

Apart from connecting Robredo to the peoples everyday experiences, the volunteers would still give their traditional sales pitches of what the Vice President has already done as opposed to promises only from other candidates. Many locals said they didn’t want corrupt leaders, and volunteers were quick to pull out Robredo’s Commission on Audit card, where her office garnered the agency’s highest rating for three consecutive years.

Volunteers take the lead

Some of Robredo’s volunteer groups trace their roots back to even before she announced her run for the presidency. Members of Leni for You started out holding lugaw kitchens in communities, and collecting signatures to get Robredo to run for the presidency when she hadn’t decided yet.

Team Leni Robredo, meanwhile, started around December 2020 with just three to four people, but it was only called Team Leni Robredo on June 12, 2021. A top official at TLR, who requested anonymity, said that there was a “long background” in preparing and getting organized for the campaign.

Today, TLR has around 500 chapters in and outside the country and 112,000 volunteers. TLR and Leni for You are just two of the countless groups that fall under Robredo People’s Council, or the umbrella organization for all volunteer groups.

Many features of the campaign have been volunteers’ own initiatives. Campaign jingle “Kay Leni Tayo” was produced even before Robredo decided to run. Robredo wore blue when she announced her presidential bid, but her supporters donned pink online and offline – which Robredo simply followed.

Pink Wednesdays were an idea from a group, and so was the term “TRoPa” (Team Robredo-Pangilinan). Robredo refuses to take credit for her colorful campaign, saying she only became the symbol for the people’s thirst for change.

“The relationship between the ground volunteers and the national campaign is very dynamic, and that’s what makes this campaign unique. Because traditionally, in the Philippines and even abroad, the campaign is shaped by a national strategy. There are these people above that have a lot of experience in political campaigns, they craft that strategy and it’s brought down and it is executed, there is a command structure,” the top TLR official said.

Ito iba, iba talaga siya – may energy na galing sa baba, may innovation, may strategy na in-adapt sa taas…. They innovated so now the central campaign adjusts the strategy depending on how they see it on the ground,” he added. (This is unique, really unique – there is energy coming from the bottom, there is innovation and strategy that the top adapted.)

According to Robredo People’s Council coordinator Georgina Hernandez, the local volunteers in different parts of the country have autonomy over organizing their rallies. Hernandez said organizers would invite Robredo and Pangilinan to their provinces, and RPC would confirm when the tandem can come and when they are supposed to leave. “Then they are on their own,” she said.

From the concept, to choosing the venue, and inviting artists and entertainers, volunteers do the organizing. RPC sometimes helps with referring guests and artists with help from groups like Artists for Leni. The medics Robredo calls for mid-speech come from Medics for Leni. Local RPCs raise funds for logistical expenses, like venues and sound systems.

Occasional mismatches

The TLR official said that, because the volunteers are so empowered, this can also pose a challenge in coordination, especially in messaging. Hernandez said the RPC can give direction, but cannot necessarily approve or disapprove materials for distribution. Robredo has always spoken of using “radical love” in conveying their message, but volunteers’ frustrations sometimes get the best of them.

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Robredo’s campaign has been criticized for being elitist in some ways – such as how caravans were “middle-class” since participants involved those who owned cars, and how some supporters would dispute being paid for attending rallies by flexing their thousand-peso steaks for dinner afterwards.

Some groups also cannot resist negative campaigning against Marcos Jr. One flyer went viral on TikTok as it bore the names and faces of Robredo, Pangilinan, and their Senate slate on the front, but contained negative elements about Marcos on the other side. While the national campaign team disowned the flyers, volunteer group Kyusi 4 Leni released a statement standing by their decision to print and distribute them.

“It is clear to our organization that Robredo is the best candidate for the presidency, and it is our belief that the country cannot afford another Marcos presidency. The move to compare the two candidates also reflects our volunteer-driven campaign such as this,” the group said in a Facebook post.

How do volunteer leaders navigate these mismatches? Hernandez says, even volunteers take the lead in policing each other.

Ang nagsisita sa isa’t isa ay volunteers din. Nakikita din natin ‘yon online – parang rarely do you see, for example, Atty. Barry Gutierrez, a spokesperson, calling the attention of the volunteers ‘di ba? Because that’s really not the spirit of the campaign,” said Hernandez.

(The volunteers are also the ones who police their ranks. We see this online as well – rarely do you see, for example, Atty. Barry Gutierrez, a spokesperson, calling the attention of the volunteers, right?)

“Unfortunately, there are impacts, like the elitist messaging [which may be said by a few, but is] amplified. But what’s good is that we see the volunteers also pointing out [that it’s wrong],” she added in a mix of English and Filipino.

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Sacrifices and hope

A salient feature of the Robredo-Pangilinan campaign is the diversity among its supporters. While a certain chunk is criticized as elite, it also has small but significant movements, such as the Sumilao farmers marching across the country to campaign for Robredo, who once helped fight for their ancestral lands in Bukidnon as an alternative lawyer before she entered politics. (READ: Sumilao farmers march again not for land but for Leni)

MARCH. Sumilao farmers, together with local volunteers, walk down Dr. Sixto Antonio Avenue in Pasig to conduct a house-to-house campaign on April 29, 2022. Photo by Michelle Abad/Rappler

Si Leni Robredo ang tunay na simbolismo ng pagkakaisa (Leni Robredo is the true symbol of unity),” Pakisama chairperson and Sumilao farmer Noland Peñas told reporters on April 29. “Kaya kami naniniwala na sa kanilang pagsisilbi – kahit noon pa man na hindi pa sila nanunungkulan, hanggang sa ngayon ay consistent nilang tinitingnan at pinahahalagahan ang mga katulad naming nasa laylayan.”

(That’s why we believe in her service – from before she entered office to now, she has been consistent in focusing and laying importance on marginalized people like us.)

Kaya kami nagtitiis sa hirap at init dahil gusto namin na makiisa, at mag-ambag sa simple naming pamamaraan upang makiisa at magkaisa tayong lahat,” he added. (That’s why we endure the struggle and heat, because we want to be in solidarity and contribute in our own simple way so we can truly unite.)

On April 29, the farmers reached Pasig City. With the help of local volunteers, they conducted a house-to-house campaign in Barangay Caniogan, telling their own stories as proof that Robredo has acted in the interest of the marginalized when no one was looking.

THEIR STORY. A Sumilao farmer tells a Pasig resident how Vice President Leni Robredo helped fight for their ancestral land as their lawyer before she entered politics. Photo by Michelle Abad/Rappler

There are also the energetic Cheerleaders for Leni & Kiko, which started off as a Facebook page uniting voices of cheerleaders’ support for Robredo from different teams and generations. As Robredo’s campaign grew, they transformed into a full-blown performing group with hundreds of volunteers around the country, according to core member Ajjie Mendelebar.

The cheering squad is one of the many abonado volunteers, who shell out their own funds to support the campaign. In some rallies, they were able to get sponsorships for food and training venues. They were able to raise some funds to bring the team to perform in Pampanga.

“Even if there’s no funding, we don’t mind shelling out our own money just to be able to perform. The creation of each routine is a joint effort of the members, from preparing the cheer mixes, to choreography, sequencing the stunts, etc. All hands on deck, as VP Leni would always put it,” said 38-year-old Mendelebar, who performs in the squad as well.

“This campaign has been a game-changer in so many ways. You can literally contribute whatever you can for the cause. In our case, our love for cheerleading and the hope for a better future really pushed us to make this happen. It didn’t matter that I retired from competitive cheerleading almost 20 years ago, for as long as my body can take it, I’ll do it,” he said.

PERFORMING. Cheerleaders for Leni & Kiko perform at Vice President Leni Robredo’s rally in Pampanga on April 9, 2022. Photo courtesy of Cheerleaders for Leni & Kiko

And while there are groups like the farmers and cheerleaders standing out, there are also the individual volunteers with a personal sense of duty to come out for Robredo and Pangilinan. Kurt Mariano, a Leni for You volunteer, spent his 18th birthday going house-to-house on April 16. 

Kagabi, pinag-iisipan ko na, ise-celebrate ko ba ‘yung birthday ko sa bahay lang, o ise-celebrate ko siya sa labas with house-to-house campaign? So ito na lang ang pinili ko. Makipag-usap, kumbinsihin ang tao, at ipakilala kung ano ang dapat,” he said. 

(Last night, I was thinking, should I celebrate my birthday just at home, or should I celebrate outside with a house-to-house campaign? So this is what I chose: to dialogue, to convince people, and introduce to them what is right.)

18TH BIRTHDAY. Kurt Mariano (third from left) celebrates his 18th birthday with Leni For You volunteers as they take a break from house-to-house campaigning in Marikina City on April 16, 2022. Photo courtesy of Leni For You

Jazmin Escolano, who was with the Pasig volunteers on April 29, took a leave from work as an education consultant to seize a rare opportunity to campaign with the Sumilao farmers. She was invited by Kurt Bermudez, her friend and a volunteer for Youth Vote for Leni-Kiko Caniogan. While Escolano voted in 2019, it is only this election season where she found herself particularly involved in a campaign.

‘Yung energy pati ‘yung volunteerism ng campaign ni VP Leni, nakaka-inspire siya. Na parang kailangan mo rin mag-stand up, hindi na siya parang, dahil lang sa ‘yo eh. Para na siya sa lahat ng mga tao, lalo na doon sa future generations,” said Escolano. (The energy and volunteerism of VP Leni’s campaign inspires me. It inspires you stand up, because it is no longer just about yourself. It is for everyone, especially for future generations.)

“I feel like I am contributing to something bigger than myself,” Bermudez added.

CAMPAIGNING TOGETHER. Jazmin Escolano and Kurt Bermudez (first and second from right) pose with Sumilao farmers and another volunteer at the Barangay Caniogan volunteer center for Robredo and Pangilinan in Pasig on April 29, 2022. Photo by Michelle Abad/Rappler
The road to May 9

What makes Robredo so special to have drawn a campaign such as this? The TLR official said that it may have something to do with her “sincerity and authenticity.”

“With her, what you see is what you get, and I think people feel this idea. It’s easy and comfortable for people to offer their time and talents, because they trust in her and they believe that whatever she says are not just simple promises, but really a firm commitment to deliver should she be given the chance to lead the country,” the official said.

The pink campaign has been called a number of things: unique, inspiring, phenomenal. But will it be enough to make Robredo catch up with Marcos? It is possible, according to Michael Yusingco, governance expert and senior research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government.

“Right now we see the attention is more on the rallies, because the aesthetics of it is impactful, right? But maybe the impact goes only as far as the aesthetics. But if they do more house-to-house, town hall sessions, strategies with direct interaction…I think they’re going to turn the tide, because the other candidates are not doing it,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Yusingco said that the visuals of the rallies may contribute to an awe factor, but may not necessarily move people. Supporters from other camps may still have reason to think that the crowds are drawn by the A-list stars who endorse Robredo and perform at her rallies.

Alan German, veteran campaign strategist, also backed the effectiveness of the person-to-person campaign.

“It is proven. Many many studies have validated the fact that there is still no substitute for human interaction – a living, breathing person that you can interact with, wherein the information [goes with] emotion,” he said.

Robredo herself may not be knocking on doors, but the thousands of volunteers doing so could be “a close approximation of her – assuming they’re doing it right,” German said. House-to-house campaigners must still go by guidelines the central campaign wants to push for, as they could easily turn off locals by going straight into attacking Marcos and Robredo’s other rivals.

With little time left before Filipinos cast their votes, volunteers can only hope their efforts will be enough.

“This is where the next phase of the campaign is latched on to. It is really just faith. It is really just the determination of the people to make her win. Certainly the margins are still big, and if you knew the math, some people say it’s impossible, some people say it’s a photo finish, but you cannot discount the determination of the people,” the TLR official said. – with reports from Mara Cepeda/Rappler.com

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer with the investigative unit of Rappler. She also covers overseas Filipinos and the rights of women and children.