Risa Hontiveros

Risa Hontiveros: How far will her fierce dissenting voice in the Senate take her?

Bonz Magsambol

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Risa Hontiveros: How far will her fierce dissenting voice in the Senate take her?

FIERCE OPPOSITION. Senator Risa Hontiveros stays true to her promise of being the fierce opposition figure.

Angie de Silva/Rappler

After the senator's word war with Vice President Sara Duterte, an analyst says Hontiveros should guard against reacting to issues according to the administration's terms

MANILA, Philippines – When the Senate tackled the proposed 2024 budget of the Office of the Vice President in September, Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros grilled Sara Duterte about the OVP’s request for confidential funds.

Hontiveros pointed out that the OVP’s primary mandate was not intelligence gathering. “Madam Vice President, during the six years of your term, ano ‘yung ipu-pursue mo na mandates ng inyong opisina (what mandates will your office pursue)?” the senator asked.

Duterte asked OVP chief of staff Zuleika Lopez to respond to Hontiveros.

Unconvinced, Hontiveros circled back the question to Duterte: “It’s a general question kung ano ang ipu-pursue na mandate ni Vice President during [the] six years of her term, so, kung maaari, si Vice President ang sumagot (about the mandates the Vice President will pursue during the six years of her term so, if it’s possible, the Vice President should be the one to respond).

Duterte said the OVP would have three permanent projects under Duterte’s term: a permanent office for future vice presidents, the vice president museum, and an omnibus law governing the OVP. Hontiveros was still puzzled as to which of these would require the use of P500 million in confidential funds that Duterte was seeking for 2024.

From Hontiveros’ line of questioning, it was clear she would not stop until she finally understood the basis for the requests for P500 million for the OVP, as well as the P150 million for the Department of Education, which is also headed by the Vice President. Until now, Duterte has yet to give a clear explanation regarding this.

During the budget deliberations, it was learned that she requested – and was granted – P125 million in confidential funds for the OVP in 2022. Budget experts said it was “unconstitutionally” obtained. (READ: Why transfer of P125-M confidential funds to OVP sets dangerous precedent)

Risa Hontiveros: How far will her fierce dissenting voice in the Senate take her?

While the exchange of statements between Hontiveros and Duterte became a hot topic on social media, political analyst and Ateneo de Manila University professor Arjan Aguirre advised Hontiveros to “stick to the issues and avoid going too personal or ad hominem with her comments.”

“Her inputs as an opposition senator should be more about giving policy alternatives, oversight, safeguards than mere antagonistic statements,” Aguirre said.

In the confidential funds issue, Hontiveros released video statements hitting Duterte as a response to the Vice President’s tirades against her. In her first statement released on September 11, the senator said: “No drama, just work. I thought you said the OVP can live without confidential funds? Why do you seem so nervous, when this is just a budget hearing?”

This was her reaction when Duterte singled her out in a statement, saying, “Senator Risa Hontiveros, while she amuses the nation with her flair for drama, could only wish the 2022 OVP CF was accessed illegally.”

It didn’t stop there. When Duterte said that she didn’t have respect for the senator, Hontiveros again replied, saying the Vice President had “more personal attacks than explanation” on the use of confidential funds.

Hontiveros’ long-time aide and chief legal officer Jaye dela Cruz Bekema said the senator was only being consistent in her branding as a tough-talking politician.

‘Yon naman siya eh (That’s who she is). That’s been her personality since she was arrested while joining a rally as a congresswoman,” Bekema told Rappler in an interview on Wednesday, October 4.

Bekema, a confidant and staff of Hontiveros for over a decade, was referring to the time the senator – then a party-list representative of Akbayan – led a lightning rally in 2006 to call for the ouster of then-president Gloria Arroyo during an International Women’s Day event in Quezon City. She was detained at the headquarters of the Quezon City Police District at Camp Karingal for illegal assembly and was later released due to parliamentary immunity.

Hontiveros, who served as Akbayan congresswoman from 2004 to 2010, has been consistent with the values of her progressive party, acting as a watchdog of government abuse.

Over a year into her second term as senator, Hontiveros has been a key dissenter in controversial legislation and policies under the Marcos administration. She was the lone senator who voted against the Maharlika Investment Fund Act, although Senate Minority Leader Koko Pimentel said he would have also voted against it had he had been present when it was being voted upon in the Senate.

Hontiveros led congressional hearings on human trafficking, corruption, and also the alleged abuses suffered by members of a Surigao del Norte “cult.”

Hontiveros was a key opposition member in the Senate during the Duterte administration. She was among the senators who presented key witnesses and documents that helped uncover alleged anomalies in the pandemic deals bagged by Pharmally, a company connected to president Duterte’s adviser. She was among the few lawmakers who questioned Duterte’s bloody drug war.

“She has always spoken her truth, like in the case of drug war victims Kian and Jemboy, because the issue resonates with her. And of course her fundamental opposition to the war on drugs, and it was a very real fear because senator Leila was jailed over fabricated charges. But I remember she told me, ‘No, we’ll keep fighting, because the opposition to the war on drugs is fundamental,'” Bekema recalled.

Fierce branding

A decade ago, Hontiveros realized that perhaps the reason she lost in the 2010 and 2013 senatorial elections was because she did not package herself well as a fierce opposition figure. “Nagkulang ako sa paghihigpit sa message (I wasn’t able to send my message across unequivocally),” Hontiveros told Rappler in an interview in 2013.

She has since positioned herself as a fierce opposition figure in Philippine politics since her third try in 2016, when she finally won the senatorial race, placing 9th among 50 candidates. The feisty senator at that time said that the “world is on its way when 15 million of you decided that an ordinary person can make it to the Upper Chamber.”

“You and me, we defied gravity,” Hontiveros said in her proclamation statement in 2016. Since then, she has not wasted any opportunity she could get to voice out her concerns on a range of issues, including corruption at the Bureau of Immigration or the so-called “pastillas scam.” In 2022, she was the lone opposition candidate to secure a Senate seat.

Hontiveros speaks her mind and does not hide anger or displeasure. She has carried on her progressive party’s brand of toughness. She would respond to her fellow senators’ controversial statements, especially on issues close to her heart. One example is when she condemned Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva for his remark that Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Expression and Sex Characteristics Equality Act or SOGIE bill, a pet bill of Hontiveros, was not a priority bill of the 19th Congress. (READ: ‘Sheer numbness’: Hontiveros takes swipe at Villanueva over SOGIE bill)

As a long-time legislator, Hontiveros knows that passing legislation in Congress is a “numbers game,” after all, with both chambers ruled by a dominant supermajority coalition. Hontiveros is part of a two-member minority in the Senate. She has been consistent in her stand condemning China even during the Duterte administration, when the popular administration sought stronger ties with Beijing.

When she filed a resolution urging the Philippines to take China’s bullying before the United Nations General Assembly, senators were divided on the issue even though they all condemned China’s continued harassment of Filipino forces and fishermen. Instead, in the approved version of the resolution, they included the UNGA option only among five proposed moves in case China continued harassing Filipinos in the West Philippine Sea.

“That this is an important issue and we need to raise it before an international body and that we should exhaust all options, [we need to have] flexibility. It was important to get the Senate consensus rather than be stuck or fixated on a particular course of action,” Bekema said.

The price of being a critic

Political analyst and University of the Philippines professor Aries Arugay said Hontiveros is not holding back as she does not stand to not lose anything – she has already branded herself as the Marcos government’s political opponent.

“She is calling a spade a spade. She is calling out the ruling administration. By being in the opposition, she’s able to represent and somehow get support from that part of society. We have a polarized society right now. She has already been shoe-boxed as an opponent of the administration,” Arugay said.

Political observers fear that Hontiveros might suffer the fate of detained former senator De Lima, who has been in jail since 2017, over what critics called trumped-up charges. But for Hontiveros’ staff, there’s always a risk in fighting back.

“If you’re in the opposition, the fear is always there when you speak truth to power, that’s always the hazard. I fear a lot for her because she’s not just my boss, she’s also my friend. We have a personal relationship. I know it would be very hard for her and her children. But she carries on and you carry on with her,” Bekema said.

Kevin Tan, Hontiveros’ legislative officer, said he doesn’t think of the possible risks that come with working with the senator because he takes consolation in the thought that they’re doing their job for the country.

“If you’re with her every day, you don’t think of the risks because your boss is very headstrong, very fierce. There’s always that fear, but with her, it’s never been a hindrance to whatever goal the office has,” said Tan, who has worked for Hontiveros since 2018.

Hontiveros has also been the subject of attacks on social media, linking her to the corruption scandal at the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation, where she served as board member from 2014 to 2015. The issue was first linked to her in 2018, and resurfaced recently amid Hontiveros’ criticism of Sara Duterte’s use of confidential funds.

The senator was not involved in the 2014 PhilHealth bonus mess. Rappler and other fact-checking bodies have repeatedly debunked the claim. Both PhilHealth and Hontiveros have denied the senator’s supposed involvement, according to a Vera Files article.

Face of the opposition

Hontiveros is the new face of the opposition, being the highest elected official from the bloc.

Adult, Female, Person
OPPOSITION FIGURE. Senator Risa Hontiveros asks questions during the Senate hearing on the cease and desist order issued by the DSWD to Gentle Hands Inc. orphanage on July 5, 2023. Angie de Silva/Rappler

After losing in the 2022 presidential elections, former vice president Leni Robredo has since distanced herself from politics, making herself busy running the nongovernment organization Angat Buhay. She has not shown any interest, so far, in returning to politics. Although Robredo’s name has been included in surveys for potential senatorial candidates in the 2025 midterm elections, she is at 15th to 29th place in surveys on voter preference.

Years away from the 2028 presidential election, certain sectors are already clamoring for Hontiveros to seek higher office. She is mum on her political plans.

Arugay said Hontiveros would be a viable candidate for the 2028 elections.

“Given the fact that she is holding the opposition banner right now makes her the go-to person if we’re talking about presidential aspirations,” Arugay said. However, he advised that she should stick to her work as legislator and continue to become a “catalyst for articulating and introducing issues that are very important but being ignored by the supermajority.”

Aguirre gave the same advice, saying Hontiveros should continue to present alternative perspectives and views.

“She has to remain consistent with her sober yet witty inputs in the public conversations on issues. She has to be assertive on issues and forwarding her own framing of the controversies at hand, not allowing herself to be caught off guard and forcing her to react to things according to the terms of the ruling coalition,” Aguirre said.

Political observers noted that when Robredo ran for president, she decided too late in the game and didn’t have enough time to present herself as a good option for the presidency. She was demonized on social media.

For Arugay, there’s also danger for Hontiveros if she would show interest this early in running for higher office. She too could be the subject of attacks. The question now is: if Hontiveros is seen as the opposition standard-bearer for 2028, when would the right time to signify her interest be – and what strategy should her team come up with? – Rappler.com

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  1. ET

    The last questions are very important: “If Hontiveros is seen as the opposition standard-bearer for 2028, when would be the right time to signify her interest – and what strategy should her team come up with?” Thanks to Mr. Bonz Magsambol for this inspiring article. I just hope Senator Hontiveros will not change like how Cong. Quimbo changed and she would remain one of the political hopes of the Opposition.

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Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler.