Leni Robredo and the burdens of the Filipino liberal

Lisandro E. Claudio

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Whether she likes it or not, Vice President Robredo is the country’s most prominent liberal democrat at a time when liberalism is going out of fashion

Sometime last year, I made a commitment to being non-partisan in the then upcoming elections. I wanted to play the role of the detached expert, commenting on electoral processes with minimal bias. The decision proved quixotic, however, when I began to learn about the campaign of Leni Robredo. For how can one be non-partisan if one is inspired? 

Leni’s appeal was both instinctual and intellectual. My gut liked the idea of a humble, relatively unknown woman taking on the namesake of a brutal dictator. My mind – that of an unapologetic Filipino liberal – was transfixed by someone who wished to restore faith in liberal government by making it more responsive to the margins, the laylayan

The liberal is always in a precarious position, because she occupies an ever-evolving ideological center. At times when people propose extreme solutions  (“Kill the drug dealer!”) and make extreme assessments (“Democracy has failed us! Disiplina ang kailangan!”), the liberal calls for moderation and humility. Unfortunately for liberals like myself, this moderation is going out of fashion. 

The recent election not only represents a repudiation of the Liberal Party; it also points to a growing impatience with liberalism as a whole. Imagine the burden this places on a liberal vice president. 

My favorite Filipino intellectual, Salvador “SP” Lopez, defined liberalism as a bias against the absolute. He also saw it as a belief in peaceful change that led to a “more just, more abundant, more humane system of political, economic and social relations among its members.” Implicit in this thinking is a belief in gradualism: change is coming, but it will come in fits and spurts. This gradualism was dear to SP, because it was rooted in a long Filipino liberal tradition that extends from Jose Rizal, to T.H. Pardo de Tavera, to Camilo Osias, to Ka Pepe Diokno. 

Despite the long tradition of Philippine liberalism, however, it undergoes periodic crisis. Its last major crisis was in 1972, when Marcos declared martial law. Without vigilance, it may go intro crisis once more. When everything is slow – especially traffic – liberalism’s gradualism becomes unappealing. Liberalism is also unappealing when you are poor: if a liberal government cannot feed people or send them to a hospital, what use are all these liberal “freedoms?” Makakain ko ba yang freedom of speech or yang human rights? 

Mocha Unson is a charlatan. But her voice represents a not insignificant portion of Filipinos who believe that freedom is overrated and that the country needs authoritarian discipline. It is this thinking that propelled (or “catapulated” in the idiom of our president) the electoral phenomenon known as DuBong or AlDub (Alyansang Duterte Marcos). We do not know yet how illiberal Duterte (or BBM for that matter) can be, but many of their supporters want them to disregard basic freedoms and rights. Just a few weeks ago, for example, DuBong followers shared a ridiculous meme calling for the abolition of the Commission on Human Rights. 

We are in a period of extremes. In such periods, distinctions such as Left and Right barely matter. What matters is the promise of absolute renewal. In such periods, moreover, believers in violent solutions gravitate more closely to each other. Recall last week’s presidential inauguration, when you had a killer president, being cheered on by Cabinet members sympathetic to the violent NPA, and the son of a man who enabled the “salvaging” of over 3,000 people. What unites them is not just a common disdain for the Liberal Party, but a mistrust of liberal democracy as a whole.  

Nation’s conscience

Whether she likes it or not, Vice President Robredo is the country’s most prominent liberal democrat at a time when liberalism is going out of fashion, not just here but also globally. In this respect she takes on a role similar from the one Cory Aquino used to play, and one that PNoy will now play as well. 

Leni’s burden is a burden of serving as a nation’s conscience. This burden will be carried with little logistical support: a relatively poor Office of the Vice President with no Cabinet powers. But for what she lacks in finances and power, she can make up with the humility of her message and the generosity it inspires. And it is this generosity, which we will need in the years to come. For it is precisely a lack of generosity that informs a desire to kill our neighbors simply because they are poor victims of drug abuse. 

Beyond renewing Filipino fellow feeling, however, the Vice President must renew the country’s faith in liberal institutions and their belief in bottom-up, gradual, and peaceful change. She has an instinctive knowledge of how to do this: listening to the laylayan. When government can heal the sick, educate children, and ensure livelihoods, people believe in it. In Europe, this kind of government is called social democracy. To me, it is simple justice.

I do not wish to romanticize the Vice President. Nor do I intend to incessantly fawn over her message. Indeed, I await her policy positions to unfold more concretely as she tours the country listening to her various constituencies. But as a liberal and social democrat, I see her as a legatee of the political traditions I hold dear. I look to her and the movement around her to protect these traditions. I pray my faith is not misguided. – Rappler.com


Lisandro Claudio is assistant professor of Development Studies and Southeast Asian Studies, Ateneo de Manila University. He is also an affiliated assistant professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University. Tweet him @leloyclaudio.

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