Leni’s gambit

Like many analysts who have criticized the Duterte-led drug war for its murderous brutality and antipoor bias, I have been at pains to understand how Vice President Leni Robredo managed to persuade herself to accept President Duterte’s dare for her to lead the administration’s war on drugs.

As I wrote in my column last week, “No self-respecting vice president can conceivably take this as a serious offer.” The supposed offer was made in a moment of pique, in reaction to the VP’s criticism of the conduct of the drug war during an interview with a foreign news agency. It was clearly meant to mock her abilities.

But Mr. Duterte’s impulsive utterance took on a life of its own. His penchant for excessive language gave it the form of an offer and carried it forward. “Sabihin mo sa kaniya tanggapin niya. Sisikat siya diyan. Hindi ko nakayanan, baka kaya niya (Tell her to accept it; she’ll be famous. I couldn’t do it; maybe she can).”

And he went on, as if propelled by the force of a thought he could not suppress: “Pagka tinanggap ni Leni… If anything that has to do with drugs and criminality, you ask her. Siya ang ilagay ko. Tingnan natin. Hindi na ako makialam (If she accepts… Anything that has to do with drugs and criminality, you ask her. I will put her there. Let’s see; I won’t interfere anymore).”

That’s the President speaking. Here he appears to be confessing his inadequacy for the task at hand. “Hindi ko nakayanan, baka kaya niya.” Stripped of its context, this statement does sound like a tired leader’s acceptance of his limits, and a plea for help. President Duterte pledges to cede full control of the conduct of the drug war to VP Robredo if she accepts the job.

Anyone might be forgiven for treating this supposed offer as a vile joke.

But that is not where it ended. Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo later spelled out the President’s message as an explicit offer of an appointment to the Vice President as the “antidrug czar.” I suspect this is what made VP Robredo and her staff pause to take a second look at the game into which she was being drawn. They saw that she was being led toward a trip-wire, yet she could not afford to be seen as merely ignoring it. She needed to come up with a culturally acceptable response.

At the very minimum, I think she was concerned not to be seen by the public as someone who was unwilling or afraid or unprepared to accept a mandate to help solve the nation’s problems. While it may be clear to some that the President was merely being sarcastic when he dared her to take over the antidrug campaign, that is not necessarily how the public might see it. If she ignores this offer, or turns it down because the parameters of the job are not clearly specified, it would make her vulnerable to the charge that her criticisms are empty and that she should just shut up and go back to being a spare tire.

I doubt very much that Mr. Duterte or anyone in his close circle of advisers expected Robredo to respond in the way she did. She not only accepted the appointment; she also did not ask for a clear definition of the job prior to accepting it. Nor did she demand any assurance that the position of cochair of the interagency antidrugs committee to which she was named would not be merely that of a spectator.

This requires a complex and difficult balancing act. VP Leni knew that she must take care not to be seen as hungry for power, but, rather, as a loyal public servant, just waiting for a chance to do something good — even at the risk of being ridiculed, or, worse, used to shield the Duterte regime’s bloody record from international scrutiny. The attitude she takes is admirable for its courage. Setting aside her pride, she does not mind being called naïve or thirsty for public attention. Her choice of language — the stress on “pasanin” (bearing the burden) and “tiisin” (being prepared to suffer the consequences) — is cut from the cultural fabric of the Filipino mother’s readiness to sacrifice.

VP Leni’s graceful acceptance of the dare is a well-played gambit. She has sought to define the scope of her job by simply stating that her primary motive in accepting the job is to stop the killings and to make answerable those who violate the law in the course of waging this so-called war on drugs. She wants to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the country, and to help fellow Filipinos who have fallen into addiction free themselves from the scourge of illegal drugs.

At once, these statements fundamentally contradict the basic thrust of what has been Mr. Duterte’s centerpiece program. While I do not think that all of this sprang from a well-conceived plan to entrap or shame VP Leni, I nevertheless do not believe that the principal architects of this campaign are ready to concede that their approach has been a failure. On the contrary, judging from their press statements, their wish is for VP Leni to see for herself the “realities” on the ground and to understand why the killings have been necessary.

This is akin to an elaborate chess game played in full view of the public. I don’t know what it will take to win it because, unlike in real chess, a lot depends on what the public thinks. It may not bring the country any closer to ending the drug problem, but VP Leni’s presence in the campaign, no matter how ambiguous her role is at this point, may compel the authorities to be more transparent than they have been. That will surely open a can of worms. If she does not quit out of frustration, they will find ways to force her out. Worse comes to worst, Mr. Duterte can simply say, “You’re fired.”