Leni and the struggle for a revitalized democracy

While the May 2022 presidential election has been portrayed by pundits as a choice between strongman rule and liberal democratic governance, there is another way of looking at it that, unfortunately, may be more attuned to current Filipino political narratives. This is the view that sees this year’s presidential contest as largely a reprise of the old rivalry between two political families—the Marcoses and the Aquinos.

What lends plausibility to this depiction is, of course, primarily the fact that Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the only son, and namesake of the former dictator, is vying for the position that his father occupied for almost 21 years until his ignominious ouster in 1986. It is thus easy to frame his candidacy as a bid to redeem the family’s honor. Moreover, he’s running with Sara Duterte, the daughter, and anointed successor of outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, who himself has repeatedly professed admiration for the late dictator.

Two Aquinos, as we know, became president after the downfall of Marcos. Although Cory, the widow of the assassinated Ninoy Aquino, and Noynoy, their son, are now both dead, the political worldview they represent remains very much alive. No member of the Aquino clan is vying for the nation’s top offices in this year’s election. But one presidential candidate—Leni Robredo—has stood out as the charismatic personification of the Edsa people power legacy that the Aquinos championed.

Whether she likes it or not, Leni is perceived today as the most important steward of the emancipatory spirit that, in 1986, freed the country from the grip of authoritarianism. Narrowly defeating Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the vice-presidential race in 2016, she went on to serve as the principal check to the neo-Marcosian autocracy of President Duterte.

In a world that is drastically being reshaped by what The New Yorker magazine calls an “autocratic tsunami,” Leni uncannily finds herself in almost the same position that Cory Aquino occupied when she stood up to challenge Ferdinand Marcos Sr. in the snap presidential election of 1986. “Almost”—because there is a big difference between then and now.

The 1980s saw the start of the successive waves of democratization that overturned longstanding dictatorships all over the world. Filipinos stood proudly on the crest of one of the early waves when they installed Cory Aquino to the presidency.

Today, we are seeing the reversal of that phenomenal tide. Authoritarian figures all over the world are successfully tapping into a reservoir of popular resentment against a global economic order that has not only sharpened social inequalities but has also excluded large segments of the poor from meaningful participation in society.

Waving the banner of a reactive nationalism that promises to improve people’s lives amid the instabilities of a fractured world, today’s autocrats bask in the remembrance of a golden era when the world was simpler, and governments had greater control over their citizens. This is the kind of myth-making that Leni Robredo is up against.

The world has become more complex. Its myriad problems beg to be differentiated and functionally sorted out, rather than lumped together and consigned to the supposed wisdom of willful rulers.

This situation demands not the pacification of an angry public, but the participation of civil society. It prompts the activation of an engaged citizenry that is equipped to work alongside government on a range of contemporary concerns. These problems include climate change, social exclusion, immigration, cultural intolerance, pandemic diseases, and—not the least, the death of truth in an information-saturated world.

The solution to these complex problems lies not in more autocratic decision-making but in broader participation, greater accountability, solidarity, and compassion. For want of a better term, I would call this the struggle for a revitalized democracy. I believe it is Leni Robredo’s unique role to be the torchbearer of this ideal—in a time of overwhelming despair and cynicism.

Undoubtedly, hers is an uphill struggle, and not just because of what the pre-election surveys show. She also has to reject the dominant telenovela narrative that casts her in the role of a mere proxy in what is supposed to be a never-ending Marcos-Aquino clan war. She is not. But more to the point, our nation’s future is far too important to reduce it to the shifting fortunes of warring political families.

That said, Leni Robredo needs to be careful not to throw away with the bathwater the authentic spirit of democracy that animated the movement Cory Aquino heroically led to end the Marcos tyranny. It is that same familiar spirit that, as we have seen in the last few weeks, has provided her presidential campaign a boost of fresh energy. Spontaneous, freely given, and creative—that kind of support, admittedly middle-class driven, is rarely seen in our elections.

Traditional politicians are wary of the unlimited potential of social movements to shape electoral outcomes as well as of their capacity to take new forms and persist beyond elections. But it is autocrats who fear them most—because they almost always carry within them the seeds of regime change.

As I see it, therefore, the rise of Duterte to the presidency in 2016, and the reappearance of another Marcos at the door of Malacañang, far from confirming the global retreat of democracy, may well be the warnings we need to rouse us from our complacency.