The significance of Leila de Lima

Are Filipinos ready for someone like Leila de Lima? The quick answer to that, I’m afraid, is we were not, but we should be, if we expect any meaningful progress in our society. Here is a bright woman who opted to be an election lawyer after graduating salutatorian in law school and placing eighth in the 1985 bar examination. In a 2016 interview with TIME magazine, De Lima said: “My father’s advice was to avoid joining politics if I could. He said that my personality wasn’t suited for it—that I might just get hurt, because I don’t know how to play games.” Her father, Vicente de Lima, had been executive director and later a commissioner of the Commission on Elections.

De Lima understood the modernist intentions of the country’s election laws, but realizing how hard it was to enforce these in the context of its premodern political realities, she championed the need for voter education. She made herself available to media interviews, and, before long, she became known for the message she articulated with clarity and urgency—that Filipinos must take their votes seriously and defend the sanctity of the ballot if politics is to be a force for good. In May 2008, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo appointed De Lima to head the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). “[This] was never part of my career path,” De Lima told TIME, “ … but I took it as a challenge.” That role brought her to Davao City, where there had been alarming reports of almost daily extrajudicial killings of suspected criminals and gang members under its long-time mayor Rodrigo Duterte. It was her first time to encounter the man who would later become her political nemesis.

Perhaps, it was at that point that De Lima realized that enforcing the law against the powerful could be far more dangerous than politics itself. Her doggedness in pursuing the CHR’s mandate and securing justice for victims of extrajudicial executions caught the attention of Benigno S. “P-Noy” Aquino III. When he became president in 2010, Aquino chose her to head the justice department.

Her six-year stint as the feisty and no-nonsense justice secretary earned De Lima many enemies, not least the politicians and influential groups that felt entitled to special treatment by virtue of their positions and connections. They saw her as arrogant and disrespectful. That she was a woman fighting the culture of abuse in a male-dominated society undoubtedly compounded this perception. She found herself being drawn to politics as the only way to institute meaningful reforms in society. In 2016, on the prodding of P-Noy, she reluctantly agreed to run for senator. She barely made it to the winning circle. The political climate in the country had drastically shifted in favor of those who promised quick-fix solutions to complex problems of governance. The public clamor was for strongmen who did not care for due process in their “war” against crime, corruption, terrorism, and oligarchical rule. The stage was set for a populist authoritarian figure who could embody the resentments and insecurities of a society impatient for change. If Rodrigo Duterte did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. The country had had populist politicians before him, but all ended up being socialized into the ethos of proper presidential demeanor. In contrast, throughout his term in office, Duterte maintained his brand of rough autocratic rule and kept his image as an outsider to the political establishment.

The damage that his presidency did to the country’s legal and political institutions is incalculable. It exposed the opportunism and servility of the political class. It showed the susceptibility of the legal system to manipulation and use as a weapon against the president’s political enemies. It uncovered the brittleness of the mass media and the business community in the face of presidential intimidation. It revealed the limits of the judiciary as a check to the abuse of presidential prerogative.

I hesitate to use the past tense in describing these forms of institutional damage. For we cannot be certain that the political climate that catapulted Duterte to the presidency in 2016 has passed. The Duterte brand lingers in the air and remains popular—if surveys are to be believed.

But, that said, De Lima’s recent release from prison after nearly seven years in detention, albeit on bail—when considered alongside her acquittal in two other related cases—signals the hopeful return of our courts to normal functioning. That she declined an earlier offer to place her on house or hospital arrest on humanitarian grounds testifies to her innocence and unflinching faith in the rule of law. A lesser mortal would have been crushed by the ordeal she went through. In solitary confinement, with the cases filed against her virtually frozen for four years, she could have been forgiven if she had meekly begged Duterte to release her. That thought never crossed her mind. I hope that we can still appreciate the significance of this rare form of personal strength amid the widespread inclination to celebrate strongmen and applaud the naked use of power.