The patience of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s supporters is fast running out. And nowhere more so than with the sitting vice president, the woman they charge with continually defaming the president, subverting their democratically elected government and bringing shame on their country – Maria Leonor “Leni” Santo Tomas Robredo, chairman of the Liberal Party; the same Liberal Party which the Philippine electorate overwhelmingly rejected in the elections last May.
And so on Sunday, Duterte’s supporters staged a rally (photo) in Rizal Park in Manila and sent a strong message to her and the groups that hang around her like henchmen – in effect, desist from undermining the president or pay a very high political price.
The theme of the rally and its cry was “Palit Bise” (Replace the Vice President). For the thousands who turned up at Rizal Park’s Quirino Grandstand and millions more around the country, Robredo – the woman who likes to be referred to simply as “Leni” as if to give her the common touch; the woman who established herself as the figurehead of the global anti-Duterte movement; the same Robredo who revels and rejoices in her repeated vow to work as an opposition to the government while serving in it – must go.
As far as they’re concerned this is out of the president’s hands. And that’s an important distinction. While the last thing the supporters want is to compromise or embarrass Duterte, they’re stressing that it’s now a people’s matter – she can resign, Congress can impeach her, but either way she must go.
At this stage not even the president himself would be able to assuage them. They’ve watched as Duterte has tried to work with her, to mend bridges – only for her to get bolder in her public denouncements of him. They believe they’ve stood by long enough.
Last month, when Robredo posted an anti-Duterte video to a sideshow event at the annual meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna – a video in which she maligned the president and held the Philippines and its electorate up to ridicule – she well and truly overstepped the line. And for Duterte’s supporters it was the last straw.
The rally was the initiative of the Duterte Alliance Volunteers Artists Organization which raised PHP2.3 million in a matter of days to pay for the event. The money was crowd-funded, sourced via online voluntary contributions from individuals, electors and everyday supporters of the president. It didn’t come from corporations or wealthy political backers, the normal source of funds for such events. This was from the people and by the people – a politician-and-big-business-free event aimed at demonstrating real and unadulterated people power.
Those who took part and those who gave to the rally were letting the anti-Duterte universe know that Filipinos continue to fully back their president. Here was the voice of the citizens telling Duterte’s critics everywhere – from the chambers of the Philippine Congress to the corridors of power in the European Union to the meeting halls of the United Nations – that the Filipino people are not going to allow their will and the country’s sovereignty to be trampled under foot.
The rally’s message was clear; it’s the people who elect the government, not the likes of Fil-Am millionaire socialite, Loida Nicolas-Lewis, Robredo’s mentor and backer; not the moneyed corporations in an age-old quid-pro-quo arrangement by which financial support is parlayed for commercial leverage. The PHP2.3 million rally fund was amassed from 50,100 and 500 peso bills; it didn’t come in the form of company cheques or large corporate bank transfers. It was people’s money paying for a people’s voice – and, unlike funding for so many events of this kind, every single peso can be tracked and accounted for.
Diehard Duterte Supporters, a pro-Duterte group which mockingly shares the same acronym, DDS, with the Davao Death Squad, the alleged vigilante group which operated in Davao City when Duterte was its mayor and which his critics claim he inspired, was among the coalition that helped organise the rally and bring the people’s message to the streets.
In a column in the Philippine Star on Saturday, mega-blogger Mocha Uson – a staunch Duterte supporter – explained the need for the rally. This is how she put it. “there are some politicians who continue to destroy the image of our President and our country using lies and inaccurate information. They seem to be deaf to the cries of the people, their cry for change and their cry for a better tomorrow … we will show the world that the Filipino people support President Duterte and that we say no to politicians who seek to destroy the image of our country using lies and deception”.
She added: “The yellow politicians [a reference to the Liberal Party’s trademark yellow livery] and the foreign community should listen to the Filipino people”.
And that right there is what’s caused the frustration felt by Duterte supporters across the country and in every Filipino community abroad. The foreign media along with sections of the domestic press have ignored the Philippine electorate ever since Duterte was sworn into office.
Anti-Duterte rhetoric stoked by the likes of Robredo and fellow Liberal Party stalwart, Senator Leila De Lima – presently in police custody awaiting trial on drugs-profiteering charges – and fueled by political agendas in the European Parliament and the United Nations have ridden roughshod over the democratic will of the people. In effect, these elements – along with a Liberal media cabal used to stir up the hate – have sought to invalidate the votes of the 16,601,997 electors who brought Duterte to power.
The rally was also called then to redress the balance; in Mocha Uson’s words, “to show the world that Filipinos will protect their duly elected President and their hope for a better future for their nation. The rally will be our way of expressing the voice of the people, that we are supporting the President amidst all the attacks against him [and] of telling the yellow politicians that we have had enough of their lies, deception and their continuous attacks which are already affecting the image of our country as a whole”.
Certainly, anyone living outside the Philippines will have a very different view of the place to the one seen by the majority of its residents. The international mainstream media depict it as something approaching a failed state with rivers of blood flowing in the streets. Duterte they portray as a psychopath who has little or no regard for his people. The UN and the International Criminal Court constantly allude to “crimes against humanity”, “extrajudicial killings” with the implication that they’re state-sponsored; encouraged by Duterte. They offer no proof of course; they have none.
Similarly, the outsiders will have a very different appraisal of Robredo to that held by the local masses. To those solely informed by the Liberal media she’ll be regarded as a courageous crusader; an Aung San Suu Kyi; a woman of and for the people; a Boudica, battling bravely against a deranged despot.
The fact is, domestically Robredo is largely a figure of hate; an elite member of the political class; a highly ambitious opportunist who will use any means at her disposal to gain high office.
While Duterte pursues change to rebuild the nation, Robredo’s desperately trying to restore the status quo of the previous Liberal Party rule. The vice president, whose legitimacy is in question – she’s the subject of a filed case concerning election irregularities – is mistrusted with the same passion as Duterte is trusted by the majority of the electorate.
The European Union, the United Nations and their many agencies cannot overthrow the Government of the Philippines. That’s the first reality. Robredo and the Liberal Party would never be able to form a government if Duterte was removed from power under any circumstances. That’s the second reality. And Sunday’s rally and the massive support behind it is the reason for both.
Robredo is now damaged goods who will leave behind a dreary footnote in history. The Liberal Party, however, is sliding further and further away from ever being electable and could be writing its own epitaph on a stone in the political graveyard of the Philippines.