Government News Analysis

Robredo’s political panto role

Right on cue. As we said yesterday – Duterte cleans house – following being banned from meetings of the Cabinet and stepping down as housing chief, Philippine VP, Leni Robredo, will “expand her role as an anti-government vice president – sniping negatively from the sidelines, protesting anything and everything that seeks to polarise the country…” And she hasn’t wasted any time. Obliquely referring to President Rodrigo Duterte as a dictator-in-waiting, she’s now visibly building a platform of opposition from within the government she pledged to serve.

There may be an element of ‘a woman scorned’ in this, but it’s far more than that. This is Robredo making her pitch for the hearts and minds of the Filipino people. “I must be free to speak my mind to protect you, your dreams, and your future,” she tells the nation.

Her aim would seem to be the overthrow of Duterte which, if successful, would give her and the Liberal Party (LP) she represents, the presidency. From there she would be able to replace Duterte-appointed department heads with LP personnel and create an LP Cabinet around her.

This would then turn May’s popular vote – in which Duterte won power by a landslide – on its ear. The country would suddenly find that the Liberal Party administration, which it had overwhelmingly voted out of office, was back holding the reins of government. If this is the case it would amount to rebellion; the overthrow of a democratically elected leadership – a mutiny not just against the government which has the authority to govern, but against the Filipino people who gave it that authority.

A palace coup would be highly inadvisable, for if that ever happened the social impact could be devastating. Duterte, with a 90%-plus approval rating, is more than a president to his supporters; he’s their saviour. There’s no doubt about that. And don’t let’s forget just how unpopular the Liberal Party is within the country – that’s among the masses, archipelago-wide; not within the elitist pockets of LP diehards.

The likelihood is that even if Robredo legitimately found herself as president, she would be unacceptable to the vast majority of Filipinos – not least because of her repeated attempts to publically embarrass Duterte and to thwart his policies. In fact, she and fellow Lib antagonist, Senator Leila De Lima, are starting to look a lot like the Ugly Sisters in a Christmas pantomime.

The reality is that the Philippine silent majority has become a very vocal majority, and if its saviour is taken away and put on trial a world wind will surge through this country and make it practically ungovernable. Robredo and the LP would be seen as usurpers of power and they would be rendered impotent by a People Power Revolution that would make the last one – when some 2 million citizens mobilised at Epifanio de los Santos Avenue in Manila to eject Ferdinand Marcos from Malacañang – look like a scouts gathering in a suburban park.

Significantly, though, it is the spectre of Marcos that Robredo’s attempting to invoke when she says “… we will strongly remain vigilant and cautious to prevent another return of any form of dictatorship”. What she’s hoping to tap into is the wave of anti-Marcos sentiment that surrounds the burial of the former Philippine strongman in the Cemetery of Heroes in Manila last month.

However, a popular uprising with the people behind you is one thing; an unpopular uprising with the people against you is quite another. Furthermore, regime change of this order could only be upheld by the military and the chances of the Armed Forces of the Philippines riding to the rescue of a President-reject Robredo are about as likely as the Yazidi militia coming to the aid of the Islamic State.

Ironically – or perhaps audaciously – Robredo is claiming that her exclusion from Cabinet meetings is part of a wider plot to remove her from the vice presidency. Yesterday she told the local press that she had received warnings of such a plot. No details, of course; just float the balloon and hope for some political fallout. Rumour, hearsay, coffee-shop gossip and conspiracy theories, sadly, are all part of the worn fabric of Philippine politics. They are used routinely to obfuscate fact and manipulate opinion and are rarely worth the breath they’re whispered with.

It’s not entirely clear why Robredo was told, at Duterte’s insistence, to “desist from attending all Cabinet meetings,” apart from it’s well known that she’d been a negative force in them ever since she was given a Cabinet seat. Her vocal opposition to the president’s war on drugs and criminals, and her opposition to moves within the government to reinstate the death penalty are hardly a secret; nor are her couched attempts at linking Duterte, in some shape or form, to extrajudicial killings associated with his anti-narcotics campaign.

But there could have been something more sinister at play here. There are unconfirmed reports that Robredo had leaked confidential Cabinet information to certain individuals within the Liberal Party. If this is true, then of course the president wouldn’t have any option but to bar her attendance.

These meetings deal with a host of sensitive issues, including those related to national security. Furthermore, Cabinet members are vowed not to disclose Cabinet business. Apart from the obvious risks concerning the nation’s welfare, disclosing economic plans or initiatives, for example, could provide useful knowledge for insider trading. We certainly know that’s happened in the past.

Meanwhile, replacing Robredo as head of the Housing and Urban Development Coordination Council (HUDCC) is Cabinet Secretary, Leoncio Evasco – a man with a colourful past but with a reputation for getting things done. An ordained priest who joined the outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines and its military wing, the New People’s Army, in the early ‘70s, he was arrested in 1983 – two years after Marcos lifted Martial Law – and jailed for the remainder of Marcos’s rule which ended in 1986. And the man who prosecuted him for rebellion was none other than his now-close political ally, Rodrigo Duterte.

We haven’t noticed any statement from Robredo yet congratulating her successor on his appointment or wishing him well in tackling the not-inconsiderable task of dealing with the chaotic state of the HUDCC – and we won’t be holding our breath until she does. As we shall see, supporting this government and its officials will not form part of the duties of Her Excellency, the 14th Vice President of the Philippines. Her priorities are to restore power to the Liberal Party of which she is the chairwoman.