Government News Analysis

Leila Jekyll and Leila Hyde

When it was going well, she was a tough, in-yer-face, take-no-prisoners, no-quarter-given, boss of the Philippine Justice Department. This was the woman who had former president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, arrested, locked-up in a hospital room and barred from leaving the country. She gloried in it, bathing in the limelight. No shrinking violet; no member of any supposed ‘weaker sex’ then. But when things are not going well, suddenly she’s a victim of misogyny and sexism – her sin was that she had succumbed to the “frailties of a woman”. Now she’s “resolved to use my pain to focus on the good I can do”.

And the winner of the 2016 Oscar for The Best Actress in Conflicting Roles is …Senator Leila De Lima – Liberal Party poster girl of the last administration, karaoke star of New Bilibid Prison, slayer of presidents. Fearless. And Little Leila – vulnerable, wracked by human weakness and torment, the prey of bullies. Frightened.

But while her ‘tough-guy’ roles (we us that phrase in the politically correct sense) might have endeared her to the women’s cause – a model even for female aspirations – her role as the embodiment of feminine fragility automatically had the reverse effect.

Responding to De Lima’s on-the-air admission that her married driver had been her lover – adultery is a criminal offence in the Philippines – and mitigating it by attributing it to “the frailties of a woman,” the Gabriela Women’s Party put out the following statement. “[That] should not be used – especially by one who holds a position of power like Senator Leila de Lima – as an excuse from criminal accountability or to paint herself as a victim”.

And Gabriela had to release that statement, otherwise it too would be held in the same contempt as De Lima is being in ever-widening circles. Its struggle to bring women’s issues to the fore in the Philippines has been long and difficult. Its genesis was the 10,000-women march on Manila in 1984 in defiance of then president Ferdinand Marcos’s ban on public demonstrations. And for the past three decades, Gabriela has been championing a raft of women’s causes from alleviating poverty and legalising artificial birth control to urging greater action to deal with rape, domestic violence and sex trafficking.

Gabriela knows what victimised women look like; it sees them every day – and it’s not ready to let someone of De Lima’s profile go on the national stage and make a caricature of them by playing the gender card for her own selfish motives.

Furthermore, if left unchallenged, De Lima’s self-serving, sympathy-seeking, would hold Gabriela’s purpose up to ridicule and could set back its cause. It certainly doesn’t need its critics to be handed further ammunition.

Gabriela’s statement, however, is a problem for De Lima. She won’t be able to trot-out her cover-all defence that it’s just part of an orchestrated political persecution against her. First, Gabriela is not some Duterte fan club – far from it; it took issue with the president over his well-publicised rape remark back in April when he was still a presidential candidate, and suffered incoming at its website from Duterte supporters, compromising its operation. Secondly, it worked closely with former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino when he was De Lima’s boss, so her Liberal Party ties are irrelevant. From all angles, this is not political.

De Lima’s may get some perverse enjoyment from her constant Jekyll-and-Hyde switching, but the fact is her situation is becoming increasingly dire. Her admission of adultery – on TV no less – will add considerable weight to the calls for her disbarment for unethical and criminal conduct, and to be expelled from the Senate on grounds of “immorality and grave misconduct”.

Her future as a member of the legal profession looks grim. Justice Secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre, put it plainly. “That immorality complaint no longer needs to be proven with this admission by Senator De Lima. As a bar topnotcher, high public official and distinguished lawyer, De Lima hardly comes across as exemplary, especially in the eyes of aspiring lawyers. The high standard of the Supreme Court should apply, and she won’t pass”.

Her future in the Congress looks equally bleak. Increasingly politically isolated, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel, Salvador Panelo, urged her to vacate her seat in the Senate. “She has herself to blame for the present destructive predicament she is in. To save the Senate further embarrassment she must voluntarily resign”.

And all that’s against the backdrop of a mounting case being built against her for allegedly benefitting from the illegal drugs trade operating out of New Bilibid Prison, the country’s largest penitentiary, when she was head of the Justice Department – charges which also involve her former lover who is now in hiding.

Perhaps she should consider Panelo’s advice, though we doubt she will. Her determination to go after President Rodrigo Duterte for his alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings – though after years of investigation has still to provide any proof – is like a moth being drawn to a flame. And we all know how that ends – all of us apart from Leila Hyde that is. “I am even more determined in pursuing this goal despite the danger to my life and reputation,” she said following her TV confession.

Make that two Oscars.

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