Leni and the fight for a revitalized democracy

While the May 2022 presidential election has been described by pundits as a choice between strongman rule and liberal democratic governance, there is another way of looking at things that, unfortunately, may be more in tune. with current Filipino political narratives. It’s the view that sees this year’s presidential contest as largely a replay of the old rivalry between two political families, the Marcoses and the Aquinos.

What lends plausibility to this portrayal is, of course, primarily the fact that Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the only son and namesake of the former dictator, is vying for the position his father held for nearly 21 years until to his ignominious ousting in 1986. It is therefore easy to present his candidacy as an attempt to redeem the honor of the family. Additionally, he runs with Sara Duterte, the daughter and anointed successor of incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte, who himself has repeatedly professed his admiration for the late dictator.

Two Aquinos, as we know, became president after the fall of Marcos. Although Cory, the widow of slain Ninoy Aquino, and Noynoy, their son, are both dead, the political worldview they represent remains very much alive. No member of the Aquino clan is vying for the country’s highest office in this year’s elections. But one presidential candidate – Leni Robredo – stood out as the charismatic personification of the Edsa people’s power legacy that the Aquinos championed.

Whether she likes it or not, Leni is seen today as the most important repository of the emancipatory spirit that, in 1986, freed the country from the grip of authoritarianism. Narrowly beating Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the 2016 vice-presidential race, she went on to serve as the chief check on President Duterte’s Neo-Marcosian autocracy.

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

The 1980s saw the beginning of successive waves of democratization that overthrew long-standing dictatorships around the world. Filipinos stood proudly on the crest of one of the early waves when they installed Cory Aquino as president.

Today, we are witnessing the reversal of this phenomenal tide. Around the world, authoritarian figures are successfully tapping into a reservoir of popular resentment against a global economic order that has not only deepened social inequality, 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 memory of a golden age when the world was simpler and where governments had greater control over their citizens. This is the kind of myth-making that Leni Robredo faces.

The world has become more complex. Its myriad problems beg to be differentiated and solved functionally, rather than lumped together and left to the supposed wisdom of willing leaders.

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

The solution to these complex problems does not lie in more autocratic decision-making, but in broader participation, greater responsibility, solidarity and compassion. For lack of a better term, I would call it the fight 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 desperation and cynicism.

Without a doubt, his is a tough fight, and not just because of what the pre-election polls show. She must also reject the telenovela’s dominant narrative that places her in the role of a mere proxy in what is supposed to be an endless war between the Marcos-Aquino clans. She is not. But more specifically, the future of our nation is far too important to reduce to the changing fortunes of warring political families.

That said, Leni Robredo must be careful not to throw away with the bathwater the genuine spirit of democracy that animated the movement Cory Aquino heroically led to end the tyranny of Marcos. It’s that same familiar spirit that, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, has given his presidential campaign a boost. Spontaneous, freely given and creative, this type of support, admittedly middle-class led, is rarely seen in our elections.

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

In my view, therefore, the ascension of Duterte to the presidency in 2016, and the reappearance of another Marcos at the door of Malacañang, far from confirming the global backsliding of democracy, may well be the warnings we need to get us out of our complacency.

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