Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo has declared she will run for president in May 2022, embarking on an uphill political battle in a crowded field to succeed populist incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte, as she hopes to replicate her come-from-behind 2016 victory in an election reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m officially offering myself as candidate for president in the 2022 elections. I will take on the fight. We will fight together,” Robredo said on Thursday as she announced her campaign for the presidency in a speech delivered in Tagalog.
“The challenge we face is clear to everyone. We’ve seen the lies and the abuse. They have the money and the machinery.”
Robredo’s candidacy takes on a new urgency following the entry into the presidential race of Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son and namesake of the Philippine strongman, who was removed following a popular revolt in 1986. In the 2016 vice presidential race, Robredo defeated Marcos by a razor-thin margin.
Robredo, 56, has been Duterte’s vice president since they were both sworn into office in 2016. But she has locked horns with Duterte on several issues and has labelled his so-called deadly war on drugs a “failure”, angering him.
Presidents and vice presidents are elected separately in the Philippines, frequently resulting in candidates from rival parties, like Duterte and Robredo, working together in office but often clashing sharply on policies.
On Thursday, Rodbredo sought to make the contrast with Duterte even more stark, declaring, “we will defeat the old and rotten type of politics. We will hand back to ordinary Filipinos the power to make change.”
She is expected to file her certificate of candidacy on Thursday afternoon.
Last week, she was endorsed by a newly formed coalition of political and civic groups to take on the ruling party machinery, which is beginning to crack due to infighting between Duterte’s loyalists and those supporting the candidacy of Senator Manny Pacquiao, the boxing legend who is also seeking the presidency.
In endorsing Robredo, the coalition said that she has the “integrity, competence and track record” to lead the country, which is facing a historic economic slump as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed at least 38,000 people in the Philippines.
When the endorsement was announced last Thursday, the vice president had pleaded to be given more time to think through her decision. In recent months and weeks, she has been trying to convince divergent political groups and personalities to rally behind one opposition candidate. But she has been spurned by her would-be rivals.
Jason Gonzales, a former mayor and incumbent provincial legislator from the central Philippines is among those backing Robredo. He told Al Jazeera that Robredo is the only candidate who has consistently held on to her principles, despite the political dominance of Duterte and his allies during the last few years.
Gonzales adds that Robredo’s grasp of what a leader should be “is both broad and deep”, having served as vice president since 2016.
“If we are talking about the qualities needed in order to govern, I think she has it in spades,” Gonzales said.
Aside from Robredo and Pacquiao, those who have declared their candidacy include former Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno and former police chief and incumbent Senator Panfilo Lacson.
Except for Robredo, all the other declared presidential candidates have past affiliations with Duterte, leaving her as the nominal opposition candidate.
Her supporters have argued that she is the “real opposition” in the upcoming race. But in a country, where politics is driven more by personality and political connections and less about policy and ideology, staking a claim to represent the opposition could be tricky.
According to several news reports, Robredo’s pick as vice presidential running-mate is veteran Senator Francisco Pangilinan.
Looming large in the race is Duterte himself, who until last weekend was expected to run as vice president. Instead, he has said that he is retiring from politics.
That could pave the way for the late entry into the race of his daughter, Davao Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio. She has been leading in surveys in a hypothetical presidential election, although her numbers have declined in the latest survey published in September.
The deadline for the filing of candidacy is on Friday, October 8.
But declared candidates can still withdraw, and be substituted by another candidate until November 15.
Duterte-Carpio remains coy about whether she will actually run.
On Saturday, she filed her papers to run for re-election as mayor of Davao, the Dutertes’ political stronghold. At the same time, in recent weeks, her supporters have been putting up oversized banners with her image all over the country despite election prohibitions.
Amid the suspense, Robredo has significantly stepped up her critique of the Duterte administration’s “lack of focus and leadership” in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is emerging as a key issue among the country’s more than 64 million registered voters.
She also called “unforgivable” the alleged misuse of millions of dollars worth of public funds to buy medical equipment.
“How do these people even manage to sleep at night? There are so many Filipinos who are suffering. Yet all they can think about is extortion,” she asked in a radio interview, referring to the accused personalities, who are linked to the president.
Long road ahead
But Robredo’s path to the presidency might not be an easy one.
The latest survey conducted by Pulse Asia polling, which showed Duterte-Carpio leading, saw Robredo trailing behind five potential presidential candidates. Compared with the July polling results, however, she has doubled her support in Metro Manila and the central Visayas region.
In 2016, when the still-unknown Robredo was picked as the vice-presidential running-mate of the previous administration’s standard-bearer, she was also polling in single digits and was far behind several other contenders.
My last column for the Inquirer. In the make-or-break elections of 2022, VP Leni Robredo is the only national leader left standing who credibly represents both the real opposition AND a greater constituency: those who want the government to work, and to… https://t.co/QM225BSO89
— John Nery (@jnery_newsstand) October 4, 2021
But Robredo eventually defeated a popular and well-financed senator, Marcos Jr.
“Leni was the new kid in the block. There was a lot of curiosity about her. People who met her for the first time wanted to vote for her. Of course, she also worked hard. To her credit, she hit the ground running,” Fe Zamora, a veteran journalist who covers politics and the military, told Al Jazeera.
The difference this time is that she is running as the candidate of the opposition who was roundly thrashed in the 2019 mid-term elections That year, all 12 opposition senatorial candidates were defeated by allies of Duterte. She is also the incumbent vice president and has been in the public eye for more than five years.
Her hostility to many of Duterte’s policies made Robredo a target of relentless political and personal attacks on social media by allies of the president, which dented her popularity.
The legitimacy of her win was also questioned by Marcos, who lost by a slim margin of more than 260,000 votes. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which dismissed Marcos’s complaint, but the drawn-out legal fight left Robredo politically bruised.
“Marcos and the [Duterte] camps have been demonising her since 2016 precisely to prevent an expanded Robredo political base,” Zamora said.
But Anna Blanco, a certified public accountant and a leader of a group of professionals supporting Robredo, says that the vice president’s track record could help her overcome her polling deficit once the campaigning starts.
“From what we’ve seen, how she has comported herself, and what she has done for the last five years, she has the competence and character to be the rightful next president,” Blanco, who is originally from Mindanao, told Al Jazeera.
‘She has grown in office’
A relatively novice politician, Lobredo first ran for public office after the 2012 death of her husband, who had been the country’s interior minister.
Robredo had only served one term as a member of the House of Representatives and was considered as an unknown before she was tapped for the vice presidential race in 2016. Her party’s candidate for the top job lost out to Duterte.
As vice president, Robredo was briefly the head of the government’s housing and development agency, but she was forced to resign after Duterte’s cabinet excluded her from meetings.
In 2019, she also served in a government anti-drugs council, after Duterte asked her to help following her repeated criticisms of his bloody crackdown. After just 18 days he fired her.
Duterte’s deadly war on drugs is now the subject of an investigation by the International Criminal Court. When Marcos Jr declared his candidacy for president on Tuesday, he vowed to continue Duterte’s war on drugs and promised to shield the president from possible ICC prosecution.
Robredo had said the crackdown on drugs violated the human rights of many poor suspects while failing to go after the big-time suppliers.
Because of her criticisms, allies of Duterte in Congress reduced her office’s budget, leaving her with limited financial resources to operate.
But that has not stopped her from raising money for her programmes, said Jess Lorenzo, the convener of a movement backing Robredo’s candidacy.
Lorenzo says that last year the vice president’s office raised as much as $2m to help families affected by the pandemic.
“This tells me that she is a leader that has the trust of the people. This is a leader that will channel this trust endowed to her towards the crisis at hand,” he told Al Jazeera.