MANILA >> Leni Robredo was a college student three decades ago when she rose with multitudes of Filipinos in a largely peaceful revolt that ousted Ferdinand Marcos as the world watched in awe.
Now a neophyte 52-year-old politician, Robredo defeated Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son and namesake of the late dictator, in a cliffhanger race for vice president last month. Congress proclaimed her vice president-elect Monday, along with President-elect Rodrigo Duterte at the House of Representatives.
Pro-democracy activists had feared a Marcos win could have threatened to reverse the legacy of the 1986 “people power” revolt, part of the anti-dictatorship resistance that Robredo says sparked her “political awakening.”
Robredo was a university student in 1983 when she joined thousands of mourners in a long line at a Catholic church to view the bloodied remains of anti-Marcos politician Benigno Aquino Jr., who had been assassinated by his military escorts at the Manila international airport. The brazen killing of Aquino, father of outgoing President Benigno Aquino III, sparked angry protests that climaxed in the uprising.
“I joined so many rallies which eventually led to EDSA,” she said during the campaign, referring to the main metropolitan Manila highway where more than a million Filipinos massed in 1986 to topple the dictator.
Robredo’s political rise has been compared to that of Corazon Aquino, the widow of Benigno Aquino Jr. who catapulted to power after helping lead the revolt. Both became politicians only after the deaths of their husbands, and both were associated with the color yellow, connected to both the revolution and the ruling Liberal Party.
“For the second time, a widow in yellow has defeated a Marcos,” said Julio Teehankee, a political analyst with the De La Salle University in Manila.
Robredo’s late husband, Jesse Robredo, was interior secretary when he died in a plane crash in 2012.
He was popular for the reformist and clean image he had built in a country long exasperated with political patronage and corruption — social ills he had fought as a longtime mayor of Naga city, an agricultural and religious center about 160 miles southeast of Manila. He won a Ramon Magsaysay award — regarded as Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize — in 2000 for good governance.
Leni Robredo, the eldest child of a trial court judge in Naga, was a soft-spoken lawyer before her husband’s death. She worked for the Public Attorney’s Office, which defends the poor, and later joined a nongovernmental organization of lawyers who journeyed far to hinterland villages and island communities to provide legal services to impoverished rural people, teach them their rights and help them get access to services and opportunities they wouldn’t normally be aware of.
Once, she said she and other lawyers were forced to sleep on small fishing boats overnight during an outreach in a coastal village in the middle of nowhere. In another rural trip, she needed to turn back after a companion noticed that Robredo had begun to show signs she was about to give birth.
A year after her husband’s death, Robredo was persuaded to run for a seat in the House of Representatives and won overwhelmingly, defeating a member of a long-entrenched political dynasty in her home province of Camarines Sur.
In Congress, she introduced legislation to foster transparency and accountability among government officials, public involvement in budget deliberations, social equality and an end to all forms of discrimination.
Yet like her husband, she is also known for simple day-to-day acts that shunned the trappings of power and resonated among ordinary folk.
Like the poor villagers he served, her husband often wore sandals and as mayor went about his city on a bicycle. As a congresswoman, she would travel alone by bus regularly from her province to the capital and back, often at night, using the long trip of at least seven to eight hours to sleep.
Filipinos are long used to politicians being driven around in Mercedes-Benzes or SUVs with armed bodyguards, so when a picture showing Robredo waiting like an ordinary commuter for a passenger bus one night along a Manila highway appeared online, it quickly went viral.
In another popular online image, she is seen walking to the plenary hall of Congress for the annual state of the nation address of the president after entering through a back door. She avoided the red carpet at the lobby, where lawmakers traditionally parade in designer suits and gowns before a mob of TV cameramen and photographers.
President Aquino backed Robredo’s vice presidential candidacy and campaigned against Marcos Jr., whom he criticized for refusing to apologize for widespread abuses under his father’s dictatorship.
Still, Marcos won more than 14 million votes, just 263,000 fewer than Robredo. His strong showing underscores his family’s continued clout, as well as public disappointment over the widespread poverty, corruption, insurgencies and law-and-order issues that have persisted through five presidencies since the elder Marcos’ fall.
Aquino’s preferred presidential candidate, former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, lost by a huge margin to Duterte, the tough-talking mayor of southern Davao city who made fighting crime a key platform.
Teehankee said that while Robredo rallied to the cause of the dictator-trouncing revolt, she was not weighed down by its unfulfilled promises because she also offered a refreshing life story and a humble brand of hands-on politics.
On the campaign trail, Robredo always carried the yellow color of the revolt and a small pin or drawing on her shirt of a sandal to remind Filipinos of her and her husband’s aversion to political profligacy.
“What she did was to embrace the narrative of the EDSA revolution but adopted it to her own persona,” Teehankee said. “She upgraded the brand.”