The ballots for the May 9 elections are ready for printing and for the two highest positions in the land, only two women are in the running—Leni Robredo for president and Sara Duterte for vice president.
As Robredo punctuated her star-making debate performance in the 2016 elections, will the last men standing be women? The incumbent vice president is in a rematch with ex-senator Bongbong Marcos, whom she beat six years ago, and seven other men. President Rodrigo Duterte's daughter is up against seven men.
While the two are running under different tickets and on account of their contrasting political backgrounds—Robredo is a known dynasty-slayer while Duterte is her father's daughter—their candidacies illustrate the complex journey of women in Philippine politics, reflective of how the country has yet to truly achieve gender equality in leadership, analysts said.
"Mother" Leni in pink is playing a hard gamble with her attempt to redefine what it means to be a woman leader during Philippine politics' strongman era, while Sara Duterte is caught in a push and pull with her father's masculine shadow that endears her to the public.
“It’s been noted before how the problem with women when they run for public office is their gender. Kasi kahit anong gawin mo, sala sa init sala ka sa lamig,” University of the Philippines political science professor Jean Encinas-Franco said, using a Filipino saying to describe how women leaders are constantly pressured to contort into the macho leader mold, the standard which the Philippine electorate is accustomed to.
Leni Robredo’s hard gamble
When she announced her candidacy embracing her new campaign color, pink, Robredo seemingly challenged President Rodrigo Duterte’s disciplinarian “tatay” image as she framed herself as a mother who loves radically ("radikal magmahal”).
She metaphorically compared herself to her past clients as a public attorney: a wife who finally mustered enough courage to fight her abusive husband (country’s current predicament) no matter the personal cost, all for the sake of her children (the nation).
Encinas-Franco said this branding seems to be Robredo’s brave attempt to redefine what it means to be a woman in politics, but it may be “too much of a gamble” for her, as her “type of woman leader” is something the Filipino people are yet to be ready for.
The World Values Survey released in 2021 revealed that more than half of Filipinos still believe that men make better political leaders than women, notwithstanding a pandemic that saw women-led countries impress with their crisis response.
Robredo enamored herself to the public with how her office performed during the pandemic despite its limited resources. But when time came for her to decide on running as the opposition’s obvious choice for the presidency, her low survey numbers served as her main hindrance, suggesting how despite her efforts, she is still struggling to connect with some segments of the Filipino public.
She is after all, the opposition's leading figure during the Duterte administration, whose rise to power was seen part of the "strongmen era". "In every region of the world, changing times have boosted public demand for more muscular, assertive leadership," TIME Magazine said in 2018, explaining the rise of leaders like Duterte, U.S.' Donald Trump, and Russia's Vladimir Putin.
Though in the past, the country has had two female presidents–Cory Aquino and Gloria Arroyo–Encinas-Franco refers to them as somewhat special cases. Aquino “was never elected” and her transformation to president from housewife with hyperfeminine qualities came at an opportune time for the country's changing political landscape.
Arroyo on the other hand was a product of her own unique circumstances. Having risen to vice presidential power via her political pedigree, she had been a primed second fiddle to the scandal-hit Estrada throne, donning power suits and fatigues, a stiff pompadour and a poker face that journalists covering her just had to deal with.
“GMA portrayed herself as a masculine leader. When she was engulfed with a number of coup d'etat, she launched a strong republic. So there’s really an effort on her part to present herself as strong,” Encinas-Francos said. “When women want to have power, they usually mimic men kasi it’s more recognizable to the voting audience,” she added, bringing up the case of the president's daughter.
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Duterte daughter's 'double bind'
Unlike Robredo's Cinderalla tale of a political career, Sara Duterte grew up to her father building up Davao as his political kingdom, eventually taking after his path alongside her brothers despite sharing a love-hate relationship with him due to his womanizing ways.
Radiating strength with her buzz cuts as an Army Reservist and her punching a sheriff on national TV, Sara is actually the "alpha" in the family, the patriarch said. While she accepted the role of being her father’s first lady, she managed to portray herself as independent from her father, having publicly stated her disagreements with some of his policies such as federalism and as her most rebellious move, she declined being his ruling party's successor.
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As runningmate to dictator's son Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., Sara on several occassions was seen sporting a more feminine attire and speaking in softer tones. "Whether a deliberate strategy or a mere happenstance", Encinas-Franco said this might be a sign of a struggle on her part, as it bucks the tough-talking image of her that is akin to her father, which her supporters love.
Still, despite supposed differences in opinions, Sara is her father's daughter and her VP bid is seen as an attempt on her part to preserve their family's dynastic legacy.
'The right kind of women'
The May 9 vote will test whether votes still look for masculine qualities in a president, Encinas-Franco said.
"At the end of the day, Filipinos are very macho. We like leaders who are like that. And so the bottomline is, people are not used to having women in positions of leadership and that’s why it’s harder for women to present themselves in an electoral campaign," she said.
But "although it is really a must that women should take positions of power, it is also the case that there is no automatic relationship between having more women in power and having better policies for women," she added, warning of the dangers of seeing a Robredo-Duterte win as a feminist victory.
Focusing too much on gender as a predictor of leadership success also risks perpetuating the higher bar to which women are held as leaders. Female leaders are given little to no room for errors, and when they commit mistakes, they are also penalized more harshly than men.
"As with men, it depends on the type of woman who’s going to assume power. Kailangan din ng supportive environment so that women who are able to have a genuine legislative agenda for gender equality can actually thrive. And that, of course, begins with electing the right kind of women," she said.