This is the third part of a special report on Robredo's presidential campaign.
ILIGAN CITY — Sister “Pat” handed hundreds of comic booklets urging voters to elect Vice President Leni Robredo as the next Philippine leader on May 9, joining Catholic leaders who rejected neutrality to oppose what could be the ultimate political comeback for the family of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
For hundreds of priests, nuns, and lay leaders, their endorsement of Robredo and her running-mate Sen. Francis Pangilinan is a "moral crusade" that will continue beyond election day, even if surveys say her rival Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. appeared headed for a landslide victory.
In Pulse Asia's last pre-election survey from April 16-21, Marcos continued to enjoy a two-fold lead over Robredo, as their scores barely moved from the previous poll. Twenty-three percent of respondents said they would vote for her if the elections were held last month, while 56 percent chose Marcos.
His running mate is the leading vice-presidential bet, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio, whose father President Rodrigo Duterte has hurled verbal attacks against the Catholic Church ever since he took over in 2016.
“We just want to have a change, to be true, [leaders] na talagang makinig sa bayan at saka tutulong sa bayan,” 78-year-old Sister Pat, who requested anonymity, said of Catholic leaders backing Robredo.
"We experienced already the past administrations na talagang lalo na iyong human rights, against human rights, nakakakuwan naman ‘yon, nakakadiri naman ‘yon,” the sister, who was wearing a “Let Leni Lead” mask, told ABS-CBN News on the sidelines of Robredo’s campaign sortie here.
(We just want to have change that is true, leaders who will really listen and help the nation. We experienced already in the past administrations abuses against human rights, those are disgusting.)
The Catholic Church in 1986 backed the peaceful “People Power” revolt that installed Corazon Aquino into the presidency and put an end to the 2-decade rule of Marcos Jr’s father and namesake, during which thousands were arrested, disappeared, tortured or killed.
The Marcos family is also accused of plundering billions of pesos from public coffers, which it denies. The government has recovered P174 billion in Marcos ill-gotten wealth, according to the Presidential Commission on Good Government.
Marcos matriarch Imelda was found guilty of several counts of graft in lower courts, but has won most of her appeals in higher courts. None of the members of the former first family has been imprisoned.
Robredo in 2016 narrowly thwarted Marcos Jr's bid for the vice presidency, which was then the second highest post sought by a member of his family since they returned to the Philippines in 1991 from exile in Hawaii after their patriarch's overthrow.
CHURCH CAMPAIGN FOR LENI: OVERT, SUBTLE
As Robredo fights for the presidency, church people's efforts to support her range from the conspicuous to the discreet, said opposition coalition 1SAMBAYAN convenor and former Education Secretary Armin Luistro.
"It is becoming more of a moral crusade of the churches. Hindi lang siya for a candidate, but for the moral values that she stands for. Therefore, kung hindi magwawagi si Leni (if Leni does not win), I think this crusade will continue and will become even more passionate," said Luistro, a La Salle brother.
Some church leaders engage in a "very visual pink campaign" by publicly wearing Robredo's campaign color and positing on social media, he said.
He said others organize feeding programs, food pantries, medical missions, and relief drives—usual church charities that now campaign for Robredo. Some pro-Robredo Catholic schools hold voter education programs, he said.
"I know that closer to election... some churches are actually distributing their own sample ballots. It is beyond just statements [of support]; there are a lot of action related to that proclamation. And obviously, many of them joined the Church rituals," Luistro told ABS-CBN News.
In some areas like Ilocos, Marcos' home region, if a bishop refrains from supporting Robredo openly, "he empowers the lay faithful to do their own house-to-house [campaign] with his blessing," said Luistro.
"Iba-iba ‘yan (it varies), depending on the area and the local situation. In my own sense, the Catholic church, at least this time, is almost unanimous in this endorsement," he told ABS-CBN News.
"A lot of the groups have come out either publicly--and if they feel it’s not prudent to do that publicly, they do it very subtly and quietly, but as effective."
For Robredo’s camp, “What they’re comfortable with is what we’ll accept,” said her spokesman Barry Gutierrez.
“We’ll never ask anyone, particularly ‘yong mga religious leaders, na gawin ang isang bagay na hindi sila komportable (to do something they’re not comfortable with,” he told ABS-CBN News.
GUILT, DISINFORMATION SPUR CHURCH BACKING
But why have many church leaders and church workers come out for Robredo?
“Maybe a part of it is a certain sense of guilt that the past 5, 6 years in the past administration, churches had been rather quiet, if not fence-sitting,” said Luistro. “The faithful are beginning to recognize silence and being neutral is actually a choice and is also enabling those who are in power to do what they will.”
When Duterte ascended to the presidency in 2016, many Christians justified their silence by quoting Scriptures and asserting that he would not have been elected were it not the will of God, Luistro said.
But as the administration tarried on, Duterte called God "stupid", dubbed the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity as "silly", and said bishops deserved to be killed.
His war on drugs also killed thousands of suspected narcotics peddlers, mostly in depressed areas. Rights groups and critics say law enforcers summarily executed suspects. Police say those killed were armed and had resisted arrest.
“Siguro (perhaps) the faithful began to see, this is the consequence of our silence and inaction. And more than just looking at the attacks on the Church, [there was] actual consequence on the poor,” Luistro said.
“EJK (extrajudicial killing) is one critical example of that… The blood of those victims have spoken directly to the shame of the churches. In one sense, it’s that sense of remorse, ‘Ano kaya, should we have spoken?’”
A "second critical factor" that pushed churches to be vocal this election was rampant disinformation on social media, which goes against their teachings of championing the truth, Luistro said.
Fr. Daniel Franklin Pilario, a theologian who regularly ministered at a dumpsite in Tayabas, Quezon City, shared how some parishioners told him they were voting for Marcos because they believed that if he won, they would receive gold bars that his family supposedly possessed.
“These people are honest people, they don’t lie to me. ‘Pag may namatay sa kanila, ako ang unang tinatawag, ‘pag may EJK kami ang andoon. Honest lang sila na, ‘Father, sayang naman ang gold,’” said Pilario, who is part of the Solidarity With Orphans and Widows, a group that helps the families of EJK victims.
(When someone dies in their community, I am first to be called, we are there when there are EJKs. They are just being honest in saying, 'Father, it will be a waste not to get the gold.')
“This is just one example that people have been bombarded with fake news… I don’t like to blame them because that’s what they see, that’s what they know,” he said in an ABS-CBN interview.
Marcos has denied tapping online troll farms to boost his campaign.
Robredo is the top target of social media disinformation, including posts that benefit Marcos, a fact-checking group told a Senate committee in February.
The Vice President in several instances asked the Church’s help in fighting online disinformation.
“Iba-iba ang level of buy-in ng iba’t ibang tao. But speaking for the campaign… ang aming hinihingi sana sa kung sino mang mag-e-endorse—whether they are from the church or not—is really that it’s not just an endorsement,” said Robredo’s spokesman.
(Different people have different levels of buy-in. But speaking for the campaign, what we are asking from whoever will endorse—whether they are from the church or not—is really that it’s not just an endorsement.)
“Hopefully, it comes with a commitment to actually campaign in the sense na kahit hindi officially, publicly magka-campaign, pero at least talking to people within your network, discussing itong mga issues na ‘to,” Gutierrez added.
(Hopefully, it comes with a commitment to actually campaign in the sense that even if it’s not officially, publicly campaign, but at least talking to people within your network, discussing these issues.)
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) does not endorse any candidate. But it warned Filipinos in late February of “radical distortions” and online disinformation on Marcos Sr's military rule and the 1986 People Power.
Various other Catholic groups endorsed Robredo, an opposition leader, because of the values they have in common, said Luistro.
A Catholic who recently shared that she regularly carries rosaries and a novena booklet in her bag, Robredo is a fierce critic of the killings in Duterte's war on drugs and other policies.
She also opposes abortion, divorce, and the reimposition of the death penalty due to her religion.
Aside from her stance on these issues, Robredo scored the endorsement of Catholic groups because she previously worked with them in her livelihood programs and disaster relief drives, Luistro said.
Another consideration was her "winnability", he acknowledged.
While some priests also liked another presidential contender, labor leader Leody De Guzman, he is viewed as "the best impossible," while Robredo "is the best possible" candidate, said Pilario.
“There’s no other option. In my assessment, the rest are all enablers of Duterte and Marcos,” he said.
“And we need to win this election against this Marcos and of course, Sara Duterte, because they will only continue the problems of the past—past as in martial law and past as in [Rodrigo] Duterte.”
A NEW PHENOMENON
The last elections where the Catholic Church in the Philippines "came out very strongly" was in 2013, said Luistro.
Some parishes that year campaigned against senatorial candidates under a so-called "Team Patay", who supported the passage of the Reproductive Health or RH bill.
“Pero iyong (but) whom to actually vote and actually naming—an actual endorsement—this is very, very new in Philippine church,” Luistro said of the support for Robredo.
“I also have not seen something like that in other areas of the world where Catholics or Catholic groups come up with this.”
In the 2016 elections, the CBCP urged the faithful to reject “a candidate who takes positions that are not only politically precarious but worse, morally reprehensible.”
While the bishops did not name any candidate, some Church leaders had criticized Duterte for cursing Pope Francis, pushing for the revival of the death penalty, and his controversial statements on adultery, rape, and killing.
But Duterte, who claims he was abused by a priest as a boy, won the 2016 race.
“Nagiging importante ang simbahan kapag may krisis ang bansa at ang mga botante ay naghahanap talaga ng leadership,” said political analyst Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Economic Reform.
(The Church becomes important when the country is facing a crisis and voters look for leadership.)
“Iyong last [presidential] election, wala, hindi pasok sa ganoon. The only election I can compare this possibility today, ‘yong kay Cory. Kasi may krisis ang bansa noon, talagang naghahanap ang mga tao kung anong mangyayari dito kay Marcos noong time na ‘yon,” he added.
(The last election did not fit this bill. The only election I can compare this possibility today is Cory’s because the country was facing a crisis then and people were looking for what will happen to Marcos at that time.)
The Marcos administration by 1986 was hounded by allegations of corruption, human rights violations, and a severe economic crisis.
The Philippines is again facing an economic crunch due to the COVID-19 crisis. However, Duterte may cap his term as the most popular post-EDSA president.
He bagged a “very good” net satisfaction rating of 67 percent in December, 8 points above his September score, according to the Social Weather Stations (SWS).
Robredo scored a “neutral” +1 in the December poll, SWS revealed.
“The people really have to believe na may kandidato na para sa kanila. Kasi kung wala namang ganoong klaseng factor, kahit may Simbahan na endorsement, hindi magiging panigurado [ng panalo],” said Casiple.
(The people really have to believe that there is a candidate for them. If that factor is missing, even if there is Church endorsement, it won’t be a guarantee of election triumph.)
“Pero krisis ngayon. I doubt kung merong simple lang na eleksyon na mangyayari. Mukhang this election is turning out to be as historical as iyong eleksyon ni Cory,” he said.
(But there is a crisis today. I doubt if a simple election will happen. It seems this election is turning out to be as historical as Cory’s.)
PRIESTS FOR BONGBONG?
The CBCP is “proud” of Catholic groups that “have come up with a collective, principled stand” of endorsing a presidential candidate, its leader Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of the Diocese of Caloocan earlier said.
He said Robredo was the only presidential candidate to openly score Catholic groups’ endorsement as of Feb. 25, the 36th anniversary of the People Power revolt.
But Pilario noted that the Church is "not monolithic."
He said that even during the snap elections of 1986, there were bishops who did not sign the CBCP statement condemning poll fraud.
“So you see, iyong drama ng Simbahan dahil hindi naman siya monolithic… bawat isa meron silang iniisip. Kahit na hanggang ngayon, ganoon pa rin ‘yon,” he said.
(So you see the drama of the Church, because it is not monolithic, each member have their own concerns. Even until now, it’s the same.)
Pilario said he knows some priests who quietly support Marcos Jr.
“If you are a priest, you cannot outrightly proclaim that 'I defend Marcos' because Marcos is indefensible," he said.
Instead, he said these priests “advocate for neutrality or nonpartisanship” even though they endorsed candidates in the past.
Marcos’ camp in March said the Church should “refrain from openly meddling with politics.”
The team of another presidential contender, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno Domagoso, questioned Robredo’s meetings with religious leaders.
“I think it’s the height of hypocrisy for them to be saying these things when every other week makikita mo na sila rin mayroong mga binibendisyunan na kung anong grupo, hindi nga lang Catholic Church iyong iba,” said Gutierrez.
(You will see them being blessed by some group, it’s just that some are not from the Catholic Church.)
“I think the only reason why they’re trying to make an issue out of it is because they feel threatened by the fact that VP Leni is getting so much and so consistent a level of support across the board from people who belong to the faith,” he said.
CAN CHURCH BLESSING THWART MARCOS WIN?
For political analyst Jose Alejandrino, Robredo’s “politics of morality interspersed with that of fear... gained her some traction but seemingly not enough to win.”
In his Heneral Lunacy blog post early last month, he said: “Morality has lost its shine as an issue – voters believe all politicians are corrupt – while the fear she raises of yet another Marcos has not resonated as she had hoped.”
He added that Duterte also succeeded in “diminishing her persona and depriving her of the resources to prove her competence as VP.”
Luistro believes that if Marcos wins the presidency, many among the clergy will continue to play active roles, taking off from their involvement in the Robredo campaign.
“I sense that this will not end the Church’s engagement. Looking at how much they have invested, how much they have discerned this, I’ve never seen the Church so passionate about the affairs of the country,” Luistro said.
He said if Marcos becomes president, he might not pay his family's P203-billion estate taxes and continue to depict his father as a hero.
“I don’t think the Church will take that sitting down. If ever that happens, I think it will be a chaotic presidency early on. Palagay ko, walang ano ’yon, honeymoon,” Luistro said.
(I think there will be no honeymoon.)
Pilario added: “We’re back to the streets. We’re back to be prophets because as Christians—not just the priests—Christians are called to be prophets.”
“The role of the prophet is to speak truth to power,” he said.
And whether Robredo wins or loses, Church leaders’ endorsement of her has brought a “rediscovery of what does it mean to be a Christian” after many of the faithful averted their eyes from the killings under Duterte, Luistro said.
He said: “If anyone believes in God, how can you sleep at night and say that in my faith, I am still doing what God wills? Does it mean I will just pray and go to Mass on Sundays? Or does this mean a change of my own lifestyle, my own choices, including my choice for president?”
“Hindi puwedeng ‘respect my opinion’ when it comes to voting because every action has a social responsibility… I need to think about what I believe in and say if I have one vote, this one vote, how will this affect the 110 million Filipinos?” Luistro said.
“It’s a rediscovery of what the Church always had as its teaching na medyo nakalimutan: Walang sinumang nabubuhay para sa sarili lamang, walang sino mang namamatay para sa sarili lamang.”
(No one lives for himself alone, no one dies for himself alone.)
CLICK HERE FOR PART 2: From Cory to Leni: A look at 2 presidential people's campaigns