MANILA - In what she regards as “almost a miracle”, Risa Hontiveros clinched another term as senator after receiving over 15.2 million votes in the May 9 polls that catapulted her to the 11th spot among 12 to become part of the 19th Congress.
Hontiveros is the lone opposition winner in the 2022 senatorial race and did not conceal her effort in helping establish the next minority bloc in the Senate with Sen. Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III.
THE YOUTH SHOUT: “RISA PA"
Running as part of Vice President Leni Robredo’s senate slate, Hontiveros was one of the crowd favorites in the presidential candidate’s rallies.
The reelectionist was often welcomed with resounding chants of “Risa pa,” a play between her nickname and the phrase, “isa pa (one more time),” pertaining to her bid for a second consecutive term in the Senate.
Largely made of youth, crowds in Robredo’s rallies responded loudest to three particular members of her slate: Duterte administration-critic Sen. Leila De Lima, repeat senate bidder Atty. Chel Diokno, and Hontiveros.
Hontiveros's reelection bid got the endorsement of the Student Council Alliance of the Philippines (SCAP). The alliance of student leaders, councils, and organizations called her win “the victory of students, the youth, and all Filipinos.”
Hontiveros championed the Student’s Rights and Welfare Bill or the Magda Carta of Students which aims to secure the civil and political liberties of the Filipino student.
Widely considered among the youth as an ally, Hontiveros stood with those who called for an extension of voters’ registration, saying the younger generation should have a say on what the next years' governance will look like.
Even before she was senator, Hontiveros already established her value among the youth, especially with the passing of RA 10742 or the Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) Reform Act of 2015 which introduced provisions making the SK more transparent, accountable, and be more responsive through mandatory trainings before assumption of office.
During the proclamation on Wednesday, only Hontiveros earned the applause of Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) volunteers in its command center at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila. This year’s elections attracted thousands of youth volunteers to help canvass the fourth copy of pre-transmission election returns.
If Hontiveros wasn’t physically at Robredo's rally, her daughter Sinta and her nephew Luis took her place. Her absence was hardly felt though if the crowd’s welcome to her representatives were any measure.
ONE OF THEIR OWN
Apart from bills she drafted, 13 of which were passed into law when she was senator from 2016 until this year, her prominence in the media starting several years ago made Hontiveros a familiar face to many.
She was a broadcast journalist and anchor in IBC and GMA before running for congress as representative of Akbayan in 2004.
Despite marrying Frank Baraquel in 1990, Hontiveros is more widely known by her maiden surname, which she shares with her younger sister, veteran journalist Pia Hontiveros, CNN Philippines chief correspondent at present.
Hontiveros was catapulted further and into the international arena of change-makers when she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for her efforts in peace talks with the National Democratic Front.
Possibly one of the very few things which can be thrown against Hontiveros is her left-leaning ideologies. Critics have used her being a proud member of democratic, socialist, and progressive Akbayan for this narrative.
But Executive Director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform Ramon Casiple said Hontiveros enjoyed something her slate-mates in the opposition did not have: her late husband was a Philippine Military Academy cadet when they met.
"Personal ang mga koneksyon dito, hindi ideological, hindi political. I think she is considered as one of their own,” Casiple said.
Hontiveros exhibited this connection in the open during the Senate probe on the death of two teens at the hands of Caloocan police in the midst of the Duterte government's drug war. She addressed then Philippine National Police chief Gen. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa as “Doroy,” his nickname used by graduates and spouses of PMA “Sinagtala” batch of 1986, which her late husband is part of.
When Baraquel died from heart attack caused by a severe asthma in 2005, Hontiveros became a single mom of four.
PROGRESSIVE AND PERSONAL
Hontiveros is a staunch women’s rights and welfare advocate. Most of the legislative measures she has filed cater to the interests of women and of minority groups. Among her more popular victories is the Expanded Maternity Leave Law, which first-time mom Jean has benefited from.
“I can't imagine navigating postpartum depression while working. Tapos iisipin ko pa who's taking care of my son, paano siya inaalagaan, if naaalagaan siya properly (I have to mind who's looking after him, if he is being cared for well),” Jean said.
"Because of this law, I was able to focus on my postpartum self. This law allowed me to navigate motherhood with the help of my family better and to recover from giving birth, including dealing with postpartum depression,” she added.
"Marami siyang ganung klaseng bills na from the point of view siguro politically, pwede mo sabihing progressive. That pro-women position is one of them,” Casiple said.
(She authored bills that can be called progressive from a political perspective. Her pro-women position thrusts that.)
But progressive legislation is also personal to Hontiveros. The single parent made no secret of her struggle as such and as a widow. She openly wrote about the grief and numbness she fought with and utilized for her to move forward after the untimely death of her husband, who she also considered her best friend.
"I could not be everywhere, and found it a challenge to balance work while physically taking care of my children,” she wrote in a 2020 piece.
"My comrades at Akbayan would also adjust my schedule as much as possible so that I could attend my kids’ events. I used to tell myself: 'Political tasks can be delegated; but only I can parent my children.’”
Hontiveros went on to file the Expanded Solo Parents Act, now in its last push after the senate passed it on its third and final reading in December 2021.
According to a recent study by the World Health Organization, the Philippines has about 15 million solo parents, 95 percent of whom are mothers. They will all enjoy the expanded benefits if the bill is signed into law.
When she took the stage in campaign runs for the recent elections, Hontiveros would often ask the crowd if there were solo parents present. Sometimes, she would seek out the singles, also identifying herself as such. (Hontiveros did not remarry after Baraquel passed.)
Following a similar script as her presidential candidate, Hontiveros would gently remind the audience of her track record.
After two failed attempts for the senate in 2010 and 2013, she would later contribute 20 relevant laws in the country which are considered turning-point legislations for major groups after successfully making it in 2016.
Hontiveros helped pass the Reproductive Health Bill, the Philippine HIV & AIDS Policy Law, the amended Magna Carta for Persons with Disabilities, the Philippine Mental Health Law, and the Safe Streets and Public Spaces Law or the “Bawal Bastos Law", which protects females from sexual assault and harassment in the streets.
She also sponsored the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression and Sex Characteristics (SOGIESC) Equality Bill twice in the senate.
“We must always remember that our experience as women matters, so let us use it well. Our stories matter, so let us keep retelling them. We must all actively push for the women’s agenda. We need more active participants for our country, for our democracy to survive. We especially need female participants for our democracy to thrive,” Hontiveros wrote in another piece published last year.
Policy adviser and analyst Richard Heydarian looked to Hontiveros’ example of promises delivered, being the only member of Robredo’s senate slate to make it to the Magic 12.
"Our folks have had enough of half-baked reforms and half-hearted liberal slogans. They want decisive leadership. Fiery progressives such as Risa Hontiveros, who managed to win re-election in an impossibly tough race, perhaps show the way forward for the Pink Movement,” he wrote.
THE MINORITY AND THE OPPOSITION
As senator-elect for the 19th congress, Hontiveros now faces the challenge of creating a solid minority bloc and an opposition in the face of a perceived monolithic incoming administration.
After her proclamation on Wednesday, she said her number one priority is to create a minority bloc that will continue the task of providing checks and balances.
"We have to survive. Hindi 'yan gusto lang namin (It’s not just because we want to stay). It's a fundamental requirement of a working democracy,” she said in an ABS-CBN interview.
Despite being heavily outnumbered by administration senators, Hontiveros’ goal of a functioning minority might not be too difficult, Casiple said.
"She can also be very strong in her position kapag sa tingin niya (when she thinks) [it's] a matter of principle. It’s not a question of numbers. It’s a question of 'May boses ba na lilitaw'. It’s a question of 'Can you articulate and carry out an opposition position? [For Risa,] it’s not a problem,” he said.
(It's not a question of numbers but whether or not someone will speak out. It’s a question of, 'Can you articulate and carry out an opposition position? [For Risa,] it’s not a problem.)
But Hontiveros said she also hopes the minority bloc will have members ready to work with the majority.
"Makikipagtulungan tayo sa mga dati at bagong makakasama sa senado upang ipaglaban ang isang lipunang marangal, makatarungan at may pagkakapantay-pantay," she said.
(We will work together with former and new fellow senators to fight for a dignified, just, and equal society.)
Despite criticizing the outgoing administration’s deadly war on drugs, Hontiveros lauded President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to sign into law Republic Act (RA) No. 11648 which raises the age of sexual consent from 14 to 16 years old. She is the principal author of the measure.
After Robredo declared setting her sights on non-government work following her loss in the presidential race, Hontiveros may now be poised to become the new face of the opposition.
"I would expect she will play a role. Siya na ngayon ang isa sa mga key oppositionists. Iyan ang na-achieve niya kasi nanalo siya,” Casiple said.
(By winning a seat in this election, she is now one of the key persons in the opposition.)
For Hontiveros, her victory is not hers alone.
"I’m only able to mark this new journey because of the love and hard work of everyone around me, my family, my staff and campaign team, sa aking mimahal na partidong Akbayan, my beloved friends and allies, and all of us Filipinos dreaming of a better life,” she said during her proclamation speech.
In the speech, the lawmaker referenced Robredo's campaign monicker "liwanag sa dilim" or light in the darkness.
"Hindi iisa ang magiging liwanag natin. Hindi tayo naghahanap ng tila iisang kandila na may sindi sa kawalan. Bagkus, ituring natin ang bawat isa na mag-alitaptap na sama-samang kumukutitap hanggang dumating ang bagong umaga," Hontiveros said.
(We will not only have one source of light. We won't struggle to look for just one lighted candle in the darkness. Instead, let us treat each other as fireflies that will light up until the new day comes.)
"Walang iwanan, tuloy ang laban," she added.
(No one will be left behind, the fight continues.)