On the Campaign Trail in the Philippines
What advantages and disadvantages do women have running for office in the Philippines?
Efren Reyes reached out his hand to help pull me up onto the presidential campaign truck packed with movie stars. In the Philippines, Reyes is the equivalent of say, Harvey Keitel or Willem Dafoe, an actor with an edge and offbeat looks who often plays the bad guy.
Sitting on benches on the flatbed truck are the likes of Robert DeNiro, Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood. Even the Philippines’ own Brad Pitt is here.
It is because one of the most famous movie stars in the Philippines, Fernando Poe, is running for president. And with him on the truck is the “Sweetheart of the Country,” his running-mate, Loren Legarda.
I ask her if she really is a sweetheart. “No, I’m tough,” she answers bluntly. Sometimes a political slogan is just a political slogan.
Loren is wearing her trademark blue jeans and white button-down shirt with her first name embroidered in script over her heart and in big block letters on the back. She tells me she has dozens of shirts and several pairs of jeans, and after a day on the campaign trail she takes off the dirty, sweaty ones and puts on a clean version of the same outfit for dinner.
She keeps her long hair in a ponytail and is not wearing any jewelry. She advises me to take off mine lest the enthusiastic supporters surrounding the truck jump up and grab it. Loren once had an earring ripped out that way and her earlobe bears the scar.
She has open scratches and cuts on her hands and forearms from where people have been reaching out to her on the campaign trail. They won’t heal until the campaign is over.
The Philippines loves Loren. She was the youngest woman ever elected to senate, at age 38, and she gained prominence as she rose to Senate Majority Leader in her six years in office.
She resigned from the senate to run for the vice-presidency. The reason she was running with Poe instead of being invited onto the ticket of incumbent President Gloria Arroyo, she said, is because then there would be a double-woman slate running for the highest elected offices in the country.
The percentage of women holding elected office in the Philippines is high compared to that of the rest of Asia — and even higher than in the United States. Of the Philippine Congress, 17.2% are women (of the U.S. Congress, 13.6% are women), and of 74 provincial governors in the Philippines, 14 are women (18.9%).
In the United States there were six women out of 50 governors in 2004, and only 15 women had ever been elected to the office since 1925. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
“It’s still difficult to be a woman politician in the Philippines,” Loren tells me. “You cannot expect fair treatment all the time. Men expect that you are the weaker sex.”
Our truck, one of several in a campaign caravan, starts on a long, three-hour journey through the blazing sun.
It is infernally hot, and the movie stars, Loren, me and several staff members working cell phones and clipboards to set up the next campaign stop take turns sharing the shade under a tarp tied to poles on the four corners of the flatbed. There is Gatorade in the coolers under the benches.
Loren and Poe wave to the crowds thronging the truck, keeping one arm high in the air until it drains of blood and switching to the other. What they have in common is that neither has a political pedigree. Neither comes from one of the land-holding ruling clans that dominate Philippine politics.
The Aquino-Cojuangco clan, for example, has produced one president (Corazon), three senators, several congressmen and a mayor.
A lot of common Filipinos like the idea of a screen hero instead. “F-P–J!” they chant as the truck passes. ‘F-P-J!” Those are Poe’s initials. Occasionally the masses emit calls of “Lor-EN, Lor-EN, Lor-EN!”
Even though they are campaigning in the territory of yet another presidential candidate, Ping Lacson, the reception is warm and the crowd is thrilled. It is hard to know whether the enthusiasm is for the candidates themselves, or generated by the sight of their movie-star heroes all passing through the small towns simultaneously.
It is a bit like a Mardi Gras parade. Poe and Loren throw out rolled-up T-shirts, candies with their names on the wrappers and bandanas. They send the crowds scrambling to catch them.
Because young able men always seem to grab the spoils, the candidates and movie-star helpers aim the goodies at women and children, sometimes bonking them on the head with an unexpected flying T-shirt.
When our procession is over and thousands of Filipinos en route have been encouraged to vote the FPJ-Loren ticket, Poe heads off to another rally in the capital. We climb into Loren’s Isuzu SUV to speed off to the next stop.
From the backseat, Loren works her political circuit, her staff placing the calls, handing her the phone and then logging the calls. Someone is donating a printer. Someone named Father Noli wants to celebrate mass with her on the eve of the elections. Does the mayor at the location she plans to visit in the morning know she will be there? The conversations are rushed and chaotic. She chews out her underlings from time to time.
Our next stop is a country club with a luscious golf course. Loren jumps out of the car and greets the men standing there. “How am I doing in your district?” she asks. It is the provincial vice governor and his brother, a congressman.
Their father has spent many years as governor. This is the Remulla family, the power brokers who control Cavite Province on the southern shores of Manila Bay, and this is an important meeting. Loren is seeking their endorsement. It is worth 1.2 million votes.
The Remullas provide a club townhouse for us to freshen up and invite us for dinner in an hour. “Males have a tendency to look at women like me, young, as the new kid on the block. But the advantage of being a woman is that you can achieve what men cannot, through your charm,” Loren tells me.
Later, when I watch her work her magic on the patriarch and his powerful sons at dinner, I see what she means. In the townhouse as we relax in the meantime, Loren takes a shower and puts on a clean version of her jeans-and-white-shirt outfit. Her chief of staff turns on the TV. By coincidence, one of Loren’s campaign commercials is on.
It features a ten-year-old girl. “When I grow up, I want to be intelligent,” she says. Then a scene flashes of Loren shaking hands and picking up babies. “I want to be able to answer all the questions,” the girl says. There are more scenes of Loren glad-handing. It concludes with the girl again: “I wish I could vote.”
Loren’s policies have aimed at women’s rights, and in the senate she sponsored anti-domestic violence bills, agricultural projects for women and anti-trafficking laws. While the commercial is not directly about empowerment, the subliminal message of appealing to women is there.
After dinner we all head for a campaign rally organized by the Remulla sons. “My opponent came here last week,” Loren tells me on the way. “They didn’t commit their support to him. Now they will publicly declare their support for me. This family is very important.”
Dinner, it seems, was a success. But as we jump out of the SUV, Loren is surprised at the size of the crowd, numbering only around 3,000 people. “Oh my god, this is a big rally to them? This is nothing,” she complains. “You could drive caribou through this crowd.”
Still, Loren climbs onto the stage and works her charm. The Remulla brothers each hand Loren red roses. The crowd cheers for the “Sweetheart of the Country.” Loren cites her record in the senate, pledging to do even more if elected vice president. The crowd cheers.
She promises to provide schools, jobs and health care. The crowd cheers again. Then music starts and she and one of the Remulla brothers sing a duet. It wouldn’t be a Philippine political rally without the candidates breaking into song.
There is a long, late-night drive back to Manila, and we arrive in the capital after 11 PM. All along the way, Loren works the phone again, trying to reach fellow politicians and get them to pledge support of their constituencies. “I need your help and value your friendship,” she repeats into the cell phone several times in the course of an hour.
Loren has one more week of campaigning to go. I am about to drop from just one day’s worth. She had gotten up at 5 AM, and will do the same tomorrow to make it to an 8 AM rally in another far away province. She will be lucky to get five hours sleep.
When we reach her gated home, she shows me around. Her house is beautiful, with gorgeous artwork on the walls and a lovely tropical garden out back. But it is quiet.
Her boys, 14 and 11, are already asleep. She says that her husband is still at the office, working until midnight. As I turn to shut the enormous wooden front doors behind me, I leave the “Sweetheart of the Country,” for the first time in 18 hours, completely alone.
“The world has come to know about Asian women leaders,” she had told me during the day. “We have a second woman president in the Philippines. We have Megawati and Aung San Suu Kyi. Increasingly, there are women who are leaders in their own right.” Loren is one of them.
In the end, the Poe-Loren ticket lost the May 10, 2004, election.
President Gloria Marcapagal Arroyo was elected to serve for six years, beating the movie star Poe by a little more than a million votes. Loren’s race was closer but still a loss. She received 14,218,709 votes to her opponent’s 15,100,431.
But the “Sweetheart of the Country” is young and ambitious. Just wait until 2010.
From the book “The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls and Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient” by Sheridan Prasso, Copyright