If the 2019 Philippine midterm elections were held last September, women would be leading the senatorial race. According to the latest Pulse Asia survey report, the top 5 seats in the Senate would be dominated by women— three incumbent senators, a congresswoman, and a city mayor who happens to be the daughter of the President of the Philippines. These women are familiar faces and recurring surnames in Philippine politics; some, if not all of them, have had their being a woman factor in their success. A wave of women pouring into public office is usually a good sign of equal representation and women empowerment, but is it still the case regardless of whether their power is used in good or bad faith?
Just weeks before political aspirants were expected to file their candidacies next year’s elections, prominent and powerful women political figures emerged at the top of electoral opinion polls. Senator Grace Poe was the top senatorial bet commanding a 70.1% voter preference. Coming in second was Senator Cynthia Villar who garnered a 57.7% approval. Taguig City District Representative Hon. Pia Cayetano followed at third place with a 54.4% and close behind her is Senator Nancy Binay at 50.6%. Davao City Mayor and presidential daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio completed the list of probable winners with a 39% approval.
The presence of more women in the political sphere is often the metric used to judge gender equality and a genuine democracy. Several studies show that women are more likely to introduce bills that benefit women; they are also more likely to get these bills passed. Issues such as paid maternal leave or domestic violence, for example, get elevated into formal discussions because of women’s direct engagement in public office. Women’s political participation has seen tangible gains. At a time where women remain largely underrepresented in politics around the world, it’s a feat to have women representatives advancing women’s causes in government. A Political Science professor from the University of The Philippines even took it as a sign that the dominance of women senatorial candidates is the Filipinos’ approval of authoritative women in politics.
However, those Filipino women expected to lead the upcoming senatorial elections have their fair share of issues that paint them in a troublesome light. These senatorial bets are not first-timers in the political race. Personality politics, a uniquely defining trait of Philippine politics, have given them good runs in all their years in office. As opposed to issue-based politics, substantive debates are sidelined by idealized and enduring images of who the candidates are independent of a party apparatus. Personalities of candidates are picked apart and they get elected depending on how famous and likable they are, unlike in the US or the UK where party discipline prevails and candidates are strongly associated with their party ideology or “brand.”
As what Ronnie Holmes, President of Pulse Asia Research Inc., has said, “the campaign narratives of most candidates have been dominated by questions of character rather than policy.” Part of what makes up the five leading women’s characters are essentially what makes them women. These senatorial hopefuls have drawn support, to a certain extent, by their virtue of being a woman and have capitalized on women’s issues. This is not inherently a bad thing— the sincerity of some women, any woman, running for a position cannot be missed. But, there are those riding on these very attributes that privilege them as women to their advantage and not to those whom they wish to serve. Sen. Grace Poe, or Amazing Grace as the media would call her, is the woman of quiet refinement at the top of the senatorial ballot. She is the adopted darling daughter of the biggest Philippine stars who is always seen by her mother’s side while following the footsteps of her late father who ran for President. Just like her father, Sen. Poe was also unsuccessful in her previous presidential bid, but her campaign narrative painted her as the purest figure with the purest intentions: “Government with a heart,” as her slogan said. When people ask her what separates her from other candidates then, she said “As a woman, as a mother, I have common sense and compassion for our fellow men.” However, she is nowhere near the profile of an ordinary Filipino. She renounced her Filipino citizenship to live in the US many years ago. Upon her return, she likens herself to Overseas Filipino Workers claiming she understands their struggles when in fact her privileged background allowed her every opportunity to live in comfort. Her record in Philippine politics is not strikingly remarkable, but she runs with a “moral cause” to serve the country who she once abandoned.
The candidates who follow Poe at the top 5 list also show a similar pattern of referring to and leveraging themselves by their ‘womanness.’ Sen. Cynthia Villar is the richest member of the Senate who has focused on projects that target women’s economic empowerment. She is the wife of real estate billionaire Manny Villar who was the former Senate President. Despite the public’s call for the passage of the Anti-Dynasty Bill, Sen. Villar is among those who believe that there’s nothing wrong with relatives running for different political positions. When asked to comment about her consistent high ratings, she said that it’s because she is hardworking and voters want mothers and women who are strong with a keen eye for detail. Sen. Pia Cayetano, who positions herself as a champion for women’s rights, boasts a track record of authoring and supporting pro-women measures. Examples of which include the Magna Carta on Women, the Reproductive Health Bill and the Divorce Bill. Despite being a staunch advocate of women’s rights, she is branded as a “faux feminist” for enabling misogynistic and patriarchal views and only supporting women when it is convenient. She defends President Duterte and refuses to comment on his actions whenever his sexist remarks make the headlines. Sen. Nancy Binay, on the other hand, said she’d rather not praise herself when asked how she consistently makes it to the top votes. She has filed over a hundred bills and resolutions in the past which advocates for the interests of women and children, the youth, the elderly and disabled, and the poor. Her high ratings come off as a surprise to her considering the issues of graft and corruption against her family. Binay, who promised to be the “Nanay de Pamilya” (Mother of the Family) in the Senate, is the daughter of former Vice President Jejomar Binay-- together with other Binays, they all make up a political dynasty that has been ruling for several decades.
Last but definitely not the least, at the top 5 spot, rests Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio. Inday Sara (Dear Sara or Precious Sara), as what they call her, is Davao city’s first female mayor and the youngest one to be elected. She was overwhelmed at the support she received despite having not yet declared her clear intentions to run for a national post. Mayor Sara inherited the good looks of her mother but she also mimics the tough talk and fearlessness of her father. The Duterte father-daughter tandem is a mutually reinforcing set-up for the two in politics, but amid the highs and lows in the President’s term, Sara is rising and rising in popularity.
There was a time when a woman seated in politics was unthinkable— but the times have progressed and we have moved way past that. It is uplifting to see women like these Filipino senatorial hopefuls be recognized as capable and effective holders of public office and shift the balance of power. Women are champions of their rights and bring light to everyday struggles unique to them. In some cases, however, equal representation and women empowerment are only as good as until the campaign ends, until it gets them elected or re-elected. The tacit assumption that women, because they are women, are naturally each other’s allies denies the reality that some people, women included, seek greater gains for their personal lives. They care enough to bank on their essence of being a woman and be selective with issues associated with womanhood but not enough to sustain their concern— only when convenient, only when it shoots up their ratings.
It is not enough, then, to just vote for women; the true measure of a good vote is one that is conscious, conscientious, and critical in choosing women leaders who can stand firm in their principles and unwavering service to others. There are many powerful women figures who have taken the world of politics by storm— but the world needs more great women leaders to blaze a trail not only because they happen to be women, but also because they can truly serve the people.
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