Philippine Senator Leila de Lima is one of the world’s best known political prisoners.

Framed on false charges of being at the center of the illegal drug trade and mercilessly flayed by President Rodrigo Duterte as an “immoral woman,” de Lima became Public Enemy No. 1 for telling the Filipino leader that she would not rest until she secured his conviction and imprisonment for the extra-judicial execution of over 20,000 people in his bloody “war on drugs.”

When decades from now, a later generation of Filipinos look back on the Duterte presidency and ask themselves how on earth so many of their forebears could elect a murderer and applaud him as he went about his bloody business for six years, it is likely that the only person they will regard as a hero in this dark era is Leila de Lima.

Right Out of Shakespeare

The Leila de Lima versus Rodrigo Duterte saga is a political drama right out of Shakespeare (think Richard III) or Costa Gavras (think Z).

A crusader for human rights investigates the deeds of a murderous local despot. He tells the country he will get even and force the “bitch” to swallow a CD where he says he heard her say she would make him accountable for his crimes against humanity. He becomes head of state and carries out his threat with a frame-up that is so brazen that it succeeds in making people distrust their own instincts about her innocence.

All it would take for him to release her, she is told, is if she crawls to him for forgiveness, but she refuses. Instead, from jail she becomes his most formidable critic and her imprisonment becomes the symbol of all that is wrong with his darkening rule.

The next episode of this real life drama is still being written: She decides to run for reelection from jail, making his conviction for the thousands of lives he has taken the centerpiece of her campaign. The despot increasingly gets worried. What if he fails in his bid to get his daughter or his sidekick to succeed him? His implacable foe could eventually become the instrument of his demise with the time bomb of evidence she possesses. He increasingly launches into embarrassing monologues about her in public that show that instead of her breaking, it is he that is being unhinged by her.

Time is running out. He has to do something while it is still in his power to do so.

The Unraveling of Duterte v. de Lima

Time has not been kind to the three cases that make up the legal assault that is Duterte versus de Lima, all of which were built on the “evidence” of convicted drug dealers and government accomplices.

One of them has been dismissed. Duterte’s lawyers have dared not bring the other two to open court since, based as they are on the self-serving testimonies of convicted drug lords, they would definitely be ripped to shreds by Leila’s formidable legal team.

Seven judges have, in fact, effectively indicated that they think the charges against Leila are not sustainable. Five have inhibited themselves from hearing them and two have opted for early retirement. As for the general public, even those who support the administration say the cases are fabricated, or “gawa gawa lang ni Digong” (“Duterte only made them up.”)

Rather than press for a swift prosecution rammed through cowering judges that would be deadly public relations-wise and only give Leila a national audience in open court, Duterte’s people opted for a strategy of deliberate delay in the hope that they could break her spirit and force her to capitulate to gain release. But with less than a year left in his term and Leila defiant as ever, that the despot might resort to the nuclear option is no longer unthinkable.

As Leila told me, “The fear of being finally ordered eliminated by Duterte is always there. It never left me. As his term ends, especially if the chances of his daughter (or another anointed presidential bet) succeeding him start to deteriorate, he will become more desperate. And desperate men do stupid things.”

The Psychology of a Frame-Up

The big question that future generations will ask, though, is how did Duterte get away with such an obvious frame-up? The answer, in my view, does not lie in the realm of the rational but of the psychological.

One line of attack was aggressively misogynistic, with Leila being portrayed as an “immoral woman” owing to an alleged affair with a subordinate who served as her driver. This was, in a very real sense, a witch hunt — a drive to paint this particular woman who had the gall to stand up to the omnipotent patriarch as the source of all society’s evils.

One must admit that it was a stroke of evil genius to dredge up Jurassic age prejudices against women in the Filipino male’s psyche — the primordial Samson and Delilah complex about women leading men astray, that primeval fear that Freud called castration anxiety —  and to link these subliminal male terrors to the legal accusations that de Lima was a high-level enabler of the drug trade.

Related to this misogynistic psycho-strategy was the sheer effrontery of the plan to paint a former Secretary of Justice as being at the center of the country’s illegal drug problem. This panzer punch was so bold that it stunned people and, among many of those who did not know Leila, it made them question their initial common sense or instinctive reaction that the accusation was utterly false.

Those of us who knew Leila and had worked with her and known first-hand her determination to combat injustice knew the accusations were nonsense. I had the opportunity to work with her briefly in pursuing cases against government officials abroad who were treating overseas Filipino workers as sexual prey while I was head of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs, and I was thoroughly impressed with her commitment to rectifying injustice.

And yet, there were some who had worked closely with her and should have come to her defense or undertaken it more vigorously.

Though she was obviously hesitant to talk about something that really pained her, she admitted that while she did not feel abandoned by her allies, “No one was just going to rush in front of the firing squad to save me from my political execution. In this sense, Duterte was more efficient than [Ferdinand] Marcos. When Marcos started to sow fear among the oligarchy, he had to make an example out of a lot of people, busloads of them, including the whole Liberal Party. Duterte only had to go after me and, save for one or two perhaps, the rest fell silent, even the most vocal of them.”

“I was the object lesson,” she continued. “There was no way anyone was going to get in the same boat with me after Duterte’s overkill of an exhibition of what he is capable of doing to those who dare challenge him, and what they will have to live through. All they had to remember was how Duterte used details of my private life to destroy me. Everyone has skeletons in the closet. They cannot risk Duterte exposing them.”

Of Enablers and Conspirators

She is less tolerant, however, of Duterte’s enablers — not only those involved in the effort to crucify her but in his running roughshod over the country’s institutions, like the separation of powers.

Asked what she thought about political figures representing themselves as “neutral” as the 2022 elections draw closer, Leila said, “As Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘the hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict’… In more senses than one, and like many other politicians, they were enablers and perhaps among the key ones given their key posts in government. They could have much earlier and more effectively called for accountability, but for their own reasons, they were key in allowing Duterte to run unchecked by a powerful co-equal branch of government.”

She reserves most of her anger, however, for those who participated in the conspiracy to frame her, enumerating as principals several names — some that still make the headlines, some who’ve been sidelined, some who were forgettable bit players, but all of them folks with a slimy public image. Two stand out: the Solicitor General Jose Calida, known for his Machiavellian machinations, and Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, who got his job for his role in the frame-up of Leila.

Campaigning from Jail 

Running for office from jail is not unprecedented.

During the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, former Senator Antonio Trillanes conducted a successful campaign during the 2007 elections from his cell at Fort Bonifacio where he was imprisoned by Arroyo. Leila sees the parallel but thinks it’s superficial. “If ever, those conditions would be hard to replicate,” she says. For one, “Senator Trillanes was not subjected to the same complete and ruthless demolition that I was subjected to all throughout Duterte’s term, especially from 2016-2017.”

But even more important, she thinks, is that unlike Arroyo, who was very unpopular, Duterte still rates high on surveys despite his awful human rights record, corruption within his administration, his mismanagement of the government response to COVID-19, and his failure to challenge China’s island-grabbing in the West Philippine Sea.

In an earlier interview, Leila acknowledged that Duterte does have a charismatic appeal to many people that makes them overlook or excuse his bad side. She has been “defined” by Duterte, and although that definition is false, it will impact on her electoral chances.

“People feel invested in the person they supported,” she once said, “and they do not want to believe that he is capable of destroying an innocent human being for personal vengeance and political power, because if they admit that, they believe that they also have to admit that they made the wrong choice. People are perhaps not yet prepared to face certain truths.”

Leila’s 2022 Platform

But Leila knows at the same time that while being the “Anti-Duterte” is her greatest liability, it is also her greatest asset, and indeed should several senatorial slates vie in the elections and split the Duterte bloc, the votes she can expect from the millions of voters that are solidly against the administration or are critical of its record might still land her in the Magic 12.

Thus, one of the three principal legs of her platform is “to go after Duterte and undo the measures and actions taken by his administration that undermined our democratic processes and national sovereignty.” This will involve not only using the justice system “to make all his minions and enablers accountable” but also pushing for a law setting up a Truth Commission to account for all the murders, human rights violations, and other crimes committed under his reign, and his abject surrender of the country’s sovereignty to China in the West Philippine Sea.

But of equal importance in her platform is fortifying the country’s defenses against the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, tossing Duterte’s unsuccessful, militaristic strategy of dealing with it in the dustbin and repairing and strengthening the country’s public health, economic support, and disaster relief systems that she asserts have been gutted by Duterte’s focus and spending on the wrong priorities such as the war on drugs and the hunting down and killing of activists.

The third leg of the platform is one that she feels is as important as the other two — the transformation of the country’s political economy. “In fact, we may need to re-define what a living wage is,” she says, “not just to ensure that wage-earners make enough to keep themselves and their families barely alive, but enough so that most, if not all, Filipinos have enough to set aside for emergencies.”

Even more strategic in her view is the need to redefine or reaffirm the priorities and economic strategies in a post-pandemic world. This will involve reassessing “the economic notions or ideas of competitive advantage, globalization, and specialization, in order to make room for measures that will make our country as self-sufficient as possible when a global, regional, or even local crisis again happens that hampers availability of essential goods, particularly food and medicine.”

Leila has obviously done a lot of thinking and reading in jail, much like other long-term political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and Antonio Gramsci. As one of her staff quipped, “Ironically, Duterte may have done her — and the country — a favor by giving her lots of time to explore economics and other fields that will be put to good use once she’s out of jail.”

But Leila has not only been thinking and reading in jail. She has followed events very closely and is probably the legislator with the most press releases issued over the last five years. More than that she has authored a number of bills and resolutions, the most prominent being Republic Act No. 11310 institutionalizing the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino (a conditional cash transfer program) as an anti-poverty program for qualified poor Filipino families, of which she was the principal sponsor in the Senate.

Playing the Long Game

Even if she does triumph in the 2022 elections, Leila is realistic enough to know that an early release from jail is not in sight so long as Duterte manages to hold his grip on power through a pliable successor.

Asked whether she could envision a scenario where Duterte voluntarily gave up power, she said, “No. His only way out of the inevitable reckoning, whether in the Philippines or the International Criminal Court, is to stay in power, exile himself to China, or die. I don’t think he has immediate plans for the last two.”

But if Duterte is playing the long game, so is Leila. Assuming death does not claim him in the foreseeable future, either he eliminates her or she locks him up in jail for the remainder of his life. Being surrendered to the International Criminal Court is not an option for Rodrigo Duterte, but neither is surrender to a despot an option for Leila de Lima.

FPIF commentator Walden Bello is a former member of Congress in the Philippines, an adjunct professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and a senior analyst at the Bangkok-based think tank Focus on the Global South.