Jesse Robredo’s lessons for the Left

Even in death, Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo continued to make headlines. On the 40th day of his death, he still attracts attention.

Barely a week after he was brought to his final resting place, media reports began to circulate that Robredo’s subordinate, Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Undersecretary Rico Puno, along with several police officers, had attempted to enter his condominium unit in Quezon City. This was a day after his plane crashed in Masbate on August 18.

President Benigno Aquino III, however, dismissed the incident, telling reporters that he had actually ordered Puno to lock down Robredo’s offices. Nonetheless, the chief executive also admitted that Puno was not given any direct instruction to enter Robredo’s condo apartment.

There were also allegations that the real intent of Puno’s attempted entry into the Robredo unit was to retrieve sensitive documents regarding an ongoing investigation, linking him to two anomalous arms procurement deals for the Philippine National Police (PNP) amounting to P400 million.

Reform commitment

Of course, Puno’s possible involvement in any irregularity remains pure hearsay, at this point in time. What is certain, however, is that Robredo did order several investigations targeting high government officials, most of which are still in their initial stages.

These investigations, we believe, underscore Robredo’s commitment to rid the government of corruption and introduce far-reaching reforms in the country. Such dedication is clearly reflected in his oft-quoted remark reminding public servants that it is not enough that they be matino (ethical), but that they should also be mahusay (effective).

To a large extent, Robredo’s reformist mindset was inspired by the desire to serve the people and to uplift the lives of the poor.

The values he had embraced when he was still alive are, incidentally, also the same principles that the Left has been fighting for over half a century. Of course, such assertion may be surprising for some, especially since the Left (as political science professor Nathan Quimpo pointed out) would often “resort to nontraditional, even radical or revolutionary means” to gain power.

But just like Robredo, Left activists also “want change (and) favor more equality.” It is their shared sense of fairness and social responsibility that have prompted both Robredo and the Left to seek ways of empowering the poor and improve the lives of the economically marginalized.

This is also reflected in their common attempt to change the country’s political system, which is largely dominated by a few elite families, and is often characterized by patronage and violence.

One can even argue that the brand of leadership shown by Robredo fairly approximates the kind of government that the Left envisions – honest, responsive and accountable, with adequate avenues for people’s participation.

It was, for example, during Robredo’s term as Naga City mayor that the Empowerment Ordinance (which institutionalizes local government-civil society participation) came into effect.

Under the said directive, civil society groups and people’s organizations, through the Naga City People’s Council (NCPC), are encouraged to participate in the deliberations of the Sangguniang Panlungsod, and are even allowed to vote and propose legislation.

By creating this mechanism for LGU-CSO engagement and cooperation, the NCPC has now become a model for participatory governance, both here in the Philippines and abroad.

Tribute from the Left

This does not mean, however, that Robredo was a conscious Leftist, or that he deliberately chose specific policies that would advance the Left agenda – far from it. After all, Robredo was never part of the Leftist movement, and he was most probably unfamiliar with its internal ideological discourse.

But by witnessing the desperate condition of our people first hand, Robredo was compelled to adopt certain advocacies that were likely to be supported by the Left.

Activist-turned presidential appointee Joel Rocamora made this clear, saying that, “Jesse and many of us in this government shared (an) intense and passionate struggle for reform.” Such closeness and cooperation became even more apparent when Rocamora, in his farewell statement, called Robredo a “brother and comrade” because by “calling someone ‘comrade’ means you trust him with your life.”

These accomplishments were also not lost on fellow Leftist thinker Robert Francis Garcia who described the former Naga mayor as a man who “defied logic” and as an “enigma.” A long-time proponent of popular education, Garcia wrote that while “the rest of us just mostly mouthed the notion of people’s participation…you (Robredo) actually made people’s empowerment as real as bread.”


But the accolade that Robredo received from the Left is nothing short of astounding.

For the past 4 decades, various Leftist factions have waged armed revolution, asserting that the Philippine state is a colonial by-product and an instrument of oppression that has to be completely obliterated. Animated by their long-term goal of forcibly seizing power, large sections of the Left began cultivating a vanguardist mindset, believing that they practically have a monopoly of sincerity and goodwill, and that they alone can decisively address the numerous social ills plaguing the country.

Hence, the praises that the Left had bestowed on Robredo (who is a non-militant and a government official, to boot) is extremely rare, if not totally unprecedented.

His death, however, offers critical points of reflection for the Left. First, there are non-Leftist leaders (like Robredo) who are genuinely championing the people’s interests, and people recognize the efforts they are making. The large crowd that went to Robredo’s wake, both in Naga and in Malacañang, is proof of that.

According to one prominent radical intellectual, the Left’s largest mobilizations are not demonstrations but funerals. But even the number of marchers who joined Popoy Lagman’s funeral procession from UP-Diliman to Marikina in 2001 would pale in comparison to the crowd of mourners that Robredo’s death generated weeks ago.

Second, change that makes a difference in the lives of people can now be achieved in countless places, in different arenas and in various fields. The brand of politics that the Left espouses is no longer their sole franchise.

Making a difference

In fact, it can be argued that while the Philippine state – by and large – is still desperately in need of bold, sweeping reforms, a growing number of reform-minded public servants has taken the extremely challenging task of working in government to initiate incremental changes that are substantive enough to make a difference in the lives of common people – as what Robredo achieved in Naga City.

There are also a lot of civil society initiatives, as well as work of local government units that offer promising results that, if sustained, can make a lot of difference in various spaces of politics and governance in the country.

These include Puerto Princesa’s community-based sustainable tourism (CBST) program, now an excellent model of sustainable development program that generates jobs while protecting the environment; and the Rice Production Program of San Miguel in Bohol, which has resulted in greater investor confidence and improved productivity through constructive engagement between government and citizens in performance-monitoring.

Changes are also occurring in the largely conservative House of Representatives, where progressive legislators are slowly gaining recognition, and where radical reform measures like the Reproductive Health bill and Freedom of Information bill, are now being debated.


But the final and most important lesson for the Left is the importance of leadership. If we are to push for sweeping radical reforms, we need social movements and institutions; but good leaders are also equally important. And the reason why Robredo’s leadership is truly exemplary is because of his ability to win the trust and confidence of people.

This points to the need for the Left to work on leadership – not only in terms of offering new leaders, but in regaining the trust and confidence of our people. But the Left would also have to recognize that in today’s world, they can be everywhere, and that efforts must be made in finding these “new Leftists” to more effectively advance the alternatives they offer.

The Robredo case underscores one critical point for the Left: the new Left is out there. The current Left can either recognize this and do something about it, or once again be left out in the emerging politics of change in the country.

After all, Robredo is the New Left. The Left may just not know it yet. –

Joy Aceron is program director at the Ateneo School of Government and lecturer at the Ateneo Political Science Department. Francis Isaac is senior researcher-writer at the Active Citizenship Foundation. This article was first published in