Leni cites Jesse as she calls for national unity

MANILA — Leni Robredo sounded a rallying cry for national unity on Thursday as she took her oath of office as the country’s 14th Vice President, becoming only the second woman to rise as the second most powerful official of the Philippines.

“As Jesse used to say when he was alive: ‘What brings us together as a nation is far more powerful than what pulls us apart,’” she said, quoting her late husband, former Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo.

“During these times of conflict, unity is most important for our nation. We may come from different walks of life or different advocacies, but our dreams are the same: that each Filipino will live a dignified, prosperous life,” the 51-year-old Robredo said.

Without the new President at her side, the new President-in-reserve was sworn into office under weeping skies, surrounded by people on the fringes of society whose interests she has vowed to protect—women, farmers, the urban poor, persons with disability, the Bangsamoro, indigenous peoples and the youth.

They shared the spotlight with several VIPs who came to bask in Robredo’s reflected glory, mostly political allies, including her defeated Liberal Party running mate Mar Roxas, outgoing Senate President Franklin Drilon and outgoing Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr.

Kris Aquino, the celebrity sister of former President Benigno Aquino III, who relinquished his post to President Duterte also on Thursday, added star power to an otherwise simple ceremony, though she came in late.

But Robredo devoted much of her speech talking to and about the people on the margins of society and how she hoped to serve and address their needs.

“The doors of the Office of the Vice Presidency are always open, no matter one’s station in life, beliefs or party. Ours will be a listening office,” the former Camarines Sur congresswoman said, speaking in Filipino.

“In our first 100 days, we plan to once again go to the farthest and the smallest barangays to pray with you, to laugh and cry with you and most of all to listen to the things that you want changed,” she said.

“We hope that as we bring the Office of the Vice Presidency to your barangay, you will feel the government is truly there for you and when you feel that, you will be inspired to spark your own change as well,” she said.

Dressed in an ecru Filipiniana dress designed by Paul Cabral, Robredo had a mostly calm demeanor but visibly struggled to fight back tears during the first part of her speech when she talked about personal defining moments.

“There are moments in our lives that shine brighter than others. Like when I met Jesse. Or when I saw my children’s faces for the first time. Or when the plane crashed. We are facing one of those moments once again,” she said.

Robredo’s oath was administered by Ronaldo Coner of Barangay Punta Tarawal, Calabangga—the poorest, farthest and smallest village in Camarines Sur’s third district. This made her the first Vice President to take an oath before a village chair.

She made her pledge with her hand atop a Bible held by her youngest daughter Jillian, flanked by her two other daughters Aika and Tricia. Robredo’s mother, Salvacion Gerona, was also present, along with other close kin.

Robredo had insisted on having representatives from marginalized groups be present or given a role at her inauguration.

Prayers held at the start of the ceremony were inclusive: a young volunteer Cyleen Velasquez led the Christian prayer; Delfin Dimog Dulnuan, an indigenous people leader, led an Ifugao prayer; Uztadz Abdulhadi Daguit, a commissioner of the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, led the Islamic prayer; and Sister Cho B. Borromeo led the Catholic prayer.

Actor Dingdong Dantes, a former National Youth Commission chair, and his wife, actress Marian Rivera, also graced the event at the Quezon City Reception House, the new official residence of the Office of the Vice President.

Members of Aquino’s Cabinet came en masse: former Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, former Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala, former Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya, former Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez and former political adviser Ronaldo Llamas.

Newly elected or reelected Senators Leila de Lima, Risa Hontiveros and Kiko Pangilinan also attended, as did incumbent Senators Sonny Angara and Bam Aquino, who was Robredo’s campaign manager. House Representatives Romero Quimbo, Edgar Erice, Erin Tañada, Jerry Treñas and former Roxas spokesperson and Akbayan Rep. Barry Gutierrez were also present.

Belmonte said Robredo’s call for national unity was “the signal of the day really.

“The elections are over. We should put politics behind us and get united in confronting the problems that beset our country,” he told reporters.

The outgoing Speaker said he was practically sure that Robredo and Duterte would eventually patch things up.

Duterte has been impervious to Robredo’s attempts to reach out. He has stated he has no plans to appoint her to a Cabinet post in spite of a longstanding tradition of Presidents giving this courtesy to the Vice President.

He also did not want her at his own inauguration in Malacañang, forcing her to arrange her own inauguration.

“I think, I’m almost 100 percent that sooner or later, they will have to work together,” Belmonte said of the two officials.

“Duterte has a lot of common sense. He knows where he is. If he is presiding over a divided country, or divided politics, he won’t want that,” he added.

Drilon said Robredo’s call was the “kind of spirit we need for the next six years.

Asked to comment on the apparent divide between the two officials, Gutierrez said: “Hopefully, it’s not emblematic of a division so much as it is a last show of force for those who supported Leni Robredo.”

Hontiveros, a former leader of Akbayan, said she hoped Robredo’s sincere words would not fall on deaf ears.

“Those who make calls for cooperation tend to be very persistent people and leaders. Many who have supported Leni since the elections listen to her call … Hopefully, such a sincere call will be answered,” she said.