President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo

MANILA, Philippines (WOMENSENEWS)–President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s tough yet deft handling of a recent coup attempt by supporters of the former president has again highlighted the fine line between resolve and restraint that women here must tread in their bid for political power.

When Filipinos go to the polls on Monday, they will elect 13 of 24 senators to their upper house; 34 candidates are running, including six women. At this time, only four senators are women. They also will elect all 262 members of their House of Representatives, which currently has about 30 women. Twenty percent of its seats are set aside for disadvantaged groups, including women, and women occupy only 15 percent of elected positions nationwide. More than 17,000 local posts will be filled, from provincial governors to mayors.

Women in this nation of almost 75 million must confront the seemingly contradictory requirements of the toughness required of politicians and the femininity still expected of women in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. Looks, hair, figure, fashion–these are still important and topics of obsessive conversation and media coverage.

With no strong organized women’s vote, women, like men, tend to vote, not on issues, but on personalities and personal loyalties.

In campaigns for the seats, there’s much talk of ending corruption and cronyism and of more open government. Women’s concerns, however, have not been heard. Virtually ignored are the poverty of single mothers, the need for child care, the frequency of domestic violence, the ongoing sex trafficking and pay inequities. Also ignored are the problems faced by women migrant workers and the amount of unhappiness created in a country where divorce is illegal.

Tumultuous campaigns here are half entertainment, with singing and dancing on stage by celebrities and candidates alike. Mudslinging and hyperbole are taken for granted. So are “massive vote fraud, vote buying, ballot snatching and the three G’s–guns, goons and gold,” says Remmy Rikkin, operations director of the Center for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics based here.

President Balances Crackdown on Rioters With Prison Sympathy Visits

So far, Arroyo, the former vice president and the daughter of a former Philippine president, has played the game artfully. After her May 1 crackdown on rioting supporters of former president Joseph Estrada, she moved quickly to soften the blow with conciliatory visits to their detention cells and a cordial meeting with Estrada himself in his suburban prison.

“I will crush you,” is what she told the coup’s plotters, however.

And she offered a choice to Muslim secessionists holding an American hostage: “Surrender or suffer the peace of the graveyard.”

Military forces attacked the group’s lair shortly after and rescued the hostage.

Opposition Leaders Challenge Arroyo’s Legitimacy

Arroyo, 53, a former economics professor, said that she learned to be tough from watching Britain’s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. But a Filipina Iron Lady was a far cry from the initial impression she gave political observers.

When Arroyo took over from a disgraced Estrada in January, people zeroed in on her looks, her height and her nondescript wardrobe, details that obsessed the media and the people during President Corazon Aquino’s six-year term in the 1980s. Arroyo herself contributed to the preoccupation with glamour and personality politics when her campaign posters in 1998 mined her close resemblance to a movie star.

Other women politicians have learned the lesson well.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, a former immigration commissioner who once declared that she “eats death threats for breakfast,” is as well known for her feisty remarks as for her shapely legs, which she once bared in a pool-side pictorial.

In recent days, Santiago, an avid Estrada fan, has threatened to have herself shot and to jump from a plane without a parachute should her idol be arrested. Before TV cameras, she cocked a 9 mm pistol, yet her campaign posters feature the former judge smiling demurely in an old-fashioned Filipina costume.

Concessions to traditional expectations may be necessary for Filipino women who so far have won most of their electoral positions on the basis of their kinship to male politicians.

Women Influenced by Traditional Expectations, Kinship With Men

“Philippine politics is dynastic and fueled by family interests,” says columnist Rina Jimenez David, president of the women’s political party Abanse! Pinay (Advance! Filipino Women). The party is running for re-election under the party list system to represent the “marginalized” women’s sector.

The party list system allots 20 percent of the 260 seats in the Philippine House of Representatives to 12 marginalized sectors, including the disabled, the elderly, fisher folk, indigenous communities, peasants, the urban poor and women.

“Growing up in a political household exposes one early in life to the demands of politics,” David said. “Facing strangers who seek favors, taking to the hustings, shaking hands and speaking before crowds transfer skills that breed in the child the desire, impetus and intestinal fortitude necessary to join the fray and enjoy it.”

Although Filipina women constitute 51 percent or a slight majority of the 34.4 million registered voters, they have not been known to vote on the issues. Political observers say lack of voting on the issues is responsible for the demise of the woman’s political party, Kaiba, organized for the 1987 elections a year after Aquino claimed the presidency.

Women Still Determined to Build a Political Movement

Past history and current challenges have not deterred the women behind Abanse! Pinay, the new women’s political party.

“We were aware of the obstacles that would be put in our way but we were also keenly aware that we could no longer avoid getting involved in politics if we were truly committed to changing the world for women and children,” said David, the party’s president.

The aim is to “encourage women to use their natural leadership styles and redefine them,” says Rikkin of the Center for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics, and an Abanse! candidate. “We want to show that you don’t have to be tough and uncompromising; you can be strong yet caring and you can lead by consensus.”

Pennie Azarcon Dela Cruz, managing editor of the Sunday magazine of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, regularly writes on politics, women’s issues and media.

For further information, visit:

The Center for Legislative Development:

Center for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics:

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo:

The Philippine Senate:

Philippine House of Representatives:

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago:

Philippine Daily Inquirer: