‘Voice of justice’
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - December 7, 2018 - 12:00am

In the race for the post-EDSA Senate in 1987, human rights advocate and anti-Marcos activist Rene Saguisag won handily with what he says were minimal expenses. Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno, the eighth of 10 children of respected senator and freedom fighter Jose Diokno, could have banked on his famous surname and achieved a similar feat, in those years when there was enough residual people power euphoria to propel Corazon Aquino’s anointed successor Fidel Ramos to Malacañang in 1992.

Chel Diokno, however, was just in his late 20s at the start of the Aquino presidency. Diokno is also a low-profile individual with no appetite for the chaotic world of Philippine politics. Returning to the country in 1987 from his law studies at the Northern Illinois University in the US, where he graduated magna cum laude, Diokno busied himself with his human rights advocacy, including helping indigent litigants through the Free Legal Assistance Group. He became the founding dean of De La Salle University’s College of Law.

In 2006, he set up the Diokno Law Center, which provides legal training to government agencies including the Philippine National Police, the Office of the Ombudsman, revenue-generating agencies and the Commission on Elections.

Then Rodrigo Duterte came along, and lost no time implementing his campaign promise to kill, kill, kill. He also set out to control, undermine or co-opt institutions, Diokno says, including the Supreme Court and mass media.

“I don’t think being quiet is an option,” Diokno told us the other night when he visited The STAR.

The only institution left that can stand up to abuses under Duterte, Diokno says, is the Senate. With this in mind, Diokno, now 57, decided to join the Senate race.

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After 30 years, however, the late Jose Diokno has been largely forgotten, although his grandson and namesake, Chel’s eldest son Pepe, is a noted filmmaker. The Diokno who is most widely known these days is a distant relative, Benjamin, who as budget chief is one of the targets of public vilification over the fuel excise tax slapped at the start of this year.

Chel Diokno is running as a nominee of the Liberal Party (he’s not a member) under the opposition coalition. LP president Sen. Kiko Pangilinan told us on One News / Cignal TV’s “The Chiefs” in a recent interview that he has the “misfortune” of being selected as the campaign manager of the coalition, which he admits is facing “an uphill battle” in the 2019 elections.

The coalition wants to emphasize quality rather than quantity in fielding fewer than the 12 candidates for a full Senate slate. This could in fact be better, since if the surveys are accurate, about five of the 12 available seats are already certain to go to incumbent senators seeking reelection. So fewer candidates in a group will mean more allocation of campaign resources per person.

Not that parties play that big a role in providing campaign resources. Former senator Serge Osmeña, who’s running as an independent, and even certain candidates belonging to major political groups have said that parties are for the most part useless in building up campaign kitties.

Chel Diokno indicated he is not relying on the coalition for campaign resources. He told us that supporters are assisting him as he moves around the country preparatory to the official start of the campaign.

He acknowledges that he faces a name recall deficit, which he is moving to address.

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This isn’t easy for someone with his reticence. Bombarded with suggestions on putting some oomph into his personality, he tells us he’s not going to change just to win.

But if Diokno has to promote his agenda of justice, first he has to win. And winning in this country must be mixed with a bit of bombast and theater.

These come naturally to Bato dela Rosa, jolly and avuncular even when he’s being criticized for being at the forefront of Oplan Tokhang and Double Barrel. If the jeering becomes strong enough, the former PNP chief sees no diminution of his masculinity if he weeps in public – over corruption, incompetence and abuses in the police.

Diokno doesn’t break down in public when he is frustrated over certain issues, or dance to draw the attention of a crowd. He may be willing to sing during the campaign, but he hopes it’s his message that will resonate.

At least he has seen the usefulness of sound bites and slogans. His advocacy is to make justice work, so he’s pitching himself as the voice of justice – boses ng katarungan. His slogan: Pag may sala, may parusa, mayaman o mahirap. Rich or poor, there must be accountability and the certainty of punishment for anyone who breaks the law.

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The weakness of the judicial system, Diokno believes, is a root of many evils in this country. He points out that even rising consumer prices – the top concern raised by people he has met with in the past weeks – can be linked to accountability.

I told him it would be useful to have more focused messaging. Bato dela Rosa, for example, is promising to push for the restoration of the death penalty for drug traffickers, murderers, rapists and corrupt politicians. That last part, although tricky to implement when his boss is aligned with politicians convicted or accused of large-scale corruption, would resonate with ordinary people sick of graft.

Diokno is against capital punishment. But he is promising to push for laws that will pave the way for speedy and efficient justice, so people will see no need for extrajudicial shortcuts.

If the surveys are accurate, people at this point are listening more to Bato dela Rosa than to Chel Diokno. But with the elections still about five months away, Diokno says he’s optimistic about his chances.

He believes there are enough voters who are tired of state abuses and seeking to find a stronger voice in the Senate.

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