“I cannot accept that my kids are going to live in a country where there’s no accountability.”-Chel Diokno, Senatorial Candidate

If you’re reading this, you’re part of the relatively small portion of the electorate who knows who Chel Diokno is.

Step outside your comfort zone, and you’ll find that most of the tarpaulins and posters that blanket public walls belong to administration bets like Bong Go and Bato dela Rosa. Sorties put together by Sara Duterte’s Hugpong ng Pagbabago are a dime a dozen compared to the opposition’s Otso Diretso. The Hugpong jingles that play throughout every barangay drown out the debates that the Otso eagerly attend.

Voters who are disappointed with the majority of the candidates running for senator may be unaware of other options. If a candidate’s name is not on a movie poster, on the family tree of another politician, or on ads that run during every commercial break on primetime television, it’s as if they don’t exist. It’s an uphill battle for candidates like Diokno, who lacks the political machinery that will lift his voice above the noise. But then again, he’s familiar with adversity.

We spoke to him at the De La Salle University College of Law in Bonifacio Global City, not too far from where his father, former senator Pepe Diokno, was held as a political prisoner of the Marcos regime. Diokno was 11 years old at the time.

In tone and demeanor, Diokno bears all the characteristics of a winning senatorial candidate: a voice that resonates with warmth and gravitas; a stature that indicates both dignity and humility; and a passion that permeates through every word he speaks. These, along with a platform that puts human rights front and center, have made him a favorite among younger voters.

During our interview, in fact, a crowd of students gathered nearby. “Hi Dean!” they called out. Diokno gave them a friendly wave, inviting them to join him, and they giddily obliged.

In the polls, however, the excitement for Diokno isn’t as apparent. As of this writing, he’s well outside Pulse Asia’s Magic 12, despite winning the majority of university-held mock elections. His campaign team hopes the student demographic mobilizes in the coming days to help him garner more votes for the upcoming midterm elections. After all, it’s their future he’s fighting for.

ESQUIRE PHILIPPINES: You’re not afraid to show your sense of humor while campaigning. We remember the joke about keeping the life vestand the “Chel ka lang” line. Why do you show such candor?

CHEL DIOKNO: I think it’s all about showing who I really am. I’m not running for any personal purpose or personal interest. I just want to let it all hang out, you know? It’s probably a different approach from the typical, traditional politician who would want to create an image, but I’m not that way eh.

ESQ: Speaking of images, local publications and blogs call you a “Woke Lolo” in their headlines. How do you feel about the labels younger groups give you?

CD: At first, it intrigued me because I didn’t know what it meant. So I asked my kids, “What does ‘Woke Lolo’ mean?” They said it’s someone who’s medyo mulat, someone who’s “progresibong matanda.” Parang ganun yung pagka-explain sa akin.

But it got me to think. I realized that if the young people call me a “Woke Lolo,” they must see others as… kung may “Woke Lolo,” meron ding “Sleeping Lolo.” Meron ding “Lolong Nagmumura Parati.” “Lolong Galit.” And it made me a bit sad, because it also made me realize that young people are looking for role models, and I think my generation—many of us—let them down. Marami sa amin,tumahimik langHindi kami umimik nung nangyari yung EJKs (extrajudicial killings).

It made me sad that many in my generation didn’t listen to what the young people were looking for, and didn’t lift a finger when they know that these things really shouldn’t be happening.

ESQ: You seem to be a favorite among young voters, but how do you reach people in your generation or others?

CD: Those who are over 60 probably remember my father. When I go around, even to the palengkes,when I meet the older generation, they remember my dad a lot, so that doesn’t seem to be much of a problem.

I guess it’s those who are a bit younger than I am—I’m 58 so maybe the ones who are between 30 to 50 who don’t really know me, and that’s the challenge that I really have to face and overcome.

I’d say that it’s really a big question of exposure, and that’s where elections really aren’t fair. Kasi kung mayaman yung kandidato, maraming pera, puwede siyang maglabas ng TV ad every day, and everyone will recognize them after a while. Whereas a candidate who might be deserving but doesn’t have [those] kind of resources will have a really hard time coming out with television ads. So we had to devise a strategy that could circumvent the obstacle. And of course the more level playing field is online: social media. It wasn’t really a choice more than something that we had to do.

ESQ: Let’s talk about your campaign. It’s driven a lot by your advocacy: human rights. What drives that advocacy?

CD: It’s something I’ve been doing all my life. Justice and human rights are like two sides of the same coin. When you talk about human rights and justice, you’re really talking about accountability. When someone violates your rights—especially someone powerful—even if they are powerful, they should be held accountable.

When you talk about justice and human rights, you’re also talking about empowerment. When a court recognizes the rights of a katutubo, of a worker, of a student, then that empowers that person or that sector. If you’re talking, for example, about an urban poor community and their rights are recognized by the law, then that’s a form of empowerment. It’s a very powerful way of letting people realize they have a lot of dignity that is being respected in society.

To me, that’s the biggest thing that’s lacking in our country. We all want to stop corruption. We all want to stop criminality, especially organized crime. But nobody talks about the justice system. Politicians don’t want to talk about it precisely because it’s [about] accountability, and I think they’re afraid to have a good justice system because they might be the first to be imprisoned.

They don’t want to talk about it because it’s about empowerment, and if the electorate becomes enlightened, they probably won’t vote them in the next time. If all they do is sing and dance in a campaign, that’s not what the electorate is going to look for if they’re “woke.” That’s why I think it’s so important to push this issue, and that’s what I’m determined to do.

A lot of young people, they come to me, they tell me, “Oh, kayo po ang aking lodi, inspirasyon.” But I tell them it’s the other way around. It’s really the young people who pushed me to run. It’s the young people who made me decide that… I cannot accept that my kids and you guys are going to live in a country where there’s no accountability. Where you have impunity. Where you have corruption that’s unchecked. Where you have organized crime that can’t be stopped. How can we take that? How can we accept that?

I remember when the War on Drugs began in July of 2016, and we saw how much blood was being spilled on the streets. But no one wanted to say anything. Everyone was so afraid. One Sunday morning, I just couldn’t stand it. I woke up and I wrote a post on Facebook. I said, “How can we accept that justice is coming from the barrels of guns?”

That’s really the reason why I decided to do this. It’s gotten to the point where silence is no longer an option. I can’t just be quiet and let these things happen.

ESQ: Why do you think the non-youth demographic is afraid to speak out against injustice?

CD: They have a lot of baggage; put it that way. The working people have families to support. They have children. They don’t want to become part of the list and maybe targeted. Older generations have businesses, and they’re afraid that if they talk too much, then their businesses might be affected. There are really so many reasons. The bottom line is, it’s really a climate of fear.

Lists have become weaponized. Whether there’s evidence or not, any person’s name can come out on a list of the President, a list of the PNP, a list of the barangay.

The lists now have gone beyond drugs. In the beginning, it was all drug lists. Narco list, drug list. Now you have red lists, where teachers, students, activists are being tagged—even lawyers are being tagged—as communists. It’s so dangerous, because these are not evidence-based.

And I keep saying this: If there are dangerous people in our country, then why aren’t cases being filed against them? If these people are really involved in drugs or in crime or in treasonous acts, then file cases. Why use lists?

The last time lists were used in our country was during the Japanese occupation, when the Japanese made lists of every Filipino who was fighting them, and targeted their families. The other time that lists were used in the world was during the time of Hitler, when they killed six million-plus Jews. That’s how terrible the use of lists can be.

In our own country, according to our very own Supreme Court, from July 1, 2016 up to the end of November 2017, 20,322 people have already been killed in the War on Drugs. That’s more than the number of people who can enter and sit in Araneta Coliseum. That’s only for a year and a half. That doesn’t include those killed from the whole of 2018 until now. That’s easily 30,000-plus that have been killed in the War on Drugs. And the number, it’s not abating. People are still getting killed every single day.

ESQ: Do you find that it more difficult to campaign when the President demonizes the very idea of human rights?

CD: It’s a really, really big challenge to campaign in this kind of climate, where you have fear. Where you have anyone’s name coming out on a list. Where the President has come out with a list of alleged narco-politicians. Where you have local governments afraid to help the opposition because they might be identified by Malacañang and singled out, and maybe put on lists as well.

Where you have unabated killing and violence that’s happening every day; not just election-related—that’s happening, as well—but also activists being killed, even environmental… Those who work in environmental causes have been killed. Doctors, lawyers, judges being killed. Poor people, especially, being killed in the War on Drugs. It’s really a big challenge.

ESQ: Let’s move on to some of the things you did in the course of your campaign. When did you learn to jet ski?

CD: (laughs) I don’t know how to jet ski, actually!

You know, campaigning requires a lot of symbolism, I think, and we were just taking up the President on his challenge. He’s the one who made the campaign promise that he [would] even jet ski to protect the West Philippine Sea. We were very disappointed that no one—not a single candidate in the administration slate—said a word about what’s happening to our territory. Up to now, they have been so quiet.

I keep saying this: We’re all Filipinos here. We all belong to the same country. Shouldn’t your loyalty be to the country rather than to a single person or to your party? Why is no one saying a word from the other side?

The other thing that I think is so unfair and unjust is the way that they have been conducting their campaign. Ang gusto nila, parang padamihan nalang ng tarp. Ayaw nilang humarap sa debate. They don’t come out when they’re invited by television outfits, by radio [stations], by colleges and universities that want to hear their platform. They want to hear them talk about issues that are really important for the country. But they’re not there. They never show up.

What do they do? Padamihan ng TV ad, and then pagnangangampaniya, tawanan, kantahan,sayawan. They’re trying to reduce the level of conversation in campaigning to idiocy. I think that’s really something that’s not healthy for the country.

If you look at the rules of the Senate, they use the word “debate” dozens of times, because what you do in the Senate is debate. You bring up a bill. You argue over it with people inside the Senate who might not agree with you. You find ways to get them to agree, and eventually get it to pass the House. But they don’t want to engage in debate. That, I think, shows the level of political immaturity of these candidates.

ESQ: Now that we’ve brought up the admin bets: Your platform has some similarities with them in terms of end goals, such as putting an end to crime, corruption, and endo. What makes your approach to these matters better than theirs?

CD: I wouldn’t be one to judge, but what I can say is that I have seen our justice system up close. I know the flaws. I know the institutional obstacles. I know why it doesn’t work. And I really, really firmly believe that we cannot ever develop sustainably as a country and as a people without fixing our justice system.

What are the flaws that I’ve seen? Number One: We’ve all seen how slow litigation is in the country. Nobody realizes that one of the main reasons why justice is so slow in the country is because we really lack judges and prosecutors. Twenty percent of our trial courts are vacant. We have no judges. Twenty percent of our prosecutor positions are vacant.

Imagine a hospital that lacks doctors and nurses; that’s how our justice system is. And every day, you have new patients, new cases coming in. How can a workforce that is inadequate deal with existing and incoming cases? It’s simply impossible. That backlog has been there for decades. Decades! If they were patients, they would be dead by now.

That’s why you have cases that are decided after 25 years. Imagine, if justice delayed is justice denied, then so much of our justice in the country is really unjust. That is an issue that has never been discussed. I’ve never heard a politician talk about vacancies in the courts. That has to be addressed

Esquire Philippines
“I cannot accept that my kids are going to live in a country where there’s no accountability.”-Chel Diokno, Senatorial Candidate