Sarah Elago, the Youngest Lawmaker in the Philippines, Challenges Duterte's Boys Club

Sarah Elago, the Youngest Lawmaker in the Philippines, Challenges Duterte's Boys Club
Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Elago

What you need to know

The youngest lawmaker in the 17th Congress of the Philippines is taking her party's fight for justice to the streets.

It is election season in the Philippines, and this time around, it is not hard to find Congresswoman Sarah Elago campaigning on foot all over the country. Elago can be found in schools and assembly halls giving talks on the participation of young people in progressive politics, or being interviewed by a slew of interested reporters trying to get the “youth angle” on the state of Philippine society. She may be in demand and difficult to catch, but she remains adamant that all of this attention isn’t about her.

At 29 years old, Elago became the country’s youngest ever woman lawmaker when she entered the House of Representatives at 26 for her first term after the 2016 elections. She also became the youngest lawmaker currently serving in the Congress of the Philippines.

Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Elago
Kabataan Representative Sarah Elago.

Elago’s constituents are not confined to any particular legislative district since she ran as the nominee of Kabataan (Youth) Party-list, a political party with specific sectoral representation for Filipino youth. Kabataan Party is also a part of the Makabayan (Patriotic) Coalition in Congress, which has positioned itself as critical and left-leaning before and especially during President Rodrigo Duterte’s tenure.

This means that Elago caters to more than 30 million Filipinos aged 15-30 years old. That’s a tall order for anyone, but Elago tells The News Lens that “every day in the House is an affirmation of the importance of collective action and increasing organized force of the youth’s independently set agenda. No single person can do it alone.”

Youth on the march in the time of Duterte

Kabataan may be the name attached to the list of parties in Congress, but Elago credits the widespread activism in schools and communities that culminated in what is the first and only form of direct representation of the youth in the lower house.

Student councils, alliances and organizations working daily for education and human rights have been a formula for success for Kabataan since they first won their seat in 2007. In other words, the party itself is merely a product of a grassroots movement without the backing of any influential political clan or personality.

“Time and again we have proven that we can do great things with our united strength,” said Elago. “We do not rely on the favor of any political juggernaut, the movement of young people intertwined with those who are in need the most, speaks for itself. That’s why I’m here.”

Kabataan has run on a platform for the advancement of the youth agenda, primarily for free education, #BetterInternet and gender equality. She elaborated that gender equality did not only mean civil liberties and respect for women, but upholding the rights of women especially in all forms of economic activity. That entails better wages and conditions of work as well.

What has been most striking, though, is a palpable uptake in the participation and clamor generated by young people in the time of Duterte. We need only to look at the outrage over the government deeming former dictator Ferdinand Marcos a national hero and the “historical revisionism” by education officials, the members of the Marcos family still in power and others to portray the country’s years of martial law as something to look back fondly at.

Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Elago
Sarah Elago speaks at a rally in Manila.

On more than one occasion, Duterte has teased and threatened with his intentions of a return to the Marcos era style of leadership. Early this month, he warned the public that if unrest against his administration does not falter, he will declare a “revolutionary government” by suspending the writ of habeas corpus and arresting all of his critics and detractors.

“Our future is at stake,” said Elago. “We know about history, and we may be young but a nation does not forget especially when the threat is too blatant to ignore. The turnout of protests against any return to dictatorial rule is an indication. Young people are a near unlimited well of creativity and dissent.”

A series of student walkouts against the spate of human rights abuses and worsening economic conditions under the Duterte administration irked the President last year. He responded by saying he would give their slots in their universities to other poor students from far flung areas instead. Despite this, thousands of students slammed the leader for attempting to pit them against each other.

All-out attack

Elago came into office at probably one of the most challenging times in Philippine politics. This young public servant remains unafraid to voice out their youth party-list’s position on various issues amid overwhelming majority of the Congress representatives (over 200 out of 290) sides with the administration. Friends were few, so Kabataan, the rest of Makabayan and a handful more comprise the House’s minority leadership.

She also came into the fore in an era of “fake news” and has been victimized by it. She related how the worst for her how those, who spread lies and falsehood against their youth representation, pin the blame on critical leaders like her as to why young people have lost their lives to armed revolution in the countryside.

“I have been to countless discussions, forum, solidarity trips, and mass demonstrations, and thus, meeting a number of people from all walks of life,” she says. “However, news of slain soldiers and rebel fighters at war fill us with intense grief and pain; we must carry on and put forward no less in paving the way to peace and justice in our land. Such grave circumstances show the urgency and necessity of addressing the roots of armed conflict, and pursuing meaningful and substantial reforms.”

Red-tagging” – the practice of labeling activists and progressive politicians as communists and NPA sympathizers, usually without evidence – has also been a constant challenge that Elago and other activists have had to deal with. She explains that this is not only a matter of maliciously accusing people of being terrorists, it also diminishes the reasons and circumstances that have created conflict ridden areas. “Worst of all, it makes activists an easy target for tyrants who would like nothing more than to crackdown on people voicing the truth.”

“I’m not in a position to say that armed revolutionaries are wrong,” says Elago. “Some people would challenge me to stand for dropping weapons. But there should be more people talking about the roots of the conflict. Young people have historically been a part of this conflict. They need answers and solutions; and not merely to be told what to do. What I know for sure is that labeling all these groups as terrorists does not help to resolve the situation.”

She was referring not only to the NPA but to the several other Moro-Islamic guerrilla groups in the southern group of islands called Mindanao. Having been the target of accusations from a slew of internet trolls saying she is hurting the nation she reminds us that people on the ground have it far worse. “Our constituents, advocates and campaigners on the ground face death threats, harassment from worse, state agents. We can only depend on our organization and the wealth of solidarity that we have with people from different walks of life.”

Credit: Courtesy of Sarah Elago
Kabataan Representative Sarah Elago.

‘Linking arms’

Even outside the halls of the Batasan Pambansa (Congress building), Kabataan Partylist has been at the forefront of the Filipino youth. Elago makes time to extend solidarity to student, workers and peasant marches. On the frontlines standing firm at protests, even being caught in the tumult if need be to assert their freedom of assembly.

She can usually be found at Kabataan centers, where she spends her nights sleeping on a mat laid out on the floor – a far cry from the mansions and villas of the elite-dominated legislative branch.

Elago firmly says Kabataan gets most of its support from “active and direct participation” – house to house campaigns, schools, social media and other communities. Elago, who tends to speak more like an organizer than an elected official, says that “linking arms with the masses, especially those who have not found their voice yet, is where our strength comes from.”

The youth vote will again play a major role in the outcome and transparency of the elections. According to Kabataan, around 52 percent of the voting population are either millennials or part of Generation Z.

“The challenges are more intense with the regime seemingly doing everything it can to marginalize dissent and sideline progressives,” she says. “But the youth movement has reached a point where it would not be swayed by these false narratives.”

Another hurdle they face this election season is that the Duterte administration has fielded its own youth party to combat Kabataan. Flagrantly named the “Duterte Youth” party, its main representative is also the wife of appointed head of the National Youth Commission Ronald Cardema.

Questions have been raised over Cardema’s open participation to campaign for the Duterte Youth. He is the party’s chairperson which, according to election laws, is prohibited for public officials. Moreover, he has made it clear that part of his group’s agenda is to “confront” Kabataan in the legislative halls.

“For quite some time now, they have been trying to roll out the red carpet for a monopoly on political power,” said Elago. “What they can’t seem to realize is that people are angrier, precisely because the Duterte administration has failed them so profoundly.”

Unfazed despite being a relative newcomer, she says that her past three years in Congress was not a baptism of fire by any measure. “There are more things happening on the ground. To some extent, our lawmakers know this. They know, the youth is a powerful force to contend with. They know that more women are speaking up in light of Duterte’s misogyny. Many of them do have financial advantages, but progressives will always rely on people.”

With the May 13 elections only weeks away, Elago maintains she is confident of another win for Kabataan. “I am young, a woman and some might see that as a disadvantage, but in the end, its less about personalities and more about being on the right side of history and genuinely serving the people.”

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Editor: Nick Aspinwal@TheNewsLens

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