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 vest and 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 lang. Hindi kami umimik nung nangyari yung EJKs (extrajudicial killings).
Marami ding hindi umimik sa amin nung nilalait ni Pangulo si Senator Leila de Lima. At marami ding hindi umimik nung... kitang-kita naman natin nung pumapasok yung China sa ating teritoryo.
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.