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Spare Tire? Here's How Vice Presidents of the Philippines Defined Their Roles

VP powers in the Philippines, explained.
by Ara Eugenio
May 20, 2021
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In the last five years, Vice President Leni Robredo, as leader of the opposition, has been called many names by critics. Among the most recurring of them is "spare tire", referring to the only formal power she has left in the Duterte administration.

As second highest official of the land, there's not much she is told to do on paper. According to the 1987 Philippine Constitution and in the Administrative Code of 1987, a Vice President can:

  • Assume the position of the president in the event that the office becomes vacant
  • Be a member of the president’s Cabinet without confirmation from the Commission on Appointments
  • Serve as an executive committee member in the National Security Council

Unlike her predecessors, Robredo hasn't held any cabinet position since she resigned as housing chief in 2016. She's also been kept out largely from the National Security Council, where she's supposed to serve as an executive committee member.

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This begs the question: Is she really now just a second fiddle? 

A VP ensures continuity

Ridicule it all you want, but a spare tire is still a spare tire, University of the Philippines political science professor Jean Encinas-Franco told reportr. 

"As placeholder to an incapacitated president is still their most important function," she said, noting this is how they "ensure continuity" at a time as unrestful as having a president step down, be it via an ouster or a sudden death. 

When Joseph "Erap" Estrada was removed from office through the second People Power revolt, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took over, inheritting all expressed and unexpressed powers of the presidency. She would become the longest-serving president since Marcos, at nearly 10 years.

Former presidents Sergio Osmeña, Elpidio Quirino, and Carlos P. Garcia were also once second-only to the chief executive throne, until the untimely deaths of their predecessors.

Unlike a president who is not eligible for re-election, a vice president can. Arroyo did it, winning in the 2004 elections that was marred by allegations of massive cheating.

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A VP can redefine her role

During Fidel Ramos' presidency, his VP, Estrada, headed the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission. In the latter's presidential term, Arroyo was social welfare and development secretary. For Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, Jejomar Binay was tasked to look after overseas Filipino workers. 

These appointments transcended partylines. So what happened to incumbent Robredo? Although Duterte initially offered her a Cabinet role, they eventually failed to overcome the animosity from the campaign, said Encinas-Franco.

After all, the constitution only said a vice president “can be” appointed to the Cabinet. It is not a mandate, leaving their fate to a president's pregorative. 

The Philippines does not elect its two highest officials on a unified ticket, unlike in the United States where a vote for Joe Biden meant a vote for Kamala Harris.

"It’s a complicated game kasi 'yun nga wala tayong strong political party. Party differences can really shape the way a winning president would look at his or her vice president," she said, noting that Robredo's opponent, Bongbong Marcos, is also close to the president. 

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Despite losing her Cabinet post, Robredo managed to keep her office running, using her grass-roots organizing backround to curry support for her projects. The Office of the Vice President (OVP) website also lists other functions that are outside what's expressly stated in the constitution: 

  • Develop and implement programs to ensure effective and efficient delivery of social services to the Filipino people, especially the laylayan or those on the fringes of society;
  • Collaborate with appropriate government and non-government agencies, financial institutions, socio-economic groups and people’s organizations, for possible support to Local Government Units (LGUs) and their constituents, and as an active partner in identifying and implementing government programs; and
  • Perform ceremonial functions as the Vice President represents the Philippine government in official gatherings and diplomatic functions, both locally and abroad.

'Linchpin' to the presidency

But even if a spare tire remains as such towards the end of his or her term, the position remains to be a linchpin to the presidency, said Encinas-Franco. After all, a VP is still second to the occupant of Malacañang. 

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With his special Cabinet role as anti-crime boss, Estrada was "perceived to be doing his job", as exposés and crime stories were high on the media agenda. It gave him more publicity than he already had as star of the B-movies, allowing him to ascend to presidential power in 1998 with 6.5 million more votes than the second placer. 

This particular path to the presidency is still highly contingent on popularity, especially against that of the incumbent. In Robredo's case, should she run, her biggest challenge remains: Duterte's "enduring" magic that whoever he endorses will likely inherit.  

"Wala talaga tayong strong party discipline, which is a huge structural problem. But that doesn't mean a VP cannot still rise, " Encinas-Franco said.

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