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A ‘superfluous excellency’: The historical troubles and travails of the Office of the Vice President

By Bim Santos Published Nov 20, 2020 6:26 pm Updated Nov 20, 2020 10:15 pm

Doy Laurel was not happy. 

He had the party machinery, the political pedigree, and the weight of history to have a shot at being the first duly elected president of the country after Martial Law. But the son of the country’s third president — Jose P. Laurel — who had been preparing to be president all his life, decided to give way to Cory Aquino, wife of his closest friend Ninoy Aquino, whom he practically grew up with. 

It should have been his defining moment in history, but he withdrew to give way to Cory, who at that time was riding on a growing wave of public support after Ninoy’s assasination. Some said he looked to the example of his father, who declined calls for re-election in 1953 to instead support the successful election of Ramon Magsaysay. In his book “Neither Trumpets Nor Drums,” Laurel, whose given name “Salvador” means “savior" in Spanish, called it “the hardest decision in my life.”

Laurel first met Ninoy when La Salle reopened in 1942 during the Japanese occupation when he enrolled for high school. They formed a basketball team and played almost every day. (Photo from salvadorlaurel.com/doy-and-ninoy)

Out of the loop
Making matters worse, after Aquino was elected, Laurel was eventually kept out of the loop in Malacanang, even being given the runaround when he wanted to get a hold of Cory. This happened after a string of policy differences, and after Laurel insisted that Aquino fulfill the political promises she gave to him before he gave up his presidential bid. Cory, however, supposedly said that the “Edsa Revolution erased all those promises.”

Former president Cory Aquino had a difficult relationship with her vice president Doy Laurel (The Philippine Star file photo)

Laurel — who for a time after the EDSA People Power Revolution was the country’s concurrent vice-president, prime minister, and foreign minister — was eventually eased out. He then resigned from the cabinet as secretary of foreign affairs, and led calls for Cory to step down. When he finally ran in the 1992 elections sans the blessing of his former chief executive, he lost to Cory’s favored candidate, Fidel V. Ramos.

Laurel, an avowed patriot, was the first son of a president to have become a vice president. But he was also the first incumbent vice president to have lost his bid to become president.

The man with the best job in the country is the vice-president. All he has to do is get up every morning and say, 'How is the president?'

Smarting from the series of slights he endured under Cory, Laurel called the role of the vice president “a superfluous excellency.”

“The First Republic was a dictatorship established amidst revolutionary conditions. The Founding Fathers did not find much use for the role of the Vice-President. Yet, why should he be a superfluous excellency? Why not an active one?” Laurel wrote in the same book, which was a searing if bitter post-mortem of the Cory administration. 

Spare tire
The vice-president is second to the president in the line of succession, but under Section 8 of the 1987 Constitution, the primary mandate of the office is to become the president in case the president dies, becomes disabled, removed from office, or resigns. This seeming state of suspended animation is what gives rise to the impression that the vice president is but a “spare tire.”

“The man with the best job in the country is the vice-president. All he has to do is get up every morning and say, 'How is the president?’” American humorist Will Rogers once said.

In the 1987 Constitutional Convention, suggestions to expand the role of the vice president did not prosper. In the United States Constitution, from which parts of the previous Philippine Constitutions were patterned after, the vice president is also the senate president and has the power to break a stalemate.

Complete dispersal
Mel Sta. Maria, dean of the Far Eastern University Institute of Law, said the current set-up came about due to our experience with Martial Law.

“We wanted a complete dispersal of power of the great branches of government,” Sta Maria said. “We wanted as much as possible to have a check on the president.”

Beyond serving in a stand-by role, the 1987 Constitution under Article VII Section 3 also said that the vice president “may be” appointed to the Cabinet, the key take-away being that the appointment is at the president’s discretion.
 
Team of rivals
One other key difference between the Philippines and the United States is that in the latter, the president and vice president are voted as one ticket during elections, which ensures that the two highest officials are in sync, ideally at least.

Diosdado Macapagal was the first to be elected vice president with a president belong to a rival party. Deprived of a cabinet post, he spent his time going around the countryside, which then helped in his subsequent presidential bid. In this DFA photo, Macapagal is beside his wife Eva as he shakes the hand of the country's first president, Emilio Aguinaldo.

To be sure, President Rodrigo Duterte and Vice President Leni Robredo are not the country’s first president and vice-president to be at odds during their term.

The first elected vice president who was not on the same ticket as the president was Diosdado Macapagal. In 1957, Macapagal won as vice president under the Liberal Party, while Carlos P. Garcia of the rival Nacionalista Party was elected president.

Partisan differences
“The relationships between presidents and vice presidents after the Second World War were generally marked by partisan differences. This was brought by the creation of the two-party system, which was not seen in the time of Quezon and Osmena during the pre-World War II Commonwealth government,” said Jeffrey Agustero Asuncion, history professor at the University of Philippine Los Banos.

Macapagal was offered a cabinet position on the precondition that he switch to the ruling party, a deal which he then refused. As a break from tradition, Macapagal was shut out of the cabinet and in some instances even deprived of government resources. He then led the opposition and became the government’s chief critic. 

Unmoored from any cabinet responsibility, Macapagal then spent most of his time travelling the country, talking to the people, and making himself and his party known. In 1961, as Garcia’s popularity shriveled under the glare of graft and corruption issues, Macapagal won as president.

Playing ball
In the administrations following the Cory government, the team of president Fidel V. Ramos and vice president Joseph Estrada (1992-1998), who was appointed as head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission, was subdued in terms of differences, though both also came from different political parties.

Vice president Jejomar Binay had a testy working relationship with president Noynoy Aquino (Boy Santos, The Philippine Star)

As vice president from 1998-2001, Gloria Arroyo initially played ball with the Estrada administration. But later on, as corruption allegations grew, she resigned as Social Welfare secretary and joined calls for Estrada to resign until she assumed the office in 2001 after Estrada was forced to step down.

Teofisto Guingona Jr., who was appointed by Arroyo as vice president, had political differences with his chief executive, which eventually led him to resign from his concurrent post as Foreign Affairs secretary as well as from their political party, which was LAKAS-NUCD.

After the relatively low-key vice-presidency of Noli de Castro in 2004-2010 under Arroyo, things heated up again under the administration of President Noynoy Aquino and his vice president Jejomar Binay (2010-2016). Aquino declined to give Binay the Interior and Local Government portfolio, a post that Binay preferred. In 2014, their relationship further turned south after the Senate began investigations into allegations of corruption against Binay when he was the mayor of Makati. Binay believed the hearings were only meant to derail his presidential bid, as he was leading surveys against Aquino’s party-mate under the Liberal Party, Mar Roxas.

In 2015, Binay quit Aquino’s cabinet as Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council head and presidential adviser on OFW affairs. Binay then lashed out at the Aquino administration as “uncaring and a failure (manhid at palpak).”

Wrong system?
Dindo Manhit, president of the consultancy group Stratbase ADR Institute, believes the current set-up is “a wrong system.”

It doesn't maximize the potential of a president and vice president working together

“It could be good that we vote for a team or a tandem because a tandem would have the mandate to work for six years to achieve the necessary reforms and initiatives and attain national objectives instead of bickerings and distrust. It’s a system susceptible to political intrigues, even at the height of a pandemic,” Manhit said.

“It doesn't maximize the potential of a president and vice president working together,” added Manhit, who favors amending the Constitution.

An added check
Sta Maria, on the other hand, said the system also works to the advantage of the public by having an added check on the chief executive.

It need not be testy. But a check on the president coming from any institutional office should always be welcomed

“I believe that the set up now is good so that there will be someone high enough to call the attention of the president,” said Sta Maria.

“It need not be testy.  But  a check on the president coming from any institutional office should always be welcomed,” Sta Maria said.

Whether a vice-president is considered by his chief executive as a co-pilot, a spare tire, or an outright nuisance, what’s important is that the second-in-line remains independent.

“The ideal is that the president and the VP should work hand-in-hand. But if we have a wayward President, then it’s better if there is someone institutionally high in the constitutional framework of government that can call his attention,” said Sta Maria.

For now, despite the outright animus of Duterte, Robredo said she has no choice but to make do with the situation.

“Talagang iyong sinasabing ‘spare tire,’ totoo iyon,” Robredo said in a 2018 interview, stating their lack of earmarked funds to undertake projects.

"Pero huwag nang magsayang ng panahon na umiyak kasi mayroong roadblock. Kung mayroong roadblock dito, hanap na ng iba," Robredo added.