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Spare tire or not? The role of the Philippine vice president

As thousands of Filipinos cried for help following a string of devastating tropical storms, Vice President Leni Robredo closely coordinated rescue operations. For her doing so, President Rodrigo Duterte called her out for "competing" with him.

"Kaya ako lumipad sa Bicol. Inunahan mo pa ako pakunwari. But do not compete with me and do not start a quarrel with me kasi ikaw wala ka talagang ginawa except 'yung mga tawag-tawag," said Duterte in a tirade.

(That's why I flew to Bicol. You got there first, supposedly. But do not compete with me and do not start a quarrel with me because you were doing nothing except make calls.)

Robredo had been to Bicol a few times right after the first typhoon hit in November. On Sunday, November 15, Duterte said he would pay her a courtesy call in Bicol, but she wasn't in the region that day. Instead, Robredo had visited hard-hit Cagayan that day — hours ahead of the President.

The Office of the Vice President has one of the lowest annual budgets among government agencies. In 2020, for instance, it has a budget of P708 million, compared to Duterte's 2020 budget for his office at P8.28 billion.

In the past, a vice president has been tagged as a “spare tire,” among other terms that connote someone just waiting for the president to step down.  

Strictly speaking, according to the 1987 Philippine Constitution, the vice president is really on standby to take over the presidency if the need arises.

Article VII Section 8 of the Constitution says that the vice president shall serve the remaining days of a president’s term “in case of death, permanent disability, removal from office, or resignation.”

A vice president can also function as an acting president, according to Article VII Section 7, in two instances: (1) if the elected president failed to qualify or (2) if a president has not been chosen.

President's prerogative

The 1935 Philippine Constitution mandated the vice presidential position. The country’s first Constitution, the Malolos Constitution, did not provide for a vice president.

The vice president is governed by the same set of qualifications as a president, as outlined in Article VII Section 2 of the 1987 Constitution. This includes being a natural-born citizen of the Philippines, a registered voter, able to read and write, at least 40 years of age on the day of elections, and a Philippine resident for at least 10 years.  

A vice president also serves for 6 years per term. However, unlike the president who is barred from reelection after one term, a vice president can serve for two consecutive terms.

Since the position was established, the Philippines has had 13 vice presidents – 4 of whom had assumed the presidency following a death or resignation of the president: Sergio Osmeña after the death of Manuel Quezon in 1944, Elpidio Quirino after the death of Manuel Roxas in 1948, Carlos Garcia after the death of Ramon Magsaysay in 1957, and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo when Joseph Ejercito Estrada stepped down in 2001.

But being a spare in case the president steps down is not the only thing a vice president could do. He or she can also assume another position and be part of the Cabinet.

However, this depends on the president’s decision on whether or not to offer a Cabinet position to his vice president.

Article VII Section 3 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, after all, only states that the vice president “may be” appointed to the Cabinet. It does not mandate or direct the appointment.

But the official website of the Office of the Vice President (OVP) lists some other functions:

  • Executive function or ensuring that "laws are faithfully executed"
  • Ceremonial function or representing the government with foreign goverment representatives
  • Advisory function as a Cabinet-level official
  • Constituency function or perform "consultations with local executives, lends support to their programs and extends financial assistance to them"
  • Administrative function or ensuring that the OVP performs and attains its goals.
In and out of the Cabinet

When Duterte became President-elect in 2016, he was non-committal on appointing Robredo to his Cabinet, although his campaign spokesman Peter Laviña said he would reserve Cabinet positions for the prospective candidate, using the pronoun "she." Robredo said she would perform her duties as vice president regardless of a Cabinet appointment.

The two highest officials have kept a hostile distance from each other. It has manifested in Robredo's entrance and exit from the Duterte Cabinet. Five months after Duterte appointed her as housing chief in July 2016, Duterte ordered Robredo "to desist from attending all Cabinet meetings" due to "irreconcilable differences."

In 2019, Duterte challenged Robredo to lead all anti-illegal drug programs after she was quoted criticizing his administration's implementation of its war on drugs. She accepted the appointment to co-chair the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD).

Less than a month after Robredo's appointment as ICAD co-chair, Duterte fired her

Robredo's brief stints in the Cabinet makes her distinct from her predecessors who headed departments, agencies, committees, or task forces in government for an extended period. The exception is Diosdado Macapagal, who did not hold a Cabinet position while serving as vice president to Carlos P. Garcia from 1957 to 1961. Macapagal defeated Garcia in the 1961 presidential election.

It was a blessing, however, for Macapagal as without a Cabinet position or agency to look after, he was able to go around the Philippines and make himself known to the Filipino people. He won the 1961 presidential elections with 3,554,840 votes against Garcia’s 2,902,996.

Macapagal is one of the 6 vice presidents who eventually became president: Osmeña, Quirino, Garcia, Macapagal, Estrada, and Arroyo. 

Robredo, however, has publicly declared more than a few times that she does not aspire for the presidency. But with an unpredictable arena that is Philippine politics, we will never know what the next 6 years will bring. –

Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.

Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer at Rappler. Possessing the heart and soul of a feminist, she is working on specializing in women's issues in Newsbreak, Rappler's investigative arm.