The vice president in our system

Should there be an opportunity to amend or revise the 1987 Constitution, it would be worth taking a close look at the role of the vice president. It is not clear why the framers of our Constitution, after choosing the presidential system of government, allowed for the possibility that the two top executive officials of the nation could come from opposing political camps. This seems like a recipe for disunity at the highest level of the executive branch.

Certainly, there ought to be checks on the powers of the executive. But, in all our constitutions, these checks are abundantly provided in the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers. Maybe, Filipino voters thought these were not enough. And so, on at least four occasions, they picked a vice president who comes from outside the elected president’s party.

What happens when you have a situation like this? In the 1957 elections, Carlos P. Garcia of the Nacionalista Party won the presidency. But his running mate, then Speaker Jose B. Laurel Jr., lost to the Liberal Party’s Diosdado Macapagal. Being a leader of the opposition, Vice President Macapagal was not given a Cabinet post. He spent the next four years going around the country to lay the ground for his presidential run in 1961 against President Garcia himself, whom he defeated.

In 1992, then Sen. Joseph “Erap” Estrada, who had announced his intention to seek the presidency, agreed to slide down to vice president to give way to businessman Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco’s presidential bid. Erap handily won, but Cojuangco lost to Fidel V. Ramos in a closely fought election that attracted 11 presidential contenders. Rather than ignore him, Ramos made Erap the head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission, which was tasked to go after warlords and criminal syndicates. Erap used this minor role to enhance his profile as a crime-buster, giving him the exposure he needed for his 1998 presidential bid.

While Erap won the 1998 presidential election by a landslide, his popularity was not enough to pull his running mate, then Sen. Edgardo Angara, to victory. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who ran in the slate of Lakas Party’s Jose de Venecia Jr., took the vice presidency. Though she was opposition, Erap was good to GMA, appointing her secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development. But this accommodation did not prevent her from joining, and ultimately benefiting from, the campaign to oust the president halfway through his term.

The 2010 presidential election was another case in point. The original standard-bearer of the Liberal Party, Mar Roxas, gave way to then Sen. Noynoy Aquino less than a year before the election, after Aquino shot to prominence following President Cory’s death. Aquino won the presidency by a huge margin, but Roxas, who had been leading in the surveys until the eve of the election, lost the vice presidency to the relatively unknown Jejomar Binay.

P-Noy made Binay a member of his Cabinet, putting him in charge of the government’s housing agencies and appointing him presidential adviser on overseas Filipino workers. Both positions gave Binay a platform from which to project his presidential ambition.

Indeed, he spent the last five years doing so, resigning from the Cabinet a few months ago to assume the role of archcritic of the administration.

In retrospect, allowing Binay to sit in Cabinet meetings was tantamount to giving the opposition a ringside view of the workings of the administration—including its problems, dilemmas, weaknesses, and the splits within it. I wonder how any president can plan, strategize, or be open in his discussions with his official family under this condition.

I suppose the framers of our Constitution did not think having a president and a vice president from opposing parties would pose any problem. There is, after all, nothing in our laws that compels the president to give the vice president, whatever his party might be, any role other than being the presidential spare tire. But what a pity that is, particularly when one views the responsibilities of a vice president in a modern corporate organization. Nowadays he or she would often be the chief operating officer of the company, serving as the right hand person, the brain trust, or chief troubleshooter of the president.

In the United States, whose constitution has been an abiding model for our own charters, the electorate does not directly choose the vice president. The position automatically goes to the running mate of the winning presidential candidate. This makes sense, given that the basic function of the vice president is to succeed the president in the event of the latter’s death, resignation, or removal from office. It is reasonable to presume that, in such instances, the electorate would prefer the position to be passed on to someone who shares the same vision.

The US vice president also becomes automatically the presiding officer of the US Senate, though this is largely a ceremonial job. John Adams, vice president to George Washington, defied the restrictions of his office and went on to play a pivotal role in the crucial years of building an independent nation. He is my model of an ideal vice president.

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