It now seems likely that the May 10 presidential election will be primarily a contest between President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and actor Fernando Poe Jr. The first has all the advantages of incumbency as well as the formidable political machinery of the Lakas Christian- Muslim Democrats. The second has his immense popularity

But both now have a third, formidable advantage the two other candidates for president, former senator Raul Roco and Senator Panfilo Lacson, do not have. They have for running mates two of the most popular TV personalities in the country who also happen to be senators of the Republic.

Although widely rumored, only in the last days of 2003 did the rumors become fact. Noli de Castro announced his decision to run as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s vice president December 29. Actor Fernando Poe Jr.’s own—that Senator Loren Legarda would be his running mate—almost immediately followed on New Year’s eve.

Former senator Raul Roco filed his certificate of candidacy last December 30 in the company of his own candidate for vice president, former congressman Herminio Aquino. While he had filed his candidacy December 29, Senator Panfilo Lacson, the fourth candidate for president, has yet to decide on who will be his vice president. But his political adviser Lito Banayo says Lacson is thinking of Bayani Fernando, who’s currently chair of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority. From all appearances Fernando, who had offered to be President Arroyo’s vice president, is at least open to the possibility of running with Lacson.

De Castro and Legarda’s candidacies have provoked a debate on who’s the more popular, and whether De Castro’s popularity can rub off on Mrs. Arroyo, and Poe’s and Legarda’s on each other. On the other hand, even his most avid supporters are wondering why Roco chose Aquino. While he has been a Tarlac congressman thrice, Aquino lost when he ran for governor of that province in 2001, and has no national standing. Fernando suffers from the same infirmity, his acceptability for national office in most polls being no more than three percent.

Why the inordinate fuss over the vice presidency this political season? The vice presidency was once a post widely ignored and even derided. Once upon a time its occupants were expected only to collect their salaries and quietly vegetate in the shadow of the president.

Unlike in the United States where the vice president can at least preside over the Senate in some occasions, and where the voters cannot elect a president and vice president from different parties, in the Philippines the vice president has no other function except to await the summons of history: i.e., to assume the presidency when the president dies or is otherwise incapacitated.

Far from being the “more challenging” post which entails “bigger responsibilities” Senator Legarda described it when she accepted Fernando Poe Jr.’s offer (which she is widely thought to have solicited) to run as his vice president, the vice presidency is—officially—far less challenging than, say, being a senator of the Republic.

Precisely because the vice president is officially tasked only to wait in the wings, only with the goodwill and confidence of the president can the vice president of the Philippines assume other tasks in government.

Those tasks can range from the truly important to the most trivial: from being designated secretary of foreign affairs—which Salvador Laurel was during the early years of the Corazon Aquino presidency, and which Teofisto Guingona was in the Arroyo government until mid-2002—to cutting ribbons to open dog shows. A falling out between the president and the vice president, usually but not always due to political reasons, can mean the loss of both presidential confidence as well as appointment.

Certainly the vice presidency can be what whoever occupies the post makes of it, and between De Castro and Legarda there’s no contest. Legarda does seem more likely to spend her time in it more profitably if elected, given her track record as a senator, her obvious intelligence, and her capacity for consistency with certain principles, among them environmental protection and her opposition to the deployment of foreign troops in the Philippines.

Sure, Legarda left Lakas-CMD in furtherance of her ambitions, and is now in the putrid company of Francisco Tatad, Juan Ponce Enrile and Miriam Defensor-Santiago, but who hasn’t done the same—or even worse?

Legarda critics also say that her staff lawyers were feeding her via cellphone the questions she was so competently asking during the Estrada impeachment trial in 2000, a charge that even if true at least demonstrates that she has a competent staff. As a broadcaster Legarda is also far from being the mere talking head and news reader De Castro has always been, her performance in her programs revealing at least a nodding acquaintance with environmental and social issues.

But whether she or anyone else can realize whatever potentials they have once in the post depends mostly on the president—on his or her willingness to give the vice president the opportunity to perform “more challenging tasks.” Whether the vice president will indeed be given such tasks is at the very least uncertain, no matter what promises have been made to that effect.

One can only conclude that by agreeing to run for vice president neither de Castro nor Legarda could have been moved by the certain prospect of assuming responsibilities bigger than their current ones as senators. Neither is the nemesis of sidewalk vendors likely to have been moved by the same prospect in offering to be Mrs. Arroyo’s—and now Panfilo Lacson’s—vice president.

Over the last two decades, however, the once belittled post of vice president has propelled at least two politicians to the presidency. Joseph Estrada’s popularity as an actor was enhanced even more by his prolonged public exposure as head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission from 1992 to 1998. The post enabled Estrada not only to develop a public image as tough on crime, but also to broaden his support among the police among others. Politically, Estrada’s six years as vice president were thus far from being idly spent.

On the other hand, Mrs. Arroyo’s own brief vice presidency from 1998 to 2000 passed as profitably. Appointed to what Estrada apparently thought was the minor post of Secretary of Social Welfare, Mrs. Arroyo was noted for visiting the smallest barangay and sitio during her incumbency in the Estrada cabinet. What is even more compelling about Mrs. Arroyo’s case is her assumption of the presidency when Estrada resigned (if not in so many words, by implication, says the mind-reading Supreme Court).

The possibility of whoever’s elected president in May’s suffering the same or even a worse fate than Estrada seems remote. But there is one thing whoever becomes vice president can be certain of: enough public exposure and enough time to prepare for the presidential election of 2010. Except for Aquino, who admitted to being “surprised” at being named Roco’s running mate, De Castro, Legarda and Bayani do have ambitions for the presidency.

It helps explain the fuss as well as the surge of interest in the vice presidency. As interestingly nightmarish as the contest for the presidency is turning out to be, the contest for vice president has turned into a sideshow of equal relevance not only for the next six years, but also beyond—in terms of who’ll be president from 2010 to 2016.

(Today/, January 3, 2004)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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