Philippine Vice President Not Settled Yet

A week into maverick tough-guy Rodrigo Duterte's victory as Philippine president-elect, his campaign team has begun a shortlist of his future cabinet members.

What is crucial, however, is who will be vice president, a position of great import in a country with a history of booting presidents out of office, as in the case of Joseph Estrada who was replaced by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2001. Out of office since 2010, she still faces corruption charges.

Leni Robredo, the administration party’s candidate, is the presumptive winner. With 96 percent of the votes counted, she has a slim lead of about 200,000 votes over Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the only son of the late dictator who is seeking to resurrect his father’s name.

In the Philippines' unique and some would say dysfunctional system, the president and vice president are not elected on the same ticket, a situation that has often caused strife in the administration, as was the case with current No. 2 Jejomar Binay, who lost badly for president after years as a front runner, and President Benigno Aquino. The two became bitter rivals.

Duterte, however, has already said he would welcome Robredo as an "assistant president."

A social activist and calm voice, Robredo is the antithesis of Duterte’s tough-guy image. Some suggest she would become president in due course if Duterte steps aside. He has said he would step down if he is unable to fulfill his promise of solving crime in six months, and at age 71, he has also said he might not be able to finish his term. His health remains a question. Once a heavy smoker, as mayor of Davao City he banned smoking in the city.

But in the Philippines nothing is ever quite so simple. Scenarios pile up, rumors abound and rational thinking gives way to emotion. If Filipinos took a leap of faith choosing a populist, self-declared socialist president, there has to be insurance against the unknown.

Departure from Imperial Manila

A Duterte-Robredo tandem, if this is what it turns out to be, would first be a departure from the centralized “Imperial Manila” of the Luzon elite and dynastic families that control Congress. Both Duterte and Robredo emerge from local politics, he from Mindanao and she from Bicol in southern Luzon where her husband was a town mayor and later a member of President Benigno Aquino's cabinet before he died in a 2012 plane crash. They have both risen to national prominence very quickly, Duterte by talking tough and Robredo through the emotional appeal of widowhood.

Their votes may well be the grassroots speaking out. As mayor of Davao City for two decades Duterte transformed the city from a violent battleground of insurgents and crooks into a picture of success that resonated across economic classes. His tough words were order and discipline at all cost.

“I really am a dictator when it comes to crime, you can bet your life on that,” he said shortly after the results showed him far ahead of the other candidates in the May 9 elections. “But for the other things, you can relax,” he said, seeking to quell fears that he would take extrajudicial measures, shut down Congress and set up a revolutionary government – all steps he has said he would take once in power.

Duterte has said many things, making it hard to detect what might pass for official statements. His platform called for federalism, though it is not clear how this would be implemented or if the constitution needs to be revamped. A step in that direction would certainly give the regions more of the power Manila has held since independence from the US in 1946. Federalism may be what the fringes have been waiting for.

Gutter tones

No matter what he said, or how ominous or vulgar it rang, the public caught the fever: Duterte was voicing what others could not. He is the rough-hewn man from the provinces, spewing gutter tones in Visayan, the predominant language of Davao passed on from the central Philippines. Filipinos angry with undelivered promises in the past cast their lot with him to do for the nation what he claims to have done for Davao, a sprawling urban-rural city of 2 million.

They saw him as the candidate “who can make things happen,” said Vivian Tin, a researcher for the ABS-CBN television network. “Even if he gets one thing done, that will be good enough.” His campaign, run by close friends who were formerly in the communist underground movement, elicited a spontaneous movement through social media.

Robredo too was seen as authentic, cutting the figure of the “strong mother who could balance him [Duterte],” according to Tin.

Good governance in the provinces

A mother of three daughters, Robredo was virtually unknown nationally until the death of her husband Jesse, a popular politician from Naga City who spearheaded a “tsinelas leadership,” named after the traditional flip-flop footwear of the common man. He was also part of a nationwide movement harnessing the talents of local elected leaders in various communities.

Both Davao and Naga were models of relatively good governance in a nation steeped in patronage and corruption. Duterte’s side has said it would welcome Robredo into the cabinet if she is proclaimed the winner, and there she would be among a chosen group of rightists, leftists and old timers from previous administrations including, Duterte said this week, members of the rebel communist movement that has been at war with the government since 1969.

From news accounts, it is likely that Robredo would be given the portfolio of social services and development – which fits with her work as a lawyer helping farmers and workers. Her late husband had been secretary of interior and local government under Aquino. After his death, she ran for a seat in Congress from her husband’s district and won.

In the election debate that pulled her up in the surveys, Robredo came across as the kind of mother Filipinos adore, akin to Corazon Aquino when she was waging a campaign against the Marcos dictatorship. It did not escape from many minds to put the younger Marcos in his place – and that like his father before him, a widow is about to beat him in a political fight.

Bongbong Marcos, as he is known, pulled ahead in the early count, when he took some of his home northern Luzon region and the greater Manila area. For people afraid of losing the gains of 30 years of democracy it was scary to think that a Marcos may again rise so close to power as part of the Duterte tide. It looked like a sweep from the right.

Robredo supporters stayed vigilant, however, praying and crying and waiting for the numbers to overtake Marcos, as they did eventually in the wee hours of the morning. Her biggest vote tally came from the Visayas and Mindanao, in regions where Marcos was never a beloved name. People in Mindanao especially have not forgotten the civil wars during martial law, brought on by President Marcos’s divide-and-rule style. The younger Marcos himself has rejected a law giving autonomy to Muslim Mindanao and Duterte has surprised many with his populist ideas.

Counting still On

Final counting has yet to be finished as ballots from overseas working Filipinos trickle in, while Marcos junior’s allegations of cheating have fallen flat.

Despite the vitriol that permeated the campaign, the Philippines reached a milestone in having the quickest, most peaceful elections yet. It was also an uncharacteristic show of humility for the losing presidential candidates to concede to Duterte, unlike before when angry protests prolonged uncertainty.

The tight race between Marcos and Robredo remains a cliffhanger. Duterte’s own vice presidential running mate, Alan Cayetano, who was third in the race, has conceded to Robredo, undoubtedly a signal that the incoming president would be ready to have her on his team.

Criselda Yabes is a Manila-based journalist and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel