Beyond the VP race: Robredo and Marcos under a Duterte presidency

CONJUGATIONS - Lila Ramos Shahani - Philstar.com

The political lines taking shape in the aftermath of our national election are beginning to reveal more about the character and attitude of our newly-elected politicians than their campaign promises ever fully managed to do.

Thirty years after one of the darkest periods in contemporary Philippine history—the Marcos dictatorship—our country continues to reel from the aftershocks of Martial Law. Yet those two decades of dictatorial rule seem to have somehow slipped from our collective memory. In May, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. came within a hair’s breadth of clinching the second highest post in the land—which, had he won, would have propelled him that much closer to the presidency.

The loss of the son and namesake of our late dictator might have signaled the end of his narrative and heralded a fresh chapter championed by the new vice president-elect. But the promise of unity and healing President-elect Rodrigo Duterte made has yet to be realized. Instead, in a display of utang na loob, he continues to display affection for the Marcos family while keeping Leni Robredo at arm’s length. We’ve seen this in his decision not to give Robredo a seat in his Cabinet because he does not want to “hurt the feelings” of Marcos, whom he considers to be a friend. “This,” he said, “is the political reality.” We can thus expect the Marcoses, especially Bongbong, to remain an enduring presence in our political life.  For this reason, we should ask what this copasetic relationship between Duterte and the Marcoses implies for Robredo’s term. Does it mean that she will be marginalized, a vice president with no institutional teeth, who is, in effect, a superfluous spare tire?

Her electoral victory notwithstanding, the 1987 Constitution prescribes no specific duties for the vice president other than taking over the president’s term “in case of death, permanent disability, removal from office, or resignation.” The position, however, has been politically significant. It allows its occupant a six-year head start to campaign for the presidency. And, even before EDSA, almost all past presidents have assigned important posts to their newly-elected vice presidents, even though, in our multi-party system, they are usually members of the opposition.

For example, during President Fidel V. Ramos’ administration, then-vice president Joseph “Erap” Estrada used his role as head of the Presidential Anti-Crime Commission—tasked to go after warlords and crime syndicates—to enhance his profile as a crime buster, giving him the exposure he needed to power his 1998 presidential bid.

Diosdado Macapagal was, in fact, the only other vice president to be excluded from the Cabinet. Without an agency to head, Macapagal was free to spend his term under Carlos P. Garcia traveling the country, introducing himself to the electorate—ultimately allowing him to beat Garcia in the next presidential election. This may not be pertinent to Robredo, who has repeatedly disavowed interest in the presidency—but six years is certainly time enough to change things.

At this point, for better or worse, Robredo’s vice presidency cannot be dissociated from the key roles of both Marcos and Duterte.

There’s been a lot written about the resurgence of Marcos’ popularity, and so there is no need to go through the many reasons for this phenomenon. Suffice it to say that he and his well-staffed support groups capitalized upon—and exploited—the short-comings of the post-EDSA era. Through the savvy use of social media, Marcos loyalists spread the propaganda that the Marcos era was a “golden age” of development and good governance, in contrast to the numerous failures of post-EDSA administrations.

Of course, being propaganda, these claims conveniently neglect to mention that the many problems the nation face are the direct legacy of his father’s brutality and theft. Bongbong continues to insist that the nation needs to “move on” from Martial Law and focus on solving current problems, while dismissing the very history that led to making the country the “sick man of Asia.”

Bongbong finished the vice presidential race in second place with 14,155,344 votes, trailing behind Robredo’s 14,418,817—a mere 263,473-vote difference. But he hasn’t given up, claiming he’s been cheated and demanding an investigation of alleged voting irregularities. He is preparing to file an electoral protest—declaring with confidence, “I will eventually take my seat that is being kept warm for me.” And he has met with Duterte, fueling speculations that he will be given a Cabinet position. In a press conference, Marcos said he would be “honored to serve” in the incoming administration if given a chance to do so, following the one-year appointment ban on losing candidates.

For those who suffered under the dictatorship and who continue to feel the trauma of its violence, the prospect of the unrepentant son returning to power is a grievous insult. For others, Duterte’s coziness with the Marcoses raises alarm bells about a return to dictatorship.  

There is no other way to put it: Martial Law was a disastrous period in our history. It ruled by way of a wide web of cronyism, the centralization of corruption and the use of military violence to silence its critics. Such governance led to the cataclysmic deterioration of economic conditions, including the devaluation of the peso and skyrocketing unemployment and poverty rates. The Marcos family’s wanton plunder, estimated to be in excess of $10 billion, has continued to saddle us with a whopping public debt of $28 billion that we will continue to repay for generations.

Perhaps these would have been easier to forgive had Martial Law not subjected thousands of people to human rights abuses, for which most have received no reparations. Amnesty International records that 70,000 people were imprisoned, 34,000 tortured, and 3,240 killed. The stories behind these numbers are so heart-wrenching that to forget them is not only an affront to the activists who gave their lives to stand against Marcos tyranny—or to their surviving families and friends who kept up the fight—but also to an entire country that is still staggering from horrors its perpetrators refuse to recognize.

Bongbong’s loss to Leni might have been our opportunity to finally consign the Marcos’ revisionist narrative to the garbage heap of history. Of course, Robredo’s victory is not without hitch. She is herself facing allegations—thus far unsubstantiated—of electoral cheating. If that turns out to be the case, it will cast doubt on claims by anti-Marcos forces that she is indeed the better alternative to Bongbong.

More serious, however, is President-elect Duterte himself, who has continued to keep the Marcos storyline open, while relegating Robredo to the margins of his administration. In what many perceive to be “pandering” to the Marcoses, it seems he may in fact go through with his pre-election promise to bury—with state honors—the strongman’s remains in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. This burial will be the triumph his family and loyalists have sought for years.

For her part, Leni Robredo has consistently opposed Martial Law revisionism from the start. She has criticized Marcos’ defense of his father’s rule, particularly his pronouncement that the EDSA Revolution “derailed his father’s plan” to develop the Philippines. Of the abuses of Martial Law, she said: the “numbers don’t lie.” Even in sorties through Marcos’ bailiwicks, she stressed the need to properly evaluate the country before and after EDSA, knowing full well that such statements would antagonize Marcos loyalists and voters of the “Solid North.”

Many of her supporters have decried her exclusion from the Cabinet, but others have pointed out that her situation is not without its merits. Some argue that this will give Robredo the freedom to be a leading voice in the opposition of Duterte whenever necessary—particularly in matters of human rights abuse and the maltreatment of women.

Indeed, it is highly unlikely that Robredo would keep mum simply because she served in the Cabinet. "Supporting [Duterte] means doing what we can to help him serve our people and our nation,” she said in a statement. “This includes providing, with the other members of his team, other perspectives on various issues to broaden his view.”

Some maintain that holding the country’s second highest government post without the encumbrance of a Cabinet position would give her greater liberty in carrying out her projects. Thus, Robredo’s supporters welcome her pronouncement that the lack of a Cabinet position will not keep her from her poverty alleviation work.

What does the future hold for an administration that, from the outset, appears divided between a presidency intent upon rehabilitating a dictator, and a vice-presidency committed to fighting its return? Will Duterte and Robredo be able to find common ground and set aside their differences? Will there be policies, especially regarding poverty alleviation and women’s rights where they might effectively join forces for the next six years? And how will they deal with the unrelenting ambitions of the Marcoses? How much of an obstacle will Bongbong be in forging a united government that will focus on the pressing needs of the nation? Will the country’s needs overcome personal ambitions, or will the narcissistic desire for political power with which to hold on to stolen loot undercut national purpose? While we await the start of a new regime, we need to keep these questions in mind, considering the complex power struggles that have already begun to play out.

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