It’s now the end of what has been in some respects a rather surreal week – the elections have, contrary to most expectations, been concluded more-or-less successfully, at least in form if not in substance, and there is a growing mood that it is time to move on and make the best of it. That much is good, I suppose, but what’s disturbing to me is how quickly things have seemed to return to the same dull and unsatisfying normality. Whether you are satisfied with the outcome of the elections or not, they have presented the country an opportunity to improve, which so far and shockingly soon after the event the country seems all-too-willing to squander. Squander the opportunity at your own hazard, because whether you are satisfied with the outcome of the elections or not, the real tasks facing the country going forward are clear, entirely inescapable, and can be summed up in four simple points:
The people must hold their chosen leaders to a greater standard of accountability: It should be axiomatic, but apparently it needs to be pointed out to the electorate that the demand and desire for a democratic system carries with it the responsibility for participation and oversight in the governing of the country. Since the voters chose the leaders, the success or failure of those leaders to govern effectively reflects not on those individuals, but on the people who put them into office.
The system of government must be changed: The present form of the Philippine government is inefficient, irrational, and by perpetuating elitist and dynastic rule mocks the fundamental principles of democracy that it purports to uphold. While the details of how it should be changed can be legitimately debated, no logical case whatsoever can be made for letting the system remain as it is.
An independent media is critical to the success of democracy in the Philippines: Honest and factual news, analysis, and even entertainment should not be controlled by the vested interests of the oligarchy, and that control should not be protected by the law of the land. Breaking the stranglehold on the nation’s media by the elite few will be a challenge, but one that must be faced, unless the people want to surrender their claim to worthiness to be a democratic society.
Greater economic opportunity must be provided to every Filipino: The path to a protectionist autarky is the path to ruin for all but the elite few in this country, and only the blind or stupid will fail to recognize that it is path the Philippines has been traveling for far too long. While this is in some ways the greatest challenge among these four principle tasks, it is at least the one that presents the greatest variety of solutions. The only really wrong answer is to do nothing.
We here in the Get Real universe have been addressing these four canons in various ways for years, and now that the elections have turned a fresh page, in a manner of speaking, it is time to refresh our message and redouble our efforts. Point One we have already begun to address anew, and there will certainly be more to follow; what I would like to accomplish with this post is to provide, as objectively as possible, a conversation starter for Point Two, changing the system of government. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to discuss the topic recently on Sentro ng Katotohanan, and while I have a certain opinion on the Parliamentary vs. Presidential question that is less important at this point than simply trying to remove the misconceptions and ulterior motives that have poisoned most discussions about it in this country. For people to have a productive debate, they need to know what they’re talking about; so in the interest of public information, I’ve distilled our recent discussions into a handy comparative chart of the two systems:
|Presidential System||Parliamentary System|
|The head of government is selected separately from the legislature.
The head of government (the President) is elected separately from the legislature.
In the U.S., for example, the President is chosen by the Electoral College, whose members are elected by the people. As a practical matter, the President is elected by direct vote – the names of the presidential candidates are the ones on the ballot, not the names of the representatives to the Electoral College – but technically, the President is elected by indirect vote.
The Electoral College system is unique to the U.S., and is designed for the main purpose of preventing a minority President (i.e., one who has received less than a majority of the popular vote, as is common in the Philippines) from taking office. It is not, however, completely foolproof for a variety of reasons, although it has generally worked well.
|The head of government is selected by the legislature, and is a representative of a legislative district.
The head of government (usually called the Prime Minister) is a member of Parliament, representing his home legislative district. He is also the leader of his political party, or a leader of a party in a coalition. He earns his position as PM by virtue of his party’s (or coalition’s) having gained a majority in Parliament through legislative elections, which are of course based on a direct vote of the people.
The selection of the PM in a Parliamentary system is slightly less-direct than the selection of a President. As a rule, the voters know who the prospective PM will be and can take that knowledge into consideration when voting for their parliamentary representatives, but the choice of PM is always done by the Parliament and always occurs after the elections.
Two things help to prevent the “people’s will” from being thwarted in terms of their choice for head of government in a Parliamentary system. First, the PM is also a representative; if he is not elected to Parliament by his home district, he cannot serve as party leader nor as PM. Second, the structure of the Parliamentary system overall makes it much easier to remove an unpopular or unsuitable PM from office than in a Presidential system.
|The head of government serves a fixed term of office.
The term of office for the President is fixed, and has a definite starting and ending date.
|The head of government serves an indefinite term of office.
A PM stays in office as long as he continues to have majority support in the legislature. If the PM loses majority support, then he must resign.
In parliamentary systems, there is generally a time limit or maximum number of years a Parliament and PM can serve before new elections must be held. Elections can be held at earlier times, however, for two reasons:
1. The PM can call for early elections. The results of these elections will determine who the majority party in Parliament will be. Generally this is done when the PM and his party are enjoying wide public support, so that the time limit on their term in office can be renewed.
2. Any member of Parliament (including the PM) can call for a vote of confidence to be taken among the members of Parliament to determine if the PM continues to have majority support in the legislature. If the PM wins a vote of confidence, this means he continues to have majority support and can continue to govern. If the prime minister loses a vote of confidence, this means he has lost majority support and must resign. New parliamentary elections will be held to determine who the new majority party will be.
|There is separation of powers among the branches of government.
Separation of powers is designed to build institutional conflict into the system to prevent concentration of power and governmental tyranny, and to encourage broad-based compromise. This is known as the checks & balances system.
In the US system, an individual cannot hold office in two branches of government at the same time. This adds a dimension of personal conflict to the institutional conflict. On the other hand, it tends to increase the unity of policy in both the Executive and Legislative branches of government, though those might still conflict to some degree.
There is the possibility of a divided government, with different political parties controlling different branches of the government. This results in partisan conflict.
|There is fusion of powers among the branches of government.
In a parliamentary system, the executive and legislative powers of the government are both concentrated in the Parliament. The system is designed to enhance governmental efficiency and majority rule.
Dual office holding is allowed. An individual can be, and virtually always is, a member of Parliament and a member of the PM’s cabinet at the same time.
There is no possibility of a divided government, and in general the decisions of Parliament cannot be limited by the other branches of government.
|The numerical minority in the government has permanent relevance.
Because of the separation of powers of the different branches of government, the numerical minority has many opportunities to exert their influence.
On the one hand, this is a benefit because it forces the majority party to compromise and moderate their actions to serve the largest possible part of the population, which is important when the difference in strength between the majority and minority is rather small. On the other hand, it can quickly lead to gridlock and harm government efficiency through the minority’s ability to obstruct government actions.
|The numerical minority in the government has temporary irrelevance.
Because of the fusion of legislative and executive powers in the Parliament, the minority parties have very little opportunity to influence government policy.
On the one hand, this is a benefit to government efficiency because government actions can proceed smoothly with no obstruction. On the other hand, it can lead to a condition of “democratic dictatorship” wherein a very small majority can rule unchecked. Also, districts which elect minority representatives to Parliament may find themselves functionally under-represented, simply because their representative has no opportunity to pursue initiatives on their behalf if those ideas differ from those of the majority party.
|The positions of head of government and head of state are held by one person.
The position of head of state is the ceremonial, symbolic leader of the country, and the President serves as both head of state and head of government. In business terms, this is analogous to the CEO of a company also serving as Chairman of the Board of Directors.
While this does provide a certain unity of leadership for the country, it also creates a conflict in the person of the President who is at the same time supposed to be the non-partisan, symbolic representative and leader of all the people, and is also a member and leader of a particular political party.
In this way the choice of President is unavoidably based as much on personality as it is on political positions. This is not necessarily bad, especially when the President is representing a very strong majority party and is universally respected as a competent leader by supporters and non-supporters alike; however, these ideal conditions are fairly rare, and it is more likely that conflict and voter dissatisfaction will play a greater role in the President’s legacy.
|The positions of head of government and head of state are held by two different persons.
In parliamentary democracies that still have a monarchy, the king or queen is the head of state.
In parliamentary democracies that do not have a monarchy, the head of state (usually called the President) is elected separately from the Parliament, usually by direct vote of the people.
The term of the President is almost always fixed, and generally scheduled to overlap parliamentary elections to ensure continuity of national leadership.
The head of state in a parliamentary system has limited but important powers, such as the power to dissolve Parliament and call for new elections, and usually serves as Commander-in-Chief of the nation’s armed forces. He does not, however, take part in legislative action, nor the day-to-day executive duties of running the government.
While he may be a member or leader of a particular political party, that is irrelevant to his position as President.
These two systems form the fundamental building blocks of every democracy in the world, and so by default the choice for the Philippines must be one or the other. Both have good and bad points, and I personally believe one is a more practical solution than the other, but I won’t get into that right now; after all, the choice is not mine to make – the best I can hope to accomplish is to help everyone else make the most informed choice they can.
Next time: A Unitary System or a Federal System?