Will Parliamentarism Work?

The author is currently professor of comparative politics at the International Christian University of Tokyo. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, February 20, 2006 edition, page S1/5.

The proponents of charter change leading to a shift to a parliamentary system would like us to believe that they have found the magic bullet to end our political crisis. But what can we learn from the logic of institutional change, our very own historical experience and the evidence from comparative political practice?

We should be extremely careful in attributing any causal effect to any single institution such as a presidential or parliamentary system independently of its interaction with other institutions and structures in society. For at the root of our political crisis is an enduring failure of representation and accountability of our formal electoral system.

Whose interests have been effectively represented in Congress and other elective bodies since the first elected legislature in 1907? We all know that electoral exercises have been largely dominated by oligarchic interests and political dynasties. For instance, representatives of both old and new political dynasties comprise about 60 percent of the
current House of Representatives.

The proposal for a shift to a parliamentary system does not address this crisis of oligarchic representation. In fact, it may even worsen it given the abolition of term limits leading to further entrenchment of oligarchic power in locally mediated elections. While the current presidential system leaves much to be desired, it at least provides some degree of check and balance to the oligarchic power and parochial interests centered in the lower house.

Will a parliamentary system end the legislative gridlock that is supposed to be the bane of the presidential system? In our very own presidential system, effective presidents have enough political and material resources to preclude debilitating legislative gridlocks.

The fusion of executive and legislative powers in a unicameral parliament is supposed to prevent gridlocks but a Philippine-style parliamentary system does not offer much hope. With the proposed parliamentary draft retaining a combination of plurality single-member constituencies with the party list, a fragmented multi-party system will most likely emerge.

Our lack of tradition of strong, disciplined parties becomes a defining feature of any attempted shift to parliamentarism and this creates a situation where the legislative process is held hostage to protracted, partisan inter-party negotiations on key legislative issues. Unlike the president with a fixed term of office, the prime minister and the cabinet under a system of fragmented multi-parties can face a more daunting process of effective lawmaking.

What about the argument that parliamentary systems will also put an end to the politicization of the military and people power initiatives since it makes it possible to get rid more easily of a bad executive? In the first place, the recourse to people power and military interventionism is not so much the product of either presidentialism or parliamentarism as the result of the perceived illegitimacy and gross ineptitude of elected officials.

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One problem with the parliamentary system lies in the possible consolidation and perpetuation of one faction of the oligarchic elite with little or no effective check and balance from the other parties. Here is an instance where parliamentary supremacy mutates into the supremacy of one oligarchic faction.

Another common argument in favor of the parliamentary system is that it will drastically reduce election spending since campaigns will now be focused on winning parliamentary districts (except for the party list candidates) rather than expensive national positions such as the presidency and the senate. However, there is no guarantee that parliamentary elections will be less expensive, since vast resources can be equally expended on winning parliamentary seats which are now the exclusive gateway to national power and authority.

From the comparative political evidence worldwide, I know of no case of a presidential system opting to shift to a parliamentary system. Moreover, we also know from the comparative record of democratic governmental systems as affirmed by Professors Lipset and Lakin in their recent 2004 study that “neither logic nor empirical evidence sustains the conclusion that parliamentary systems in and of themselves outperform presidential systems.” This should give us some serious thought about the possible recklessness of the current moves to revise our charter, particularly since this has been spurred by clearly partisan interests.

Without glossing over the weaknesses of our own presidential system and completely closing the possibility of charter change in more sober times and circumstance, there might be a simpler, less divisive alternative to our current malaise. We can make new specific laws to respond to the challenges of the times and effectively enforce existing relevant ones.

Consider, for instance, how much improvement we can make on existing electoral laws to help address our endemic problem of oligarchic electoral representation: cleansing of voter’s list; computerization or mechanization of election tabulation; strict monitoring of election campaign expenses and strict enforcement of penalties for violators; government-mandated equal media access for parties during campaign periods. But for a decisive start, we should appoint a new set of Commission on Elections (Comelec) commissioners whose integrity and competence are beyond reproach. These are problems that we need to address regardless of our form of government.

Moreover, we also have a surfeit of good laws that have not been effectively enforced. Consider, again, how vastly improved governance would be if our existing laws on corruption, plunder, and ethical conduct for public officials were strictly enforced.

It is misleading to say that the presidential system is the cause of our political crisis or that the parliamentary system will cure all our problems. Sometimes, we mistake the frailties of individuals for the failings of institutions.

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