Government and governance | Asia, Southeast Asia

9 May 2018

Should the Philippines’ constitutional reforms be radical or piecemeal? Kent Primor writes that a parliamentary form of government needs strong political parties.

In the run-up to his May 2016 election victory, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte promised to transform a unitary Philippines into a federal-parliamentary system. In the first year of his government, he issued Executive Order 10 creating a consultative committee to review the 1987 Constitution.

In October 2017, Duterte’s own political party, Partido Demokratiko Pilipino -Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), drafted the proposed Constitution of the Federal Republic of the Philippines.

The PDP-Laban draft is an excellent resource to start discussion of political reform. Presumably, it serves as the blueprint for the President’s own vision, since Duterte himself is the chairman of the party.

One of the key features of the PDP-Laban draft is that it would see the Philippines shift to a parliamentary form of government. (It would also see a transformation from unitary to a federal system, a topic worthy of its own analysis.)

In the current Philippine presidential system, the government is formed directly by the people through the election of a President and Vice President: the former then constitutes a Cabinet. In other words, the government is formed outright, and no caucus is needed in Congress.

More on this: Preventing other ‘Marawis’

Parliamentary governments, however, are formed indirectly by the people through their elected representatives in parliament – a second-tier mechanism to select a government.

What lessons could the Philippines learn from Australia’s experience of parliamentary government?

In Australia’s system, the government is formed by the ruling political party (or a majority coalition of parties) in the House of Representatives. This is not constitutionally required but rather conventionally observed. The minority party serves as the shadow government; it offers alternatives to the policy proposals of the ruling party and holds it to account.

Australians historically vote based on the political affiliation of candidates. This is because of the country’s duopolistic party system: major parties (or established coalitions) consistently win government, while minor parties struggle for survival. These parties have clear ideological inclinations and distinct principles, which can be seen not only in rhetoric but also in tangible policy actions.

Australian voters can easily assess the performance of candidates through aggregated party accomplishments. There is a general presumption that members of parliament act based on party platforms.

However, while the parliamentary system has, for the most part, meant stability in Australian politics, it would be difficult to make this arrangement succeed in the Philippines, given current realities.

As it is today, public policies introduced in the Philippine Congress are usually driven either by the legislator’s personal choices or according to their perceived popularity. The reasons are both organic, which date back to the formation of political parties in 1901, as well as systemic, which reflect the way they are structured by laws.

Philippine politics is personality-based rather than platform-based. Additionally, its political parties have no clear ideological boundaries nor political identities. Party-switching is commonly observed in the aftermath of almost every presidential election, for reasons that have much more to do with political convenience than ideological leanings.

More on this: Duterte and the death of democracy

Since party-switching seems to be a post-electoral affair for Filipino politicians, the formation of a majority coalition under a parliamentary system would be vague and unclear. The inability to clearly delineate a binary division in the House of Representatives would lead to a highly uncertain government, which begs the question as to whether a government would be formed on time.

In a parliamentary system, the formation of a majority is critical, because it dictates the existence or breakdown of government. The more porous the majority, the higher the chance of votes of no confidence. For a developing country like the Philippines, parliamentary government could be disastrous – it could lead to both political and economic instability, which runs contrary to the promised benefits of constitutional reform.

So, where do we go from here? Could a parliamentary form of government address the failures of the party landscape in the Philippines?

The PDP-Laban draft of a new Constitution offers excellent provisions for strengthening the party system. However, should the country mess up the whole constitutional order and rush to a federal parliamentary system to correct its infirmities? Or should it go with piecemeal amendments so as not to disrupt development?

As this narrative shows, a parliamentary form of government depends on a strong party system. It would therefore be prudent for the Philippines to institutionalise party reforms in the context of a changing political system.

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