As The Philippines prepares to either embrace or reject President Duterte’s proposals for a new federal system, many have also discussed the virtues of replacing the current strong presidential republican system with that of a parliamentary republic.
While through most of its history, the Philippines has been governed through a strong presidential system, in 1978 and 1984, elections for a Batasang Pambansa (National Assembly) were held during a time when President Marcos experimented with a hybrid parliamentary system that was established in the 1973 Constitutional Referendum. In 1987, the country formally switched back to a strong presidential system on a model not dissimilar to that of the United States.
There are many options for a contemporary parliamentary system in The Philippines. Naturally, the debate should be held based on what objectively is the most democratically representative, politically efficient and cost effective political system.
The following is my personal proposal for how a new parliamentary system could operate, run elections and govern the Philippines.
Throughout the world, the most common way of electing members of a national parliament is either through a party-list proportional representational system or through a first past the post system. In a party-list proportional representation, voters select from a list of parties and which ever party gets the most votes, gets the most number of members of parliament after the election. This system is designed to give all parties, including small parties, a proportional share of seats in a national parliament.
By contrast, in a first past the post system, each party selects a single candidate for a constituency/district and people vote for an individual candidate and his or her party at the same time.
Here’s how each system would look in The Philippines:
a. Party-list proportional representational
Sarah lives in Metro Manila and on election day votes for PDP–Laban. Assuming most people in the country vote like Sarah, it means that PDP-Laban will send the greatest number of party members to parliament. Sarah’s neighbour Maria votes for the Liberal Party. Assuming the second largest group of Filipino voters are like Sarah, it means that the Liberals will send the second highest amount of party members to the new parliament.
Crucially, this style of parliamentary party lists has no practical relationship to the same term that is used to denote the highly confused and downright deceiving system through which some individuals are elected to the current Philippine House of Representatives. A parliamentary party-list is simply a means of voting for one’s party of choice as contrasted with voting for a single-member who represents a given party as in the first past the post system.
b. First past the post
Sergio lives in Davao city zone A (large cities usually have more than one zone in first past the post systems). Sergio supports PDP–Laban and in his area, PDP–Laban’s candidate for member of parliament is Rodrigo Roa Duterte. Therefore, Sergio checks the box that says ‘Rodirgo Roa Duterte, candidate for PDP–Laban’.
Weighing the options
Most parliamentary systems, particularly the more modern ones, tend to use a form of party-list proportional representation. However, during the most recent election for Russia’s parliament, the State Duma, officials decided to allow some areas to vote in a first past the post system while the majority of Duma deputies (members) were elected via party-list proportional representation.
In a federal Philippines, the most effective way to vote for a member of parliament would be for all localities to vote on the basis of a party list whose members will be determined via proportional representation, while additionally, each federal unit of the country will have a set number of single candidates who will be voted for on a first past the post basis.
In such a system, Sarah who lives in the would-be federal district of Metro Manila will cast one vote for the party of her choice (PDP-Laban, Liberal, Nacionalista etc), while also voting for a given number of candidates for her federal district, for example, three representatives who will be unique to Manila. Here she can vote for candidates all from the same party, or three candidates she personally likes from different parties. This also allows independent candidates a chance to enter parliament.
Such a system will guarantee that a healthy mix of party popularity combined with that of stand-out individuals at a federal level, will help to comprise a balanced yet diverse make-up of a parliament.
In a party list proportional representational system, the parties get to choose which representatives will be the first to enter a parliament. Traditionally this means that party leaders and would-be cabinet ministers get the first seats available, while further seats are allocated to the younger and less experienced candidates. In reality, this means that if a party gets few votes, its leader and senior party figures will enter parliament while other junior members will have to wait and hope that their party gets more votes at the next election. By contrast, a highly popular party could see both the party leadership and a large number of younger candidates win seats.
Whichever party wins the most votes will get to form a government. This means that the winning party’s leader will become the Prime Minister/Head of Government. The Prime Minister can then choose which fellow party members of parliament should take on important cabinet positions including Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Secretary of Finance, etc. If the winning party gets less than 50% of parliamentary seats, the party will likely have to form a coalition government with one, two or even three other parties in order to form a government.
Unlike in a presidential system where cabinet members can be appointed from anyone in the nation, in most parliamentary systems, cabinet members must first be elected to parliament, something which is quite easy in the party-list system, as would be cabinet members are put towards the top of the party list. For example, if a party leader wants a certain individual to be his Secretary of Foreign Affairs, the party leader will simply put such an individual high on the party-list. This insures that all national officials have to face the electorate, while all parties with a serious chance of governing will be able to get their top officials into the parliament.
Term of a parliament
The lengths of most parliaments range from 4 to 7 years. For The Philippines, based on the current term length of the office of President, new elections for a parliament should be held once every six years. However, in a parliamentary system, if a government becomes unpopular, it can be voted out by a majority of members of parliament. This is called a ‘vote of no confidence’. Votes of no confidence are especially common when the ruling party is part of a coalition.
In order to make The Philippines even more democratic than many other parliamentary systems, major issues should be decided via referendum. Such a system has been most successful in Switzerland. Here, while the parliament debates and votes on many new laws and regulations, for major issues, the people have a direct say.
It is crucial that in such a parliamentary system, it is written into constitutional law that all such referendum votes are legally binding, meaning that parliament can not vote to overturn the will of the people as expressed in a referendum.
To make things even more democratic, if enough citizens sign a petition asking for a referendum on holding new elections before the end of a six year parliamentary term, they should be able to hold a nationwide referendum asking if they want new elections sooner. This allows the public to hold their own votes of no confidence, should a government become highly unpopular.
The Supreme Court in many parliamentary systems, is able to hold parliament to account, were parliamentarians to vote through measures which violate the constitution. Such a system tends to work effectively throughout many nations.
In parliamentary republics, there are typically weak Presidents whose role is generally ceremonial. To save costs, all members of parliament should also be eligible to run for president. Therefore, one could have parliamentary elections and presidential elections on the same day. For example, in a parliamentary system, Rodrigo Duterte could stand as the leader of his party, while also running for the less important role of President. If his party wins the parliamentary election and he personally wins the presidential election, he will hold both titles. If he were to win the parliamentary election but lost the presidency, he would still hold the most power, but could not be referred to as President when travelling abroad. Likewise, if he won the Presidency but his party did not come out on top in the parliamentary vote, his role would be limited to a ceremonial position while the Prime Minister would be the country’s most important political leader.
A unicameral parliament is among the most efficient and most democratic ways to run a modern government. Such a system has clear advantages over the convoluted and often adversarial system in place today. This is of course, just one proposal, there are other varieties of parliamentary system as well as other original ideas that can and should be debated before The Philippines embarks on a positive road to political change.