Imagine if The Philippines Could Change Leaders as Spain Just Did? Parliamentary-Federalism Could Make it Happen

Spain’s Congress of Deputies, the country’s parliament, just removed a deeply corrupt and controversial leader Mariano Rajoy and quickly replaced him with former opposition leader Pedro Sánchez after the parliament overwhelmingly offered a vote of no confidence for the continued leadership of Rajoy. Such shifts in power from corrupt leaders to a new government are standard procedure in most parliamentary systems throughout the world.

By contrast, strong presidential systems do not possess an easy mechanism for a change in leadership, thus leaving open the possibility for long periods of poor leadership about which very little can be done. Furthermore, while in parliamentary systems a head of government stands and falls based on his or her ability to maintain support among ordinary members of parliament, in a presidential system, there remains the possibility for a bicameral legislature to be at constant odds with a country’s president, thus resulting in an atmosphere of hostility and obstruction where virtually nothing useful can be accomplished.

While there are many articles in the Spanish constitution that remain controversial due to lingering clauses from the era of the dictator Franco, it is supremely ironic that when it comes to forming new governments and throwing old one’s out, that the Kingdom of Spain’s constitutional practices are more democratic and modern than that of The Philippines, a former colony of Spain.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s pledge to renew governance through the federalisation of the country presents The Philippines with a once in a generation – perhaps a once in a century opportunity to reform its political systems to bring it in line with the modern needs of a democratic nation. For The Philippines this must mean not only creating federal administrative units throughout the country to break the traditional control of “imperial Manila”, but it also must mean replacing one of the world’s most convoluted presidential/congressional systems with a simple unicameral parliamentary system, the likes of which have been successful in turning Singapore into an economic powerhouse with some of the highest living standards in the world.

Presently, The Philippines has both a Congress, elitist Senate and office of Vice President elected separately from the office of President. This allows for the possibility of two powerful legislative chambers and two powerful individual leaders to be at odds with each other at all times. Such a constitutional mechanism is not only impractical but downright foolish, especially for a developing nation whose economic potential has been held back by such a strange system.

There is no possible way in which ordinary people could benefit from such a system. The only people who stand to benefit are the career obstructionist politicians and their oligarch paymasters who have developed advanced techniques for getting nothing done expect enhancing their personal prestige and their personal wealth. Such a system is a disgrace and President Duterte clearly understands this. Now, he must use all of his political capital, notably his strong mandate from the vast majority of Filipinos to break the old system and bring in a new federal parliamentary system. Anything less, including some half-way compromise would merely prolong the lifespan of a broken system that needs a total change in order for The Philippines to prosper.

Generally speaking, full-scale parliamentary systems are considered less power than those with a defined or de-facto strong presidential system. Countries like the US, Russia, China, France, Syria, Egypt, Zimbabwe and to a degree South Africa, have become known for strong and influential presidents.

Parliamentary systems can produce a strong leader, but this is generally much more rare. Where a President needs to run on an individual basis in an election whose time is set years in advance, in parliamentary systems, heads of government derive their power from how much support they can garner from members of parliament elected in the same way as the Prime Minister. The most typical systems used to elect members of parliament are the party list proportional representation system used in most of Europe and the first past the post system of British style parliaments. Russia’s Duma currently uses a hybrid of the two.

In such a system, a government is only as strong as its parliamentary supporters and unlike a fixed term presidential system, a parliament can throw out a leader at any time, should he or she lose the support of parliament.

Thus, the world has witnessed parliamentary systems that historically produce weak governments due to a lack of unity behind a prime minister, with Italy being a traditional example of this throughout the 20th century, while parliamentary systems with a popular leader are able to produce heads of government that are arguably stronger than many presidents. Singapore for example saw the consistent parliamentary support of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew between 1959 until 1990.

In this sense, under a would-be parliamentary system, if Rodrigo Duterte was Prime Minister rather than President, he could theoretically serve for much longer than a single 6 year term, assuming his popularity remains consistently high, which thus far it has done. Furthermore, unlike in the current system in The Philippines which leaves open the possibility for a President to have a hostile relationship with the separately elected House of Representatives, Senate and the independently elected Vice President, in a parliamentary system, the leader of the legislature is also the supreme executive of the government, thus making such a hostile environment impossible.

Of course, Duterte could amend the constitution, thus allowing for multiple presidential terms, but if people in The Philippines want to experience the most fully effective democratic system, the best solution would be a parliamentary federal republic that would see important issues being voted on directly by the people through referenda.

In such an atmosphere, local issues could be decided upon by local representatives who would have both extended powers and responsibility over their regions, while national issues, including the all important matters of trade and foreign policy would be controlled by a prime minister’s government drawn from a popularly elected parliament. All the while, key issues effecting the nation would be decided via referendum, giving every Filipino the chance to directly say how he or she feels on a given matter.

One of the benefits of such a system is that a weak leader would not be able to gain popular support for a long period of time,  while a strongly popular leader would be able to govern on behalf of the people with fewer obstacles in the way.

By definition, such a system is more democratic than the current one is, as it makes a leader’s power directly proportional to his or her wider support in the country. It is therefore ludicrous that President Duterte’s critics think that somehow moving towards such a system would be a ‘power grab’. If anything, a parliamentary system Duterte more susceptible to scrutiny, as this is one of the defining differences between a parliamentary and presidential system. Furthermore, far from being strange or unusual, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, India and Pakistan all operate on such a system, as do most European countries.  There is no reason why such a system could not work in The Philippines.

When combined with federalisation, something that makes perfect sense in a country with the geography of The Philippines, such a system could create a win-win model for the country wherein popular leaders would have less artificial obstruction and unpopular leaders would be far easier to remove. Duterte’s opponents are afraid of such a system. The reason for this is easy enough to see – what they truly fear is coming face to face with their lack of popularity.

Spain, a former global coloniser now has a political system which is perhaps ironically more democratic than the system what was once its largest Asian colony. It is time for The Philippines to kill off what Duterte calls the “colonial mentaliy” completely and create a new political system more modern than that of Spain and more workable than the current convoluted system in The Philippines today.

Comments are closed.