Democracy is taken from the ancient Greek word δημοκρατία (dēmokratía) which simply means rule of the people. In order to facilitate this, many different systems have been implemented over the years. Among the most democratic systems ever to be employed was the years with varying degrees of pragmatic success and varying degrees of actually living up to the original meaning of democracy.
The idea of rule of the people is generally contrasted with an absolutest rule of a king or autocrat who may not rule in the interests of the people, as well as Kleptocracy (rule of the corrupt), Timocracy (rule of the landowners–aka the wealthy), Plutocracy (rule of the rich irrespective of land ownership) or Oligarchy (rule of the few/rule of the elite). However, even in some of the world’s self-described democratic systems, there are elements of Autocracy, Timocracy, Kleptocracy and Oligarchy.
Athens – The birthplace of the democratic concept
There is no one political system implied by democracy, nor is total egalitarianism in governance a prerequisite for democracy. At the height of Athenian democracy in the 5th century B.C., power rested in the Athenian Ecclesia, an assembly made up of all male citizens of Athens. However, far from being the soul derivative of power, the Ecclesia was supervised by a chamber of elders (elites) called the Areopagus while daily administrative tasks were in the hands of a council of 500 Athenians called the Boule. Furthermore, far from being totally egalitarian, the revolting head of state in Athens was divided among a group of Archons, of which the Eponymous archon was the titular head of state during any given year on the Athenian calendar.
Athens was democratic in the sense that its Ecclesia was comprised of all adult citizens, thus guaranteeing a measure of government based on what the people need and desire. By contrast few governments are run in such a hands on manner in the modern era.
Libya’s democracy – 1977-2011
Perhaps ironically to European or American readers, it was The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, formulated by revolutionary theorist Muammar Gaddafi, which was the closest modern day equivalent to Athenian democracy and yet it was bombed by the United States and its allies under the dishonest guise that it was insufficiently democratic.
The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya was governed by a series of Basic People’s Councils. These were local assemblies comprised of all adult men and women who debated and decided a course of action on matters of local administration. Whereas the non-citizen slaves of Athens and women are prohibited from participating in government, in Libya all men and women were encouraged to participate and unlike in post-2011 Libya, slavery was non-existent in the country.
At a national level, the General People’s Committee, was made up of 600 members of various Basic People’s Councils as well as full time administerial staff such as general secretaries. Finally, an executive body called the General People’s Congress, oversaw the business of the General People’s Committee. The General People’s Congress was comprised of 2,700 members of Basic People’s Councils in addition to civil servants and administrators.
Libya between 1977 and 2011 was a direct democracy, where like in Athens, ordinary people were not just listened to when considering the formation of laws, but they also took a hands on role in developing, debating and implementing those laws, along with the aid of oversight bodies which themselves were largely comprised of local councillors from throughout the country. Throughout this period, the country’s modern founder Muammar Gaddafi refused to take a formal title but instead acted as a ceremonial president who oversaw the democratic system providing ad hock oversight while helping to shape the country’s foreign policy.
The result was the most prosperous society in the history of modern Africa that was only brought to an end when NATO waged a devastating war on the rich yet still developing nation.
Unlike Libya between 1977 and 2011, Switzerland has a professional class of politicians, but major decisions are made by popular referenda where all adult citizens vote up or down on the implementation of new policies and laws.
A country does not need to have a hands on system of governance as ancient Athens and 1977-2011 Libya did, or Switzerland has today. A system in which the people rule, is more frequently based upon leaders who are responsive to the needs of wishes of the people.
The key element here is that the presence of democracy, literally the rule of the people, can come to pass through a single ruler or series of rulers who rule on behalf of the people. Whether these leaders are elected, appointed, or selected based on lineage is a separate issue, so long as they are ruling on behalf of the people, they are democratic.
While the DPRK calls itself democratic (it is in the official name of the country after all), many in the west believe North Korea to be highly undemocratic. The only way to find out is by determining if the North Korea leadership is governing on behalf of the wishes, needs and aspirations of the Korean people. If they are, as they often appear to be, then North Korea is democratic.
Suffrage and petition
There are many ways that leaders can come to understand the needs, wishes and aspirations of their people. Today the most common forms are petition and suffrage.
A petition is simply an airing of grievances from the governed to the governing classes. This can come in the form of a letter, a public speech or a peaceful demonstration. If the grievances of people are addressed sufficiently, this is democratic, irrespective of whether these grievances are aired in a one party or multi party system. A single party that is responsive to petitions from the people is more democratic than a multi-party system whose elements universally ignore the people’s needs and desires.
Suffrage merely implies the right to vote whether voting in a referendum, as in Switzerland or voting for a Congress and President, as in the United States. While most kinds of suffrage are supposed to help elect representatives who will act for the people, in a two party system like that of the US where in recent decades both major parties have had remarkably similar policies, one witnesses the phenomenon of having the right of suffrage without necessarily attaining democratic results. For example, if in the 2008 election in the USA, one voted for Barack Obama over John McCain because Obama promised less war, one could see how such a person’s democratic will has been crushed as Obama went to even more wars than his predecessor George W. Bush who endorsed McCain in 2008.
Thus it becomes apparent that North Korea could actually be more democratic than the US, in spite of the US having many more avenues of suffrage vis-a-vis North Korea.
The Philippines today
Today’s democracy in The Philippines is effectively a bastardisation of the indirect democratic presidential system of the United States where a House of Representatives, Senate and President are all elected separately and therefore, under certain circumstances will act in a manner that is confrontational with one another, thus resulting in deadlock rather than in anything approximating the rule of the people. Making matters even more dysfunctional than in the US model which has generally been saved from chaos due to having the world’s strongest economy (soon to be overtaken by China), in The Philippines, the office of Vice President is elected separately from the office of President thus taking the potential for political deadlock and needless confrontation to stratospheric levels.
Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew was aware that complex political systems which prioritise the germination of conflict over professional problem solving were a detriment to any developing nation. But Lee also realised that a system which takes the fate of the people out of the people’s hands was also detrimental to social harmony and individual enlightenment. For Lee, the solution was a unicameral parliamentary system that was orderly, efficient and representative of the national consensus formed during his long period of popular leadership.
Federal-parliamentary democracy is the only solution for The Philippines
Unlike Singapore, The Philippines is a large state with a disunited geographical space owing to the archipelago composition of the nation. Because of this, a system of local control that itself could borrow from a 1977 Libyan model with Philippine characteristics when combined with a central unicameral parliament on the Singapore model is the most practicable solution to address the current political malaise in the nation.
One of the biggest roadblocks on the path to democracy is the legal erection of arbitrary restrictions to the people’s will. This is most readily revealed in the preposterous concept of term limits that continue to blight many US style presidential systems, including and especially that of The Philippines. Under the current system, a popular President can be restricted from being re-elected after a single six year term even if he or she is popular – aka representing the will of the people. Likewise, if a Philippine president shows him or herself to be inadequate after a single year, the country is more or less stuck with such an incompetent leader as the threshold for impeachment remains far higher than requiring a simple disapproval by the people.
By contrast, a parliamentary system’s leadership is determined by the confidence a prime minister can command in his or her parliamentary chamber. This is what allowed a popular and successful leader like Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore to remain in office for over thirty years, while it is also why unpopular leaders can be readily disposed of through a simple vote of no confidence. Furthermore, if a democratically elected prime minister feels that he or she does not have sufficient support among the parliament, the prime minister can call for new elections in order to build a desired majority that will be required to exercise important reforms.
Thus, while the strength and longevity of a government in a parliamentary system is derived from the support a leader has among fellow elected representatives, in the current Philippine system, deadlock is both a material reality of the system while the people cannot do anything to change this short of petitioning for a complex, burdensome and often expensive impeachment process. In other words, the rule of the people is far more direct and efficient in a parliamentary system which in the Philippines ought to be distributed in terms of power between a central government and devolved federal units.
The inner workings of a reformed Philippine system
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.
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 – the first of which should be the decision to adopt a federal-parliamentary system. A system of frequent referenda on major issues has been most successful in Switzerland, one of the world’s wealthiest and most placid countries. In Switzerland, while the parliament debates and votes on many new laws and regulations, for major issues, the people have a direct say in multiple smoothly executed referenda.
It is crucial for The Philippines 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.
At present, the system in The Philippines is broken and the only fix is to totally overhaul it and replace it with the kind of system that has been so successful in Singapore, a country itself shaped by a strong and visionary leader who like Duterte refused to compromise with those who did not have the best interests of the country in mind. That man was of course Lee Kuan Yew. Duterte deserves the change to consolidate his popularity in the kind of political system that allowed Lee to transform Singapore from a swamp to an economic leader.
There should be no delay in such a referendum. The endless debates are stiffing productivity, progress and development all the while tipping the scales in favour of the obstructionists who have robbed The Philippines blind since 1987. A new system is needed to thrust The Philippines into the moderately prosperous future that Duterte can deliver if he is given the proper political tools. It is time for the people to demand that politicians talk less and allow the voters to simply have their short and simple say in the matter. While officials work on presenting proposals to the current President, there is no reason why the people themselves cannot decide on which of the multiple proposals they are most comfortable with.
This is the most effective way to once and for all end the political deadlock which has held The Philippines hostage to poor leadership for far too long.