Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has received the formal report containing recommendations from the Consultative Committee (CC) for constitutional reform. In one way or another, The Philippines is set for its biggest shift in political structure since the controversial 1987 Constitution was introduced by Corazon Aquino who came to power after the ouster of the long serving President Ferdinand Marcos.
While promoting a welcomed federal structure for the presently unitarily governed Philippines, the document neglects much needed reform to the legislature. Instead of focusing on the creation of a central parliament within the framework of a federated nation, the CC has focused on proposals for new rules which seek to ban dynastic politics, even though a proper parliamentary structure could work towards this same generally noble goal while rejecting the rigid dogma of arbitrary restrictions on political participation.
To understand the significance of how a functional parliamentary democracy can help to end a single or several family’s stranglehold on political affairs, one must look to Pakistan’s forthcoming parliamentary election. On the 25th of June Pakistan, a nation whose post colonial history was even more turbulent than that of The Philippines will see its second ever peaceful transition of power. Pakistan is unique in that during times of peace or comparative peace, it has been governed by a parliamentary legislature while its three military coups in 1958, 1977 and 1999 brought strong presidents (all three widely considered dictators) to power.
Because of this, Pakistan’s parliamentary democracy has often had a rocky road. Because of this and owing to the general proclivity for south Asian states to rally around powerful political dynasties, the major families of Pakistan’s contemporary parliamentary era have been the Sharif family of the conservative PML-N and the Bhutto family of the centre-left PPP.
This year though, a third force, the PTI led by political upstart Imran Khan looks to upset the powerful Sharif/Bhutto rivalry by at minimum replacing the PPP as the second largest party at a national level while realistically, Imran Khan’s PTI has a very strong chance of winning the elections and forming a government.
The key to Imran Khan’s success has been a period of relative (key word) political stability wherein a peaceful parliamentary transition of power is about to take place. This has helped pave the way for a fiercely fought parliamentary campaign where Imran’s PTI has gone throughout the nation explaining why their political program and style of leadership will help to break Pakistan’s cycle of corruption and change its foreign policy to one that is more pragmatic, non-aligned and in the best interests of the Pakistani people.
All of the broad problems of corruption that Imran Khan seeks to solve for Pakistan are problems that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has tried to tackle in The Philippines. While Duterte has had a stellar record of success given his political constraints, in a parliamentary system Duterte or a similar leader could do far more for the reasons I outlined in a lengthy piece on the necessity of a federal-parliamentary constitution for The Philippines.
But turning specifically to dynastic politics, while many political dynasties are responsible for reducing modern democracy to a feudal battle between rival clans, this is not always the case. The current Prime Minister of one of the least corrupt countries in the world, Singapore, is Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Singapore’s legendary founder Lee Kuan Yew. While some raised the questions of the younger Lee’s rise to political leadership due to his lineage, the current Premier fought back by pointing out his record of hard work and his meritocratic rise to the leadership of the People’s Action Party that few objective observers could deny. Singapore’s culture which derides and mercisslessly punishes corruption has served to assure the wider public that the current head of government did not get to where he is due to perks, corruption or special treatment – three things that Lee Kuan Yew abhorred throughout his political and personal life.
Likewise, while President Duterte does not have the best of relations with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the younger Trudeau is a very different kind of politician from his father Pierre and even his fiercest critics generally do not claim that he is turning Canada into a country with a dynastic political landscape.
Just as the arbitrary term limits of the current Philippine Constitution make it so that the country can be stuck with a law abiding (and hence unimpeachable) but incompetent leader while inversely a popular and capable leader can be termed out of office against the will of the people – so too are arbitrary restrictions on would-be political dynasties a well meaning but ultimately incorrect approach to political problem solving.
Today’s Pakistan – a nation that has arguably suffered under dynastic leadership more so than any other is now on the verge of an increasingly likely victory for a man who created his own party and his own political fortunes without the benefit of a political family behind him.
If Imran Khan breaks the dynastic deadlock of Pakistan, it will be thanks not to arbitrary restrictions on dynastic politics but because an increasingly healthy parliamentary system has allowed for his party’s message to resonate in a country that wants a change in politics irrespective whose father or mother gave birth to the man leading a party for change.
President Duterte has several weeks to revise and amend the current CC proposals. By shifting the focus from dynastic corruption to the inbuilt corruption of a broken, battered and failed presidential system, he can pave the way for a brighter future for all Filipino families, whether political ones or otherwise.