Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Draft Constitution Fails to Deliver

Why bother with half-baked reforms? 

At a time when any nation is examining proposals for constitutional reform, halfway measures and half-baked proposals leave one wondering ‘why bother with reform at all’? This is the distinct feeling one gets when reading the text of the draft Constitution submitted to the Philippine House of Representatives by Speaker (and former President) Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

While dividing the country into federal units of Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao, the Bangsamoro Region, and the National Capital Region (NCR), at a national level the structure of governance remains largely the same. Ironically, the only changes to the existing presidential system are to make it more like that of the United States with Presidents and Vice Presidents behind elected in tandem rather than in two separate votes. The proposals also have some overtly negative aspects including raising the age required to be President while mandating that future members of Congress hold a university degree. If anything this makes the legislature even less democratic than it already is.

While federal reforms of any kind are a step in a positive direction, without reforming the structure of national governance, these reforms will not serve their intended purpose. By contrast, the long known proposals of President Duterte’s PDP-Laban party call for the establishment of a parliamentary system at a national level, thus bringing governance in The Philippines in line with Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

Not only does The Philippines desperately need a modern parliamentary system at a national level, but with many Filipinos openly asking who might represent a worthy successor to the reformist record of President Rodrigo Duterte, it becomes imperative that only through a parliamentary system will such individuals rise to the top of national politics.

Time is of the essence when it comes to bringing parliamentary democracy to The Philippines

The establishment of a unicameral parliamentary system would at long last usher in a political system fit for the 21st century – one where deadlock and the elevation of the individually incompetent is replaced by an efficient, transparent, meritocratic parliamentary system at a national level while federalised units of the country would reserve the historical trend of the labour of the poorest parts of The Philippines seeing the profits generated in these poor regions trickle up to Imperial Manila without seeing these profits return in any form.

Philippines under the current broken presidential/congressional system without Duterte would regress so rapidly so as to make most of Duterte’s historic reforms meaningless. The fact that this is possible and in fact highly likely should Duterte fall ill, makes it all the more necessary for Duterte to take action while he still can and insure that the country has a federal-parliamentary system in place which will ultimately strengthen Philippine democracy,  break the power of the old corrupt political class and help pave the way for a new generation of Philippine politicians whose focus is on reform, tackling corruption and opening up the economy to the wider world through the abolition of the 60/40 rule which presently prohibits foreign direct investment from pouring into the country in the way it for example pours into Singapore and China’s Hong Kong.

The Philippines Must Re-discover national confidence 

Beyond this, the Arroyo’s draft constitution demonstrates a sense of hesitation, fear and an overall lack of confidence in the ability of Filipinos to adapt to a new, more functional system. A confident nation is able to withstand a great leap into the unknown while a nation aware of its problems but too timid to apply the correct solutions to these problems will see its economic, social and political conditions continue to deteriorate. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s proposed federal reforms and the proposals of his PDP-Laban party for the establishment of a parliamentary system to replace the existing convoluted presidential/congressional system represent a clean break from a past whose success record is appalling by the standards of virtually all of The Philippines’ ASEAN partners.

Since the middle of the 20th century, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and even Cambodia have become wealthier nations. In that same period, The Philippines has become poorer with the 1987 Constitution representing a watershed moment in respect of a nation constraining its own potential and thus consigning its people to a worse future than any of its neighbours.

President Duterte has ushered in a new era of confidence among the Filipino nation that is palpable both at a domestic level and in respect of a new non-aligned foreign policy that allows the country to pursue developmental progress across national lines that once represented barricades due to an old Cold War mentality. While Duterte’s foreign policy has turned the barricades of yesterday into today’s doors of opportunity, the domestic political system must equally reshape itself in order to help deliver much needed reforms that the current system is unable to fully implement due to the mechanical and existential limitations of the 1987 Constitution.

Parliamentary functionality

A parliamentary system in The Philippines would help to end the inbuilt political deadlock which is one of the most irksome features of the 1987 Constitution. Under the present system it is possible for a President, Congress, Senate and Vice President to all be at odds over the correct political course that the country should take. Such a system represents the opposite of democracy. It represents a reality where competing branches of government can conspire against a clear mandate of the people in order to prioritise petty personal power struggles and party political gamesmanship over a clear cut majoritarian system where by those in charge of policy drafting and implantation have secured their position in a way that directly reflects the will of the people.

In a unicameral parliamentary system, the number of seats in a parliamentary chamber are allocated based on the number of popular votes received by each party. A natural check and balance against abuse of power is reflected in the fact that if a party which receives the most number of votes falls sort of an overall majority, this party will be forced to enter a coalition with another party (or parties) in order to form a government – thus reflecting the nation that has not felt a singular confidence in any one party. At the same time, rather than having separate opposition chambers or opposition offices of state, the opposition in a parliamentary system operates within the same unicameral chamber and is able to challenge the government on every issue they raise in the format of a real time spontaneous debate.

A further check and balance on potential abuses of power exists in a parliamentary system in so far as an unpopular, corrupt or incompetent government can be removed from power at any time that it loses confidence in a majority of parliamentary members who themselves are responsible to their local constituents. This is a far more effective and efficient way of holding government to account than in a current system that sets elections based on arbitrary dates rather than based on the real time ability of a government to command a majority in parliament.

Taken in totality, a parliamentary system is not only more efficient than the current convoluted system but it has many more checks and balances on power, thus making government more responsive to a robust opposition and making the entire political process more contingent on the people’s vote than on arbitrary deadlines and permanent deadlock between competing branches of government whose real job is to uniformly serve the people rather than fight among themselves.

Only a country that fears real political reform and transparency would hesitate before embracing such a system.

Federalism 

The best of all of the flawed and illogical arguments against federalism in The Philippines is the mentality that covertly states “the regions of the country are incapable of responsible government”. This idea that “imperial Manila knows best” is an insult to regional political leaders and moreover to voters from outside of Metro Manila and Luzon as a whole as it implies that the further south one travels in the country, the less intelligent leadership one sees. This unspoken bigoted attitude denies Filipinos agency over their own political destiny but it also denies the reality that in a large nation whose regions each have highly distinct characteristics, a reasonable level of self-government for such regions would be self-evident.  This the case in other large and regionally diverse countries ranging from Germany to Australia, Pakistan and India, Russia, Canada and the United States.

Why is it that the aforementioned nations are worthy and capable of federalism but The Philippines is not? The answer points to a combination of a lack of confidence among Filipinos from all parts of the country combined with an arrogant attitude of the Imperial Manila elite who think that the rest of the country simply isn’t capable of self-government within the context of federalism. This arrogance has not achieved anything meaningful for the wider nation and yet this attitude continues to persist in many quarters. This in and of itself is a strong argument for federalism as it implies that the old guard will not even attempt to support President Duterte when during his recent State of The Nation Address he waned against continuing the process where the labour of the poorest parts of the countries continues to feed the top echelons of power.

Conclusion

The Philippines deserves a system where change is the rule and stagnation is the exception. The country further deserves a forward looking, outward looking and modern political class that can be more easily attained when locals are in control of their localities and a directly elected national parliament reflects the mood of the nation as a whole.

There is nothing that makes a Singaporean or a Malaysian more capable of government than a Filipino, not least because each of these nations are themselves multicultural. It is therefore the political system and 1987 Constitution that has led The Philippines to fall behind its ASEAN partners for no reason other than a lack of confidence in replacing the old and failed with that which can offer the utmost potential for an economically growing nation that is being held back but old rules and those who cling to them more out of personal fear than national optimism. It is time for the new found confidence of the Duterte era to help foster a spirit of optimism in profound and lasting change that can not only undo the damage of the last 30 years but help to create a better nation for Filipinos in the 21st century.

Constitutional reform is a once in a a generation opportunity to right the wrongs of the past. If ultimately meaningless proposals such as that which the House Speaker has on offer are classed as “radical reform”, the real chance to make actual radical reforms will have been lost and with it so too all of the existing reforms of the Duterte administration. The time is now to embrace real change for a genuinely better future. This is only possible through a federal-parliamentary democracy and a fully open economy.

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