For decades, Philippine governance has been the proverbial sick man of south east Asia. This is why the recent confirmation that President Rodrigo Duterte is not seriously ill as some suspected is welcome news. Duterte’s reforms are helping to bring The Philippines out of a dark age of crime, geopolitical regression, economic corruption and infrastructural embarrassment, but as Duterte has often admitted there is only so much a President can do in a single six-year term as mandated by the 1987 Constitution which continues to strangulate The Philippines.
This is why Duterte’s lasting legacy to his nation must be constitutional reform designed to eliminate the most regressive elements of the toxic 1987 Constitution.
Restrictions on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)
even under present conditions, US News and World Report ranked The Philippines as the world’s top investment destination. If anything, foreign investors would prefer Duterte to stay in power beyond 2022 as it has been under Duterte that foreign investment in the country has increased and investor confidence has reached new heights. In general, foreign investors look for political stability in markets where they seek to invest their capital. Where that stability comes from is typically irrelevant to most mature and rational business minded people and in any case, Duterte is seen as a man firmly in charge of his country’s destiny with a clearer mandate for genuine reform than any of his recent predecessors.
The Philippines does however have a problem when it comes to attracting the right kind of foreign investment and it has nothing to do with Duterte. On the contrary, this problem is derived from clauses in the 1987 Constitution of The Philippines which prohibit non-Filipinos from owning more than 40% in a company or property in The Philippines. The so-called 60-40 rule restricting foreign direct investment (FDI) which was intended as a protectionist measure to prevent too much foreign speculation in the domestic market has resulted in the country lagging behind many of its fellow ASEAN partners including Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.
As China looks to open up its markets further to both direct capital investment and trade from both developing and developing economies, Beijing’s leaders have proved that confidence in one’s domestic strengths and optimism in a more inter-connected future go hand in hand as an increasingly open China is set to shortly become the world’s overall leading economy – overtaking the neo-protectionist United States.
The 60-40 FDI rule is the only thing prohibiting The Philippines from transforming itself into a place where meaningful foreign investment is able to change the economic reality of the nation and in so doing transform the material condition of the people. There is a clear reason why Singapore, China, Malaysia and Vietnam continue to move forward as The Philippine economy while growing, nevertheless remains in need of a fresh start. This fresh start that people today and future generations require can only come from casting out the obsolete 1987 Constitution and creating a new reality that says plainly and clearly that The Philippines is open to virtually unlimited amounts of FDI.
To put it simply, by eliminating the 60-40 clause, The Philippines will be sending a message to the world that the country is open for business.
The need for a Federal-Parliamentary system
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.
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.
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.
Here’s how various parliamentary systems 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 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.
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 with an open economy and transparent, meritocratic political structure.
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.