2019’s Midterm Elections in The Philippines Must Serve as a De-facto Plebiscite on Constitutional Reform

While politically minded Filipinos ought to be more concerned with constitutional reform measures that will impact future generations, as was inevitable, next year’s midterm Congressional elections are now the focal point of discussions throughout the nation and among Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). In many respects it may well have been prudent to cancel the 2019 elections and to instead hold a nationwide plebiscite to determine the constitutional future of the nation.  Yet due to the fact that many anti-reform minded individuals continue to dominate the bicameral Philippine legislature, such a reality was never a likelihood.

That being said, a window of opportunity exists to transform the forthcoming midterms into a de-facto plebiscite on the nation’s desires regarding constitutional reform. The Correct Movement spearheaded by Orion Perez has launched a campaign to call out candidates on their positions regarding the three most important factors regarding constitutional reform: support for federalism, support for a democratic parliamentary system and support for amending existing constitutional restrictions on foreign direct investment (FDI).

In this sense, voters now have the opportunity to educate themselves about crucial positions held by candidates from all parties (as well as independent Senatorial candidates) and vote based on principles rather than on the basis of a personality contest. This in and of itself is more akin to electioneering in a parliamentary system rather than a presidential/congressional system.

The case for constitutional reforms for federalism, a parliamentary system and modern laws regulating foreign direct investment is one that pans out as follows:

Federalism 

How can it be fair that parts of Metro Manila look like Singapore while the more depressed regions of the geographically diverse Philippines look like under-developed nations? The answer is that a class of oligarchs and their political allies have made it so that the profits of Filipino labour from throughout the nation trickle up towards ‘Imperial Manila’ while other regions are left with little in terms of material resources and good jobs.

The solution is to federalise the nation and as such, profits generated locally will be distributed locally. In this way, initiatives like President Rodrigo Duterte’s Build, Build Build can be replicated long after 2022 by regional parliaments attuned to the aspirations, needs and characteristics of their populations.

Furthermore, as federal units will be responsible for maintaining their own budgets, local people will be able to hold local politicians to account in a far more direct way than is typically possible in any unitary state let alone a large one with a geographically spread out population like The Philippines.

Parliamentary democracy 

A parliamentary system at its most fundamental level is about a healthy competition of ideas rather than a vulgar competition of personalities. Even during very rare moments when a presidential system produces an extraordinary individual like President Duterte, a parliamentary system could far more easily guarantee that Duterte’s legacy is able to continue and be built upon by future generations of reformists long after Rodrigo Duterte decides to retire from politics as he has said multiple times that he would like to do sooner rather than later. In a parliamentary election, each party must propose a specific manifesto for government and as a result, the public can vote for the party with the most cohesive and positive manifesto for the nation.  Thus, if a party in favour of Duterte’s reforms were to compete in a parliamentary election, one could be voting for “Duterteism” even in the event that the current president steps out of the political field.

Also, while members of parliament are normally selected by local constituencies, Turkey’s hybrid-parliamentary/presidential system allows a number of seats in the national parliament to be decided by the millions of Turks living overseas. A similar system can and should be implemented for the millions of OFWs who would not necessarily have a local constituency in The Philippines.

Furthermore, a parliamentary system does not have the inbuilt deadlock of a presidential system. The Philippines is in fact the world’s best (worst) example of the kinds of deadlock possible in a presidential/congressional system. Under the current system it is possible for the President and Vice President to be politically hostile towards one another (as is the case now) and it is also possible for the House of Representatives and Senate to be hostile towards one another (as is largely the case now). In the worst case scenario, the President, Vice President, Senate and House of Representatives could each have a competing view on what is the best way forward for the nation. This isn’t representative democracy but instead represents a highly undemocratic partition of the nation’s holistic political will.

By contrast, a unicameral Singapore style parliament would insure that there is a single place where all legislation is proposed, debated and either passed or voted down. Rather than having competing branches of governments each representing their own interests, a unicameral parliament would unilaterally represent the democratic interests of the population as a whole as such a chamber would be comprised of members of parliament elected directly from multiple constituencies throughout all federal units of the nation.

Beyond this, a parliamentary system is not subject to the arbitrary timelines of the current system. In a parliamentary system, there are no term limits. This means that so long as a party or coalition commands the support of the nation in subsequent regularly held elections, the government and its leader (the prime minister) can continue to govern according to a democratic mandate. This is what allowed Lee Kuan Yew to democratically remain in power for decades and likewise the same applies to the consistent popularity of Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia who was in power from 1983 to 2003 and is once again Prime Minister after his coalition won this year’s general election.

By contrast, the current system prevents the overwhelmingly popular President Duterte from seeking a new mandate to govern after 2022. Inversely, a bad president can only be removed through a complex impeachment process that is designed to only punish criminality rather than incompetence. A parliamentary system by contrast allows for simple votes of no confidence whereby a prime minister’s government can be removed the moment they fail to command the support of the directly elected members of parliament due to incompetence, political negligence or sustained failure.

Finally, while presidential systems with their inherent personality contests tend to see political “debates” conducted on Twitter or though mainstream media, in a parliamentary debate the government, opposition and backbench members of parliament all get the opportunity to debate one another on a regular basis in real time. Imagine for example if Vice President Leni Robredo had to face off against Rodrigo Duterte on a regular basis face to face in a parliamentary debate. It would become instantly clear that Duterte is the superior political mind in a matter of minutes if not seconds.

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.

Singapore in particular was an early pioneer in courting copious amounts of foreign investment which helped the country’s founder Lee Kuan Yew to transform a backward swampland into one of the leading economies and most safe and peaceful societies in the modern world. China’s opening up of its economy which began in 1978 under the reforms of Deng Xiaoping is currently being celebrated throughout China as 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of a reformist drive that helped China to reduce poverty rates from a staggering 88% in the early 1980s to just under 2% today while the country looks to eliminate poverty completely in under two years.

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.

While Duterte’s reforms have encouraged both individual investment from throughout the world while attracting further investment from China, South Korea and Japan, if The Philippines is to truly become economically self-sufficient, it must unleash the creative genius of both local entrepreneurs and foreign investors and utilise this to maximum effect just as Lee Kuan Yew did in Singapore and as the current Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohammad began doing in the 1980s during his first history making period in power.  Ironically, the importance of trashing the 60-40 rule was even once picked up by the stridently anti-Duterte publication Rappler which in 2012, prior to the arrival of ‘Duterte Derangement Syndrome‘ actually ran a piece sympathetic to reforming the 60-40 clause of the 1987 Constitution that Liberal publications today rally around as if it were The Bible. In reality the only thing the 60-40 rule has done is to make the domestic economy overly reliant on a small and corrupt class of business oligarchs who would be instantly swept away is serious foreign investors were allowed to do in The Philippines what they were able to do in Singapore.
Logic dictates that a foreign investor looking to inject significant amounts of cash into a growing economy is not going to want anything less than a 50% stake in his or her investment. In reality, the more serious the investor, the more likely such a person is to want a share that vastly exceeds 50%. And yet by prohibiting those looking to inject FDI into the Philippine economy from having control over their own investment, the 1987 Constitution is automatically frightening away fresh investments into the economy and thus prohibiting a 1970s style Singaporean economic revolution or a 1980s style Malaysian economic revolution from occurring in The Philippines.
When the economic conditions are suitable, investors will come to nations in the midst of civil conflict, nations run by actual dictators and nations with severe sectarian problems. If any Filipino actually believes that the democratically elected, reform minded and highly popular Duterte is frightening any foreign investors except those interested in the black market rather than clean money, they are clearly deluding themselves.

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.

Conclusion 

The co-equal importance of federalism, parliamentary democracy and an economy open to FDI are all essential for the future of The Philippines. While in 2019 no one will get to vote for these issues in a specific plebiscite, they do have the opportunity to vote for candidates who support all three, while simultaneously naming and shaming those who do not.

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