The Philippines And America Both Need Parliamentary Democracy

Imagine a basketball game after which it was not clear which side won? Then imagine a basketball game after which one side was given the title “champion” and the other side was given the title “winner” but it was not clear how the titles differed in practical terms? Then imagine both teams fighting over whether being the “winner” or “champion” is the more important title on a daily basis up until the next game whose outcome is equally ambiguous.

Such a convoluted and backward system would never be used to determine the outcome of any sporting event. Just as one cannot be short and tall or fat and slim at the same time, nor can one be a winner and loser at the same time….that is unless one is competing in a president/congressional political system.

A much anticipated American midterm election has just passed and while each vote has been counted, the strange phenomenon of victory being a subjective concept is very much in play. This is because in the US Senate the Republican party expanded its majority while in the US House of Representatives the Democrats expanded their majority, all the while in an election that was supposed to be a referendum on whether one likes or dislikes President Donald Trump – Trump’s position remained totally unchanged as he does not face the electorate for another two years.

The only people who benefit from such a system are the television commentators who are currently engaged in weaving confusing analysis regarding why one side won and why one side lost. Of course before engaging in their tangled analysis such pundits must decide who they think the overall winner and loser is as such things are subjective in a system where multiple competing and conflicting political bodies are elected using separate constituency demarcations.

By contrast, in a unicameral parliamentary system, not only is it clear which side won and which sides lost based on simple addition, but since the executive is chosen based on the leadership of the party (or coalition) with the largest number of seats in the parliament, there is no inbuilt conflict between parts of a  legislature and the executive as there will be once the new Congress forms in the United States. To put it in the American context, if the US just had a parliamentary election, Donald Trump would have campaigned for his Republicans to win the most seats in a single parliamentary chamber while Hillary Clinton (the de-facto leader of the opposition) would have campaigned for her Democratic party. Whichever party won the most seats would form a government and as such if for example the Republicans won the most seats, Donald Trump would be the executive Prime Minister of The United States. But instead of this simple and straightforward democratic parliamentary system, the US has clung onto a chaotic system that will result in nothing meaningful getting done in terms of domestic legislation for at least two years.

Furthermore, in the US presidential/congressional system, elections take place every two years and are incredibly costly while on the whole, elections in most parliamentary systems cost far less. Furthermore, most parliamentary elections take place after 4, 5 or 6 years rather than every two years. That being said, parliamentary elections can take place more frequently if the governing party loses the confidence of the parliament as a whole (usually due to incompetence and hardly ever due to criminality). Thus, votes of no confidence can replace poor governments more rapidly than in presidential systems whose election dates are set in stone while likewise in a parliamentary system a productive government can focus on reform rather than constant campaigning.

Overall, one is faced with the choice between a costly presidential system where elections are too frequent to even allow for a stable period of governing free from campaigning and when even after the vote, it is not entirely clear who is in charge of the country versus a parliamentary system where simple majorities in a single legislative chamber get to form an executive that functions as part of the legislature. Of course, Americans in particular get highly defensive about their electoral system more out of habit than out of objectivity. But then again, Americans tend to be very proud of their political system mostly because their country is rich and powerful. That being said, when one excludes the three global superpowers, almost every other prosperous country has a parliamentary system while a minority have a hybrid system in the style of France or Turkey for example. Hardly any prosperous countries outside of the three superpowers has a US or Philippine style presidential system.

In south east Asia, The Philippines has experienced fewer major military conflicts since 1945 than Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam and fewer coups than Thailand. And yet in terms of economic openness, the country is still behind most of its nearest neighbours including nations with similar pre-colonial histories and ethnographic roots.

The fact of the matter is that even before one discusses the crippling anti-foreign direct investment (FDI) 60/40 rule which is part of the 1987 Constitution of The Philippines, presidential/congressional systems generate less investor confidence than parliamentary systems because foreign investors simply do not know who will have the final word on agreeing to the terms of their deal. Why would any foreign investor prefer a system where a House of Representatives, Senate, Vice President and President could theoretically (and frequently in practice) have different views on the prudence of any given deal? While in The Philippines, the House, Senate, Vice President Robredo and President Duterte all think they are uniquely important, in a parliamentary system there is no dispute that the prime minister has the final say on the issues of the day and based on the popularity of his or her reforms. Furthermore, in a Philippine parliamentary system, the prime minister of The Philippines would clearly be Rodrigo Duterte while the leader of the opposition (aka the election loser) would be Leni Robredo. This would leave no room for ambiguity in respect of who is fully in charge of the country and who is fully in charge of taking responsibility for her loss (and this is before one discusses whether Robredo won or lost in 2016 due to the Smartmatic scandal).

Yet under the presidential system in The Philippines, those who would normally be losers get to call themselves winners or more specifically in the case of the current would be opposition leader, she gets to call herself Vice President and tries to undermine the President whenever she can, including in front of school children. Such a system is akin dysfunctional family where step fathers and step mothers compete for the affection of adopted children. Of course if a wealthy country like the US wants to waste its time and money on such a ridiculous system it can afford to run up the deficit for the sake of a wasteful system where deadlock rather than cohesion is the frequent endgame.

But in south east Asia, while Singapore and Malaysia’s similar parliamentary governments are focusing on continued economic openness and further reform, in The Philippines, competing branches of government are busy fighting with one another.

At the end of the day, Filipinos must ask themselves a very serious question: ‘do we want to be more like post-1980s Malaysia with the added benefit of having a large English speaking population and the further benefit of being located in the middle of a very crucial maritime shipping belt or do we want to pretend that somehow we’ll become as rich and powerful as the United States not be accepting the economic openness that made the US wealthy but by simply copying an outdated political system that hardly even works in the US anymore’?

The choice for any reasonable Filipino should be clear. If any more evidence is needed that this is the case, one must remember that Rodrigo Duterte has frequently spoken about his support for parliamentary democracy while his yellow opponents love the current system just the way it is.

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