Lessons For The Philippines: The French Presidential System’s Neo-Absolutism Fails Yet Again

France is currently experiencing its biggest wave of protests since the May Events of 1968. The so called ‘Yellow Vest’ protests have grown for three straight weeks and there is not yet a sign that the movement will slow down. The protests began as demonstrations against French President Emmanuel Macron’s deeply unpopular fuel tax increase but have since transformed into full scale riots demanding the resignation of the French President.

This is where it becomes clear that even a hybrid presidential/parliamentary system like that of contemporary France is not sufficiently representative nor as politically efficient as a fully fledged parliamentary system. During Europe’s 17th century age of absolutism, there were few monarchies as powerful, centralised and socially domineering as that of France. This was one of the reasons that the French Revolution of 1789 was so dramatic. Just as in physics every reaction produces an equal and opposite reaction, so too is this the case in politics. The country with the most rigid and grandiose monarchy descended into revolution which resulted in a blood bath known as the Reign of Terror during which over 16,000 were executed.

From the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte up to 1968 the French political system tended to ping pong between strongmen emperors, kings, presidents and military dictators and democratic republican systems. Since 1968 the country has settled on a strong presidential system but one supervised by a parliament (Assemblée nationale) rather than a congress.

And yet many of the neo-absolutist flaws of a US style presidential system remain in modern France. Namely, in all strong or semi-strong presidential systems, it is impossible to remove a president due to incompetence, lack of popularity, or a democratic rejection of his or her policies. The process of impeachment necessitates that a president commits criminal acts and even after modest reforms made in 2014, it still remains harder to impeach a French President than an American one – a process which itself is long, convoluted and largely unrelated to popular opinion.

Thus, while the Yellow Vests want Macron out, chances are he will remain in power as it is difficult to remove any French president from power just because they are unpopular. By contrast, in 1990 in the UK, riots throughout England transpired due to an unpopular new Poll Tax passed by the government of Margaret Thatcher. With Thatcher already losing popularity among her own parliamentary party, the events surrounding the Poll Tax led to members of her own party challenging her for the leadership which ultimately led to her political demise and the rise of the more moderate Prime Minister John Major.

The difference between the yellow vest protests of 2018 and the Poll Tax riots of 1990 are that in a parliamentary system, there is an incentive for members of parliament to remove an unpopular leader sooner rather than later so as to preserve any given party’s political fortunes at the next election. Because parliamentary leadership can be challenged at any time with a no confidence vote or in the case of individual parties through a leadership contest, it is vastly easier to change prime ministers than to change presidents.

In Germany for example, the sustained unpopularity of Angela Merkel personally in spite of her party still being the largest in the country has led to her announcing that she will not seek another term in office and that she will resign as party leader and Chancellor (the German title for prime minister) sooner rather than later. In this sense, both the ability to challenge political leadership and the phenomenon of pressure forcing a time-tabled resignation plan as in the case of Merkel, are democratic features that are commonplace in parliamentary systems but are almost impossible to achieve in presidential systems. The reality is that if France had a fully fledged parliamentary system as most other European nations do, Macron would likely already be facing either a no-confidence vote or a leadership challenge from within his own party. This would have likely been the case in a parliamentary system irrespective of what the French government ends up doing about the unpopular fuel tax.

Lessons for The Philippines 

At present, Filipinos are lucky that they have a highly popular reformist president who is as far from the absolutist style of French leaders as one could get. The humble, straight forward and anti-corruption Rodrigo Duterte represents a rare instance where a presidential system even more convoluted and traditionally corrupt than that of France has managed to produce a leader of truly extraordinary ability and history making attributes.

And yet, the broken presidential system in The Philippines may well erase some of Duterte’s history making endeavours unless it is transformed into a parliamentary system before the end of Duterte’s constitutionally mandated single term. To put if frankly, many Filipinos have become politically spoilt by having Duterte as President because his success makes it all the harder to remember that the same presidential system also elected a man as incompetent and as bad for the nation as Noynoy Aquino.

In a parliamentary system, even in spite of his famous lineage, it would be difficult to see Noynoy rise to the level of prime minister. Indeed, Noynoy held no significant political position prior 2010 beyond the Congressional equivalent of a minor parliamentary backbencher. This is not to say that parliamentary systems are perfect. Because of his familial fame, Noynoy could have possibly become Minister for Stray Animals, or Minister for Crossing The Street Safely in a parliamentary system, but his obvious lack of ability would have prohibited him from holding meaningful cabinet positions up to and including Prime Minister.

And yet for a full six years, The Philippines was stuck with Noynoy because even after the scandals and incompetent moves began piling up, there was no simple legal means to remove him from office the way there is for a prime minister in a parliamentary system. Inversely, while Yellows threaten to impeach Duterte to suit their corrupt agenda, chances are they will not have the audacity to make good on their promise. By contrast, in a parliamentary system, they could table a motion of no confidence which Duterte would likely win with ease given the fact that according to his personal popularity statistics, he would have an easy time securing and holding a parliamentary majority.

While a parliamentary system is able to silence a hysterical opposition (Filipino Yellows for example) by forcing them to debate government officials in real time while giving them the opportunity to put their own political prestige on the line by calling for votes of no confidence, the opposite is true in presidential systems. In France, Macron likely lose a non-confidence vote at this point in time, but in the French system this is not possible for the president.

This is why it is of the utmost importance for The Philippines to begin the shift to a federal-parliamentary system under Duterte. By waiting to change the system until after 2022, The Philippines runs the risk of yet another flawed presidential election producing another Noynoy rather than another Duterte. By contrast, as Duterte himself has no personal lust for power, a parliamentary system could witness the formation of a new or rejuvenated political party of coalition dedicated to preserving and carrying the Duterte legacy forward for decades to come.

Comments are closed.