A Guide to Parliamentary Terminology For The Philippines

As debates regarding the necessity of political reform in The Philippines continue to intensify, it is crucial for those engaged in such discussions to be fully aware of the terminology associated with the traditional model of parliamentary governance. With this in mind, here are some important terms that ought to always be correctly used when putting forward arguments for a federal-parliamentary system in The Philippines.

Head of government (typically called Prime Minister)

In a parliamentary system, the head of government is the leader of the largest party (or coalition of parties) in the principle parliamentary chamber. The head of government holds executive power and therefore is the final decision maker regarding all policy decisions regarding the national economy, foreign policy, taxation, social policy, security issues, military/defence policy, etc,.

In the vast majority of parliamentary systems, the head of government is known as the Prime Minister although other titles for the same role such as Assembly Leader, First Minister, Chancellor or President of The Council do exist in some cases.

Head of state (typically referred to as the President)

In a traditional parliamentary system, an elected president is the ceremonial leader of a nation. Although the president in a parliamentary system often carries the further title of Commander in Chief, this too is a largely ceremonial title as the Prime Minister is the one making decisions regarding the military defence of the nation. In this sense, a president in a parliamentary system is essentially the elected version of a ceremonial monarch (Spain’s King, England’s Queen or Malaysia’s King for example).

The government 

The government in a parliamentary system is made up of high ranking members of parliament from the ruling party (or coalition) who get elected to parliament and subsequently sit in parliament in the same way as ordinary members (aka backbenchers). Indeed, even the Prime Minister is a member of parliament who is elected in the same way as less well known members of parliament. The Prime Minister gets his or her position by virtue of the fact that he or she leads the party that received the most number of parliamentary seats after an election.

It is the Prime Minister’s duty to select his or her government based on which members of his or her party (or coalition) are believed to be the most qualified to handle a certain position. For example, if a member of parliament is a known expert on economic matters, he will likely be appointed Finance Minister while an expert on diplomacy will likely be appointed Foreign Minister.

The Cabinet 

In a parliamentary system, the cabinet is just a term used to describe the most important members of the government who frequently consult with the Prime Minister as a group. Generally, while even the proverbial “Minister for stopping stray animal breeding” is a member of the government, such a low level government position will not rise to the level of the Cabinet which is typically reserved for only the most important governmental ministers. Generally this includes the Finance Minister, Foreign Minister, Defence Minister, Home/Interior Minister, Education Minister, Health Minister and of course always the Prime Minister. There is no set rule for how large or small the Cabinet must be. Some are as small as 5 ministers while others are as large as 20.

Shadow government 

In a parliamentary system, it is not just the electoral victors who form a government. The largest opposition party forms a shadow government. While the shadow government does not have any direct power, this shadow government acts like an alternative government that consistently offers alternative proposals or amendments to proposals that are being offered by the government on every policy matter that comes up for debate.

Crucially, the shadow government is filled with shadow ministers who act as sparring partners to the official government ministers. For example, just as a member of parliament from the governing party who is an expert in diplomacy will likely be given the position of Foreign Minister, an expert on diplomacy who sits as a member of parliament in the main opposition party will likely be given the position of Shadow Foreign Minister.

While the shadow government is not an official position, it acts as a government in waiting that can be seen as an alternative to the ruling faction in the event of an election. Watching shadow ministers during a parliamentary debate is a helpful way for people to determine which party they should vote for in the next election.

Opposition 

Most parliamentary systems have more than one opposition party. Thus, while the largest opposition party forms the shadow government, other parties also have their own representatives on matters ranging from finance, to foreign policy and defence – all of whom aim to become either shadow ministers after the next election or ideally government ministers (depending on how many seats they win). All of the opposition parties collectively form the opposition to the government.

Often times, the leader of the largest opposition party will be referred to as “the leader of the opposition”. But in reality, while the official opposition (the shadow government) is the largest opposition faction, by no means is there only one opposition faction. Most parliamentary systems have several opposition parties who all compete to gain more votes and ideally to form a government in the next election.

Speaker of The House/Speaker of The Assembly 

In a parliamentary system, the Speaker of The House or Speaker of The Assembly is typically an apolitical position. The Speaker is responsible for moderating debates and making sure that the rules of parliamentary procedure are obeyed at all times. This contrasts sharply with the idea of a House Speaker in a presidential system whose role is that of the leader of the largest political faction in a Congressional House.

No confidence vote 

At any time in the life of a parliament, both ordinary members and leaders of opposition parties can table a motion of no confidence. In such an event, the entire parliamentary chamber will get to vote on whether it still approves of the current government or whether the government has lost the support (aka the confidence) of parliament as a whole. If more members disapprove than approve of a current government, the government is forced to resign. After the government resigns, opposition parties can choose to form a coalition government but in most cases, a new election is called and a new government is subsequently formed on the basis of which party or group of parties wins the new election.

Snap election

In certain cases when the Prime Minister believes that if a new election was to be held in the very near future, his or her party would win more seats than those which the party currently has, the Prime Minister can dissolve parliament voluntarily (aka without a motion of no confidence) and call for a new election in an attempt to expand one’s seats. Sometimes this works and the government party gains more seats but sometimes it can backfire. This is a risk that a Prime Minister has to take based on the confidence such a person thinks can be mustered.

Backbenchers 

While all elected members of parliament are known as official Members of Parliament (or MPs), anyone who is not a government minister, shadow minister or leading figure in a smaller opposition party is known as a backbencher. The term arose because in the traditional Westminster model, all MPs sit on benches rather than chairs. Benches towards the front of the house are reserved for government and shadow ministers (the government and opposition face each other in such a set-up) while those who are just ordinary MPs sit on the benches behind those reserved for the government or shadow government. Hence by contrast, government ministers and shadow ministers are often referred to as frontbenchers.

Coalition government 

If no single party wins more than 50% of all parliamentary seats, it is possible to form a coalition government. This can be done in a number of ways, including a government formed with the support of the two largest parties together (such as the current German government), a government formed by the party with the most seats and the addition of some small parties (such as the current Pakistani government) and in some cases, many small parties can combine to outnumber the single largest party and form a government that way. In trying to form such a coalition, any mathematical possibility can be tested in order to see if such a combination can form a government.

In other cases, a large party will form a coalition with smaller parties before an election and complete under a united front – typically called a party alliance. In the 2018 election in Malaysia for example, Mahathir Mohamad’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party formed an electoral coalition with multiple other parties. This coalition is known as the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope).

Unicameral vs. Bicameral 

A unicameral parliamentary system (like that of Singapore) is one in which there is a single parliamentary chamber that takes care of the nation’s political business. In a bicameral system, there is a main parliamentary chamber (usually called the lower house) which takes care of most of the business of government while a less powerful upper chamber (often called a Senate) has some ability to modify the decisions of the lower house.

Singapore for example is a unicameral system while Germany is a bicameral system. Crucially, although Britain’s parliament is bicameral almost all of the main powers of government are vested in the lower house known as the House of Commons. Generally, even in nations with a somewhat important upper house, most of the business of government take place in the far more important lower house.

Hybrid parliamentary/split executive 

In a hybrid parliamentary system there is a phenomenon known as a split executive where an elected president and a prime minister elected by virtue of a parliamentary majority share executive powers. France, Russia and Sri Lanka are three such examples of this. Yet in spite of the Prime Minister and President technically sharing power in such a system, most hybrid systems end up being strong presidential systems in all but name.

By contrast, in a full parliamentary the Prime Minister is the only executive.

First past the post 

This refers to one of several ways in which election winners are determined. In a first past the post system, voters in any given constituency will vote for a single representative of one of the national parties. Which ever party’s candidate gets the most votes will be elected as the member of parliament for that constituency.

Proportional representation 

In an election conducted on the basis of proportional representation, the party with the most votes will get the most seats in any given electoral region. However, if other parties cross a certain vote threshold, they too can gain representation in said region. This means that while a party that got 60% of the vote in a given region will win the most number of seats, a party in that same region that got 30% of the vote can still win at least some seats. This contrasts with a first past the post system where a runner up party is left with no representation even if the winner only received 51% of the votes in a given constituency.

Crucially, many modern electoral system combine elements of first past the post and proportional representation across differing regions and constituencies.

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