In discussions about constitutional reform (aka charter change) in The Philippines, the term “transitional period” is at times referenced to denote a temporary hybrid system that would exist between the end of the current system and a fully fledged move to federal-parliamentary governance. And while structurally, the current crop of policy makers have yet to deliver on a genuine piece of legislation calling for the necessary level of and style of reform, it nevertheless helps to think of the present period in Philippine politics as the “transitional period”.
The victory of Rodrigo Duterte in the 2016 presidential election was one part luck and one part symptomatic of a nation that had chosen not just a new leader, but a new destiny. The luck is derived from the fact that in a political system designed to promote and elevate the least capable individuals, the most able ultimately got through. The element of destiny derives from the fact that while The Philippines has received the “Duterte blessing,” this nevertheless cannot be thought of as the final stage of reform but merely the first of many important stages in a larger reform process. Frankly, if the current constitution is not sufficiently changed by 2022, the Duterte blessing may become a footnote in Philippine history rather than a starting off point for major long term reform. It is therefore in the hands of the public to make it so that these six Duterte years are a transition to a new leap forward, rather than just a much needed respite from an unbroken chain of insufficiently capable leadership.
The plain fact of the matter is that six years is not enough time to make all of the reforms necessary for national revitalisation and in any case, a single six year term within a political system in which there is inbuilt deadlock, is an incredible difficult reality in terms of a uniquely visionary individual attempting to accomplish anything meaningful at all. The fact that Duterte has been able to accomplish so much is a symptom of his tireless work, but is certainly not indicative of the potential of a system that did worse than nothing for The Philippines since 1987. Meanwhile, at this very moment in the United States, the inbuilt deadlock in all presidential/congressional systems has literally brought all major functions of government to a standstill at a national level. The only saving grace for Americans is that owing to the country’s federal system and relatively modern economy, powerful state governments and the private sector are functioning normally.
The fact of the matter is that the US is essentially a collection of giant private sector companies within the framework of a federal system that exists beside a humongous national military-industrial complex and extremely powerful central bank (the Federal Reserve) that have lives of their own. The fact that the policies of the military industrial complex and Federal Reserve are both working to bankrupt the US in spite of its nominal wealth are certainly nothing to aspire to – especially for a developing nation that cannot exploit the dangerous monetisation of debt in the same way that a superpower can do.
Therefore, the US cannot be compared in any way to developing countries like The Philippines or even to prosperous first world nations like Singapore, Finland or Austria. As the US has corporations that have historically been “too big to fail” while its military-industrial complex gives the country a sense of purpose (for better or for worse), its old fashioned political system continues to exist more in spite of than because of these national characteristics. Furthermore, one must remember that according to the principles of America’s own constitution, the national government was never supposed to be as powerful as it is today in any case. Such developments tended to occur only in the aftermath of the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913, the growth in national taxation at around the same time and the changes to the nation after participation in the world wars.
But for much of its existence, the US had a small national government whose system of inbuilt deadlock was a compromise between Jeffersonian supporters of limited government and Hamiltonian supporters of larger European style governance. At first the inbuilt deadlock meant little as the government in Washington D.C. did far less in the 1780s than it does now, while state and local governments effected daily life more so than did the national government. Beyond this, the US system was formed on the coattails of the European Enlightenment whose zeitgeist broadly asserted that the great and good would rise to the top almost automatically and therefore, deadlock could be overcome by the power of human good will and virtue. Not only did these Enlightenment values not account for corruption being a temptation to political leaders, but the system itself was never ever designed to do what it has attempted to do since the early 20th century. Thus, even the US isn’t actually functioning as its founders wanted it to function – thus making it a poor example to follow for developing countries that seek to elevate their material and social conditions.
For the nations that have maintained and seek to further maintain high living standards, one requires a parliamentary system as the statistics make clear. A 2016 survey of nations throughout the world by the non-profit organisation Social Progress Imperative found that of the 20 nations with the world’s highest quality of life, only one had a presidential system and that was the nation at the very bottom of the list – the United States. At second to last came France, a nation with a hybrid parliamentary system. All of the other nations were fully fledged parliamentary systems in which a prime minister (or similarly titled position) is the head of government while a ceremonial president or constitutional monarch is the head of state.
Parliamentary governments are not only more cost effective in terms of their electoral processes and organisation, but they are also vastly more cost effective in the long term because while politicians in presidential systems are engaged in deadlock between quarrelling legislative chambers or alternatively when they are quarrelling between a separately elected executive and the legislature (as is the case in the US right now), taxes are still owed, businesses still look to government in order to see what new regulations will be imposed or which old regulations will be eliminated and while this is going on, the government is doing nothing for the people. Still though, the politicians and the huge bureaucracies beneath them are getting paid by the people’s money even when no new laws are being passed or scrutinised. This is not cost effective law and order order, this is expensive chaos.
By contrast, deadlock can only happen in a parliamentary system if the ruling party or coalition has a very narrow majority or even worse, a mere plurality. In such cases, a government attempts to build cross-party consensus but if this is impossible, rather than going on with the tax money wasting charade, a snap election is called so that the people can vote on which party they wish to see form a new government.
While America’s tradition of free enterprise (which has become too over-regulated itself in recent years- hence the US falling behind China) and federalism has saved the country from the worst aspects of its own national government, according to the 1987 constitution, The Philippines is entirely at the mercy of a broken political system at a national level. Making matters even worse is the fact that this bloated, broken and deadlocked national government is presiding over a constitution that itself is anti-enterprise and instead is overtly pro-oligarch.
If one wonders why The Philippines has been largely left behind the other booming ASEAN economies, one should look no further than to the fact that of all the political systems in ASEAN, the one in The Philippines is the most anti-enterprise, even more so than Communist Vietnam – a country whose once rigid political system now allows for foreign direct investment on a substantial scale. In terms of representation, while Rodrigo Duterte remains one of the most if not the most popular politicians across all of ASEAN, his popularity does not give him the full mandate to execute his tasks in a peaceful and productive environment because of a Senate filled with unqualified individuals who are capable of little other than obstructing reform while sheltering criminals from justice.
These are just some of the reasons why those flying the flag of DDS (Diehard Duterte Supporters) in one hand, have no choice but to fly the flag of federal-parliamentary reform in the other. Duterte is working with one hand politically tied behind his back and this simply isn’t good enough for a country that still has a very long way to go in order to catch up with its ASEAN partners, let alone to live up to its natural potential.
Without federal-parliamentary and pro-FDI (foreign direct investment) reforms at a constitutional level, the country will likely slip back into its old ways. This is the case because while most Filipinos support Duterte, not a sufficient amount of the public understand the importance of creating a system that allows for Duterte’s reforms to expand and develop over a long period of time.
Term limits might be fine for a ceremonial president whose role is to essentially be a rotating national figure in whom the people can take pride, but for a hard-working, pro-reform politician like Duterte, it would be far more beneficial for the country if he or someone who understands his policies were to be a prime minister instead. This way, such a leader’s popularity would be linked not to random clauses in an outdated constitution but to the will of the people. Therefore, if the people want more Duterte or more Duterteism, there is no choice in the matter – such individuals must become supporters of federal-parliamentary and pro-FDI reforms.