A Federal-Parliamentary System Can Help Philippine Politics to Ditch Elitism

It is a common misnomer to confuse wealth with elitism, even though in reality, the two concepts are very different. Wealth simply denotes an objective state of having an above average amount of money in one’s long term possession. Elitism is a far more manifold concept involving social indicators designed to make one person or group of people appear superior to others within a given society. Of course, wealth can be one such cultural indicator of elitism, but this is far from the case in many instances.

In India, elitism is still often based on one’s caste and thus, one’s status within an ancient Hindu system of hierarchy often indicates one’s contemporary social status beyond the amounts of wealth one may or may not have. In England, many self-made working class and lower-middle class entrepreneurs have become vastly wealthier (Richard Branson for example) than those born into the upper-middle and upper classes. Yet in English society, those born into the higher classes still dominate the social elite, even if someone from a lower class background is far wealthier.

In The Philippines there is also a elite system, but one which is even more ridiculous than India’s or England’s. This is because The Philippine notion of what constitutes an elite is not even related to indigenous culture as it is in India and England. In The Philippines, those considered elite are those that have the most “advanced” educational degrees, those who think and act more like an American liberal professor than like an ordinary Filipino and those who speak a “certain kind” of English that is somehow removed from the dialect of ordinary people. Such elitists continue to use their status to stifle opportunity for ordinary people, thus entrenching their power in the business world, the media environment and most dangerously of all, in politics.

Like in a traditional indigenous caste or class system, Filipino social elites band together in order to make sure that the political system bolsters their status as “superior” to others. After all, there is no better way to prove one’s elite superiority than by literally “ruling” over the people in a political system that is little more than absolute monarchy with a few democratic characteristics. If one wonders why the Filipino elites hate Rodrigo Duterte so much, it is partly if not primarily because Duterte is someone who rejects elitism with every bone in his body. And yet, an anti-elitist like Duterte was somehow allowed to slip past the elitist drawbridge and enter Malacañang Palace. The elites are very unhappy about this and unless the entire political system is changed, someone like Duterte may not ever be “allowed” to enter again.

This is why both India and England have actually done a better job of dislodging the association between social elitism and political rule when compared to The Philippines. India’s parliamentary system has allowed secular parties which reject the caste system as a matter of principle, parties which represent minorities and even parties specifically representing lower castes to play a part in shaping the future of India. Although the current ruling party in India does in fact pander to the notion of high caste Hindus being superior to all other Indians, a multi-party coalition formed around the secular Congress party threatens to damage the ruling BJP’s parliamentary majority in elections that will take place in the spring time.

In England, the gradual switch from a restricted franchise to universal suffrage (the right to vote) for all adult men and all adult women, has likewise helped to decrease the power of upper class social elites in politics. The presence of the anti-elite Labour party from which Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew learned a great deal in respect of party political organisation, was a party that formed around the basis of equal opportunity for all people irrespective of class. By the mid-20th century, this forced the old Conservative and Liberal parties to eventually broaden their own membership whilst by the late 20th century, the Conservatives largely abandoned the notion of classism and embraced a form of meritocracy.

While The Filipino elite often act as though they are elite Americans who happen to have been born in The Philippines, because America’s economy once created the largest middle class in history, the America of the 20th century was actually far less elitist than some Filipino elites of the 20th century seem to have realised. Mid 20th century America was a place where someone working in a relatively ordinary job could own a decent sized house in a safe area, own at least one car but often two and still be able to afford trips to restaurants, cinemas, concerts, sporting games and at least one vacation per year. While this egalitarian America had a dark side in which a racial hierarchy of elitism prevailed, this too began to gradually equalise itself after the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

And yet, while elite Filipinos model themselves on America, they have forgotten that the key elements behind America’s success of the last century included the following:

1. An open economic system that allowed for wealth to naturally create a large middle class that didn’t require state assistance to elevate their material condition

2. An atmosphere that valued a pioneer spirit that placed real life excellence over old fashioned indicators of “superiority” like advanced degrees or a famous familial pedigree

3. A federal system that allowed people in much of the country to make their own local rules in spite of those in far away Washington D.C.

4. A party political system that minimised ideological differences and prioritised management of a broader political consensus

Notably, all of these virtues that were once associated with the US have long been absent from The Philippines.  Instead, The Philippines adopted a US style political system but failed to empower the regions of the country on a federal model, failed to use economic openness to create a meritocratic middle class, failed to adopt the American style of social egalitarianism and failed to purge extremist ideologies from the body politic.

In many ways, The Philippine political system is a classic model of failure in the developing world. The same problems present in The Philippines are present in most presidential systems in Africa and Latin America. Notably, developing nations using parliamentary systems have tended to avoid or at least minimise many of these problems.

With the United States middle class now shrinking, its old egalitarian model descending into sectarianism, its politics becoming ideological and polarising and its central government becoming too big for its own good, even the US is now starting to exhibit some of the worst characteristics that have traditionally been associated with presidential systems.

Ultimately, presidential systems encourage an elitist atmosphere and this is especially true in developing countries that necessarily have an undersized middle class. By focusing politics on personal characteristics rather than fostering a healthy market place of ideas, the presidential system enforces the notion that only “certain kinds of people” have a pseudo-divine right to rule. While such systems aren’t as closed to ordinary people as are fully closed monarchical systems, they are merely one step removed from the idea of a divine right of kings and queens.

By contrast, parliamentary systems allow for multiple parties to form on the basis of ideas and one big idea in any developing country is to expand the middle class at the expense of a small group of elites. This is what Singapore’s People’s Action Party accomplished – thus transforming Singapore into a first world economy in a short period of time and it is likewise what the new Pakatan Harapan coalition in parliamentary Malaysia and the new PTI government in parliamentary Pakistan are presently working to accomplish.

In a parliamentary system, one has to show rather than tell and not only that, but one has to show rather than tell on a constant and continual basis. This is the case as parliamentary systems allow for daily debates in which the opposition can scrutinise the ruling party in real time. This itself helps to diminish the impact of elitism because high social status cannot save someone who is losing a debate to someone who simply has better ideas, irrespective of where such a person came from in terms of background. Thus, the only test for success in a parliamentary system is how one does within the system itself. Prerequisites are therefore surplus to requirements. Furthermore, because parliamentary systems allow a young backbencher to prove his or her worth over the months and years, one can judge for themselves who is and who isn’t objectively qualified for a future leadership position.

In presidential systems, one can hide behind who one is, where in a parliamentary debate, there is no room to hide. One is only as qualified for executive power as one can command the support of parliament and this could change at any moment.

Thus, a parliamentary system allows for meritocratic political openness in the same way in which a reformed and open economy that embraces foreign direct investment and free trade allows for economic meritocracy, due to the fact that economic openness breaks the monopoly of a class or oligarchs in a pseudo-capitalist society (like The Philippines has generally been since at least 1987)  just as sure is it breaks the monopoly of state run businesses in a communist society.

This is why the three point agenda of the CoRRECT Movement can help to remove elitism from Philippine politics. In summary, the three point agenda can accomplish the following:

1. Parliamentary parties will complete in an open market place of ideas in which individual characteristics and backgrounds will be jettisoned by a meritocratic debate on the issues in which one’s real time ability rather than one’s background is valued 

2. Federalism will break Imperial Manila’s monopoly of power over the rest of the country 

3. An economy open to foreign direct investment (FDI) will likewise break the power of the elite oligarchs and allow clean money from abroad to help and build a large middle class

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