Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Changing Gears: Issues on Charter Change and Structural Reforms

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When former President Corazon Aquino and Senate President Franklin Drilon called for her resignation, former President Fidel Ramos came up precisely what President Arroyo needed at her moment of political crisis – an alternative. The alternative would be to call for a Charter Change that would inevitably cut her term short. Grudgingly, Arroyo seemed to swallow the proposal – hook, line and sinker.

Whether the public should subscribe to the Ramos alternative – federalism, parliamentarism, unicameralism – or not, depends not only on how efficient the government will become under such a system, but also on how effective it will be in upholding democratic ideals. It is thus an imperative for us to know the features of such a government.


In a federalist system, the central or national government is only responsible for functions that are national in scope – like military affairs, foreign policy and national transportation. Domestic affairs like education, police work and jail management, social welfare, and health are functions of state or regional governments. Consequently, taxes that are collected by both the central and regional governments are equitably distributed to the states.

Proponents of Federalism pointed out that the current unitary system we now have is simply slow, inefficient and unresponsive in addressing the needs of people in various areas outside of Metro Manila. Directives coming from the “Imperial Manila” according to them stifle the growth and inhibit local initiatives of provinces particularly those in the Visayas region.

Furthermore, we have been told that greater autonomy to legislate locally is the solution to current separatist movements in Mindanao. Instead of framing peace negotiations under the banner of national sovereignty, Soliman Santos in his book “The Moro Islamic Challenge: Constitutional Rethinking for the Mindanao Peace Process” proposes that we conduct instead constitutional negotiations that respect customary laws and norms.

The idea of a federal republic, however, is not without its opponents. Questioning in terms of principle, they told us that federalism is, in theory, a system of enumerated powers. All federal governments started as separate political units which have chosen to delegate their powers to a central authority. This is the case in former British colonies forming the United States of America, the cantons forming the Swiss Confederation, the 39 states originally forming the German Confederation, and peninsular sultanates forming Malaysia.

According to opponents of federalism, this is not case for the Philippines which, since Spanish colonization, had long been under a national system. Devolving powers to regions according to them is clearly in violation of the principle of power delegation, which is supposed to be a bottom-up process.

Another issue against federalism is its multiplication of bureaucracy. Since the national government will necessarily delegate some of its powers and responsibilities to the local states, this will result into an increase in the bureaucratic size. This will entail cumbersome costs to a government that is in a brink of an Argentina-scale fiscal crisis.

The most compelling argument against federalism is that it reinforces political clanship in the country. The political milieu in country is often described by several political analysts as an anarchy of political clans distributed across regions. Federalism, in this case, only empowers those political dynasties that are already in the local government.

by Alfred W. McCoy
Without an assurance that the domination of political clans will be discontinued, federalism will only be a means of redistributing the political power in favor of local politico-economic elite – a situation that is worse than the status quo because together with political power, responsibility will also divided. Accordingly, the power of the people to hold a government accountable as a whole will be severely watered down.


Revolutionary hero and political theorist Apolinario Mabini
is the country's first Prime Minister, during the Revolutionary
Government, and then the 1st Philippine Republic
Our lack of good governance, as former UP President Jose Abueva puts it, is traceable to our weak and ineffective political institutions. Our current Presidential system, where there is a separation of the Executive and Legislative branches, is said to be prone to deadlock in policy-making. Consequently, both branches then resort to political tactics such as holding off of pork barrel and threat of impeachment to resolve the stalemate.

The solution then, according to advocates of a parliamentarism, is to strengthen and make more efficient our democratic institutions. In a parliamentary system, the powers of executive and the legislature are fused – that is, those who make the law and those who implement are just one and the same.

The presidential system had also been blamed for the existence of personality-based political parties rather than of issue and program-oriented ones. This presumably accounts for the lack of a programmatic and planned approach to governance because national leaders are more in-tuned with popularity than with development concerns.

The presidential system also allegedly suffers from its inherent instability. Since there are no constitutional means of unseating a president whose credibility and competence are questionable under than impeachment, which as history attest had not really been effective, people had often resorted to extra-constitutional means – both through coups and people power revolutions.

In a parliamentary system, the terms of office of the prime minister are flexible. This means that as long as the he enjoys the confidence of the parliament, then the prime minister can opt to stay in office. Should the parliament perceive, however, that the prime minister is no longer working towards the interest of the government, or that he had questionable ascendancy, then he can be removed by repeated votes of no confidence.

However, the greatest argument for parliamentarism – that it requires and thus encourages the formation of more disciplined political parties – may very well be the greatest case against it. The fact that the parliamentary system presupposes the existence of mature political parties to be effective – something which we do not have now – only tells us that we are not yet ready for such a transition.

On top of that, a parliamentary system also presumes the existence of a depoliticized public service, something which the Philippine government is lacking due to decades of appointment of middle and high-level bureaucrats. In a parliamentary system, only Ministers are subject to replacement through political means – Vice Ministers are evaluated based on their performance.

Cesar Virata is the Philippines' 4th Prime Minister,
during the Marcos dictatorship
But the most sensitive case that had been raised against parliamentarism is the issue of accountability and identifiability. Since the head of the government are not anymore directly voted by the people, we are as a result lessening the direct influence of the people on government’s policy. A prime minister is more accountable to the parliament than to the electorate.

Furthermore, parliamentarism had been thought of as undemocratic since power will be concentrated on a single institution alone. Thus, the people would have less recourse or avenues for complaints should the parliament fail as a body. As in the case of federalism, this dilutes the power of the electorate to hold a particular administration accountable.


Together with calls for the restructuring of the Executive-Legislative relations, several representatives appealed for a reform in the Legislative branch itself. They have proposed the formation of a unicameral, or single-chamber, Congress. They argued that the present bicameral Congress is intrinsically inefficient and susceptible to legislative gridlock.

From Manolo Quezon's very comprehensive
blog post on charter change here.
The idea of a unicameral legislature had often been associated with the abolishing of the Senate, or the upper house of Congress. While that may only be an option, the fact that the charter change is encouraged by MalacaƱang to proceed through a constituent assembly only increases the probability of the lower house imposing such decision. It is thus important for us to know how the Philippine Senate started in the first place.

Our current Senate was actually the Senate that was restored by Congress in 1941. Unlike the members of the National Assembly then that are voted in districts, the members of that Senate will be voted nationally. This is to prevent herd mentality among the assemblymen and provide a training ground for future national leaders.

The reason for the creation of a nationally-elected Senate in the Philippines was actually the very same reason for the institution of the bicameral system in Great Britain. As an institution of legislative review, the second chamber was meant to unite the aristocracy and to temper the unpredictable democratically-elected lower chamber.

Is the original concept of a second chamber then undemocratic? The case that had been made by the proponents of unicameralism does not really tackle this.

Instead, their concern is mainly about the redundancy of function and impracticability of a bicameral legislature. Unicameral legislatures are thought of as more efficient than their bicameral counterparts primarily because there are fewer deliberations done with regards to law making – a feature which they told us would be useful for a developing country like ours.

A unicameral legislature primarily elected through districts, however, would sidestep the continuous need to reflect national sentiments and to provide representation to sectors that encompass regions. While people will be dealing with a more efficient Congress, the people may not like the prospect of having a more unrepresentative one – with the same reason as why the people preferred a slow democratic government than a fast dictatorial one.

Changing Gears, Saving Faces

The main intent, it seems, of the whole idea in itself is saving the Arroyo administration from the outburst of social discontent. Thus, while the proposal may contain some validity, the intention behind why such idea had been proposed in the first place should always be given attention to. For all we know, the outcome that had been planned may not exactly be what the people wanted.

It seems, also, that while the system will be changed, no mechanisms had been set place to prevent the domination of traditional and circus politicians – the set of people responsible for the depressing and crushing poverty of the overwhelming majority. What we need therefore is a real system change initiated not by those who ran the system ineffectively for decades now, but change initiated by and coming from the people themselves.

Because in the end, should we again make mistakes, not only will our generation be suffering from another era of unproductive politics, our generation will be blamed as well by those who will suffer because of our negligence.


Abueva, Jose V. Towards a Federal Republic of the Philippines. IBP Law Journal.
Abad, Florencio. Should the Philippines Turn Parliamentary?
Santos Jr., Soliman M. The Moro Islamic Challenge: Constitutional Rethinking for the Mindanao Peace Process. UP Press.
Rakhimkulov, Edward R. The Relative Pros and Cons of the Second Chamber in the Ukrainian Context.
Institute for Popular Democracy (IPD). A Primer on Constitutional Reform.
Quezon III, Manuel L. The Long View: The Origins of Celebrity Politics.


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