Charter change: Handle with caution

Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

Second of two parts

CONTINUING our discussion from Thursday…
The prospects for fundamental systemic change – specifically, a shift to a federal parliamentary form of government and the reduction or removal of constitutional restrictions against foreign investment – appear brighter than they have in years, with the incoming President Rodrigo Duterte having expressed support for all these ideas, particularly federalism.

While all of these are potentially positive ideas for the Philippines, they are not perfect, and are handicapped by a number of “inconvenient facts.” Thursday’s first part examined the ‘inconvenient facts’ of the economic aspects of the loose formula for reform; in today’s installment, the ‘inconvenient facts’ of the political environment, in which policy and regulation would be developed, are examined.

Inconvenient fact #3: A federal system for the Philippines requires a few trade-offs that ultimately might not make it any more an effective administrative framework than the present unitary system. The assumption that a federal system would function better than our unitary system—which, in the interest of full disclosure, is one that I would like to make myself—is dangerous because it is subjective. There is simply no way of knowing with any degree of certainty whether or not federalizing the Philippines would actually work better than keeping the unitary system. Comparisons with other countries are invidious, and of no guidance in any case; there are as many successful unitary systems as unsuccessful ones. The same can be said of federal systems; some work well (Australia, Switzerland, Canada, the United States), and some do not (Mexico, Pakistan, Nepal, Russia).

Empirical research is likewise contradictory. One very sound study presented at a meeting of the American Political Science Association in 2004 by John Gerring, S.C. Thacker, and Carola Moreno of Boston University concluded:

“Unitarism is associated (at the 95 percent level of confidence or better) with better telecommunications infrastructure, lower import duties, greater trade openness, higher regulatory quality, and higher levels of per capita GDP . . . . Results for our three measures of human development are also encouraging. Unitarism is significantly associated with lower infant mortality and illiteracy rates.

“It appears that unitary systems hold distinct advantages over federal ones across a wide range of indicators of political, economic and human development. In only one case—the full-form model for political stability—do federal structures appear to offer an advantage in good governance. Results for Unitarism are especially strong for economic and human development.”

By contrast, a study done in the same year by Christos Kotsogiannis of the University of Exeter and Robert Schwager of the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen found that policy innovation is actually encouraged under a federal system—with the interesting caveat that this occurs when the state- or local-level leader has ambitions for federal-level office, and must “signal his ability to the electorate:”

“It is shown that, strikingly, the possibility that a federal system is more conducive to policy experimentation than a unitary system, once the political process for federal office is accounted for, is a real one. [This] validates the conventional wisdom that has been vividly expressed in the quotation by Justice Brandeis: ‘It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.’”

That the Philippines is not getting the most of its present unitary system is a gross understatement, but whether or not a federal system is the best solution to that comprehensive problem is still a matter for legitimate debate. Anecdotally, at least, federalism seems suitable for the Philippines, a non-contiguous land comprising several distinct cultural groups. But that leads us to a final ‘inconvenient fact:’
Inconvenient fact #4: A Parliamentary form of government is necessary for the formation of strong political parties, issue-oriented politicians and voters, and as a consequence, more efficient government administration.
It is quite obvious the current system does not work; what the calls for systemic reform have not actually demonstrated, however, is that the current system cannot work, or that it absolutely requires sweeping changes in order for it to work. Under current conditions, almost all of the negative effects of “personality politics” on government at the national level can be attributed to the simple absence of some provision for ensuring a majority President (either through some form of electoral system or a provision for run-off elections), and the prohibition on the President’s serving more than one term.

While still requiring charter change, correcting those two flaws would be far less disruptive than a wholesale change in system—a system that, even at its most structured, does not oblige the political class of this country to move away from the election mechanisms of personality and transactionalism that have served them well in making their appeal to the vast D- and E-segments of the population, whose choices determine the national leadership. If issues are a part of the contest at all, they are retroactive—“Vote for me because this is what I did,” not “Vote for me because this is what I plan to do.”

That is a flaw in the country’s social character, not in its political character. A parliamentary system, while not a bad stand-alone concept by any means, nevertheless addresses effects rather than causes—it is likely a valuable part of the solution, but by itself solves very little. When considered in the context of Kotsogiannis and Schwager’s demonstration that federalism alone can inspire policy innovation; the necessity of prioritizing parliamentarianism appears to wane significantly.

Consider the perspective—most easily seen in online discussions—with which the public supporters of losing candidates view the outcome; the implication is, “If the elections were not fraudulent, technically flawed, or compromised by vested interests, candidates who should not have won would not have been declared the winners.”

Which begs the question, “Should not have won, according to whom?” How do we, a thin 10 or 12 percent of the Philippine population, know that the outcome did not perfectly represent the majority view of the 88 to 90 percent of the population in the D and E classes? Can we actually presume that the antics of the candidates—vote-buying, fiesta campaigning, and personal positioning—and for that matter, the dynastic nature of the entire political class (which, we should be reminded, includes even ‘mavericks’ like Duterte, the son and father of politicians), are not exactly what the democratic majority expects, and is perfectly comfortable with using as bases for its choices? Consider the alternative of a perfectly honest, technically flawless, efficient election—given the choices presented to the electorate would the result, in other words, the victory of every candidate who “should have” won, really have been substantially better, or even different?

Given the choice between the familiar—the singing, dancing politician who speaks to ethnic pride, and is always ready with a strategically-given bag of rice or financial help from the government till for a sick family member—and an unfamiliar concept that not only has no obvious tangible relevance to most peoples’ personal, short-term outlooks, but suggests to them they will be required to put forth intellectual effort in ways they have never done before, the familiar choice will always win.
The full reform ‘package’ of unrestricted investment, federalism, and parliamentarianism presents a conundrum: Implementing the reforms would likely improve the democratic thinking of the population, i.e., encourage more assessment of candidates based on ability rather than other personal attributes, but on the other hand, an “improved” electorate is necessary for the successful implementation of the reforms in the first place. Little wonder, then, that the perspective of business and financial interests has largely been “better the devil you know,” and that the inclination is to eventually judge the Duterte Administration’s effectiveness according to how it limits the distance it strays from the Aquino-established status quo.


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