Maybe not federalism, but parliamentary gov’t

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I have long been an advocate of a parliamentary-federal system for the Philippines. This means a shift from the presidential to the parliamentary and from the unitary to the federal systems of government. These structures are well-known to the reader, so I need not define them here. However, recent developments and a deeper insight into the issues have compelled me to rethink some of my earlier conclusions. I have not taken a complete U-turn. But I would like to see a wider discussion.

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One broadsheet known for pushing its own political agendas tried to kick off the campaign for federalism last week by running a big banner story on a resolution calling for a constituent assembly (ConAss) to fast-track the proposed change. The resolution was filed in the House of Representatives by Rep. Alfredo Benitez, third district of Negros Occidental, one of the richest men in Congress and head of a bloc of congressmen loyal to his own cause. Since then Senate President Franklin Drilon has proposed electing delegates to a constitutional convention by January 2017.

The first regular session of the 17th Congress opens on the fourth Monday of July yet. But while it is not too early for incoming senators and congressmen to file bills and resolutions before that, it raises eyebrows when a major newspaper runs a banner headline on a story that normally would not land on the front page. Is it because President Duterte promised a shift to federalism?

The global meltdown
That could be one reason, even though, strictly speaking, the President has no formal role to play in proposing constitutional amendments or revisions. That is strictly the business of Congress and the Filipino people. But the global political landscape has changed beyond measure from what it was before DU30 became President to what it is now. The world’s most ambitious experiment in federalism–the European Union–has begun to unravel, with earth-shaking consequences; Brexit–Britain’s decision to exit the EU–has led to speculations that France, Netherlands, Austria, Finland, Hungary and others could follow soon, and Scotland and Northern Ireland pull out of Britain itself.

The DU30 government may not see these developments as disincentives. But if we look at them closely, they are. The EU happened when 28 independent nation-states came together as one community; now Britain has decided to withdraw, and others could follow soon. The movement is in the opposite direction of integration. In our case, we are one solid unitary Republic, trying its best to preserve its territorial integrity by resisting secessionism. Now, the proposal is to subdivide the country into several autonomous or semi-autonomous states or regions and then wrap them up together again into one federal Republic.

Has it ever occurred to us that the successful federal republics happened because several autonomous or semi-autonomous states had decided, in each case, to coalesce into one common republic, and to defend their unity, without having to integrate themselves into a unitary state? Is it possible that the unitary state is, in fact, one step ahead of the federal state? I raise this as a question, not necessarily as a thesis. Instead of rushing things, we could take a little time to examine and answer it.

Don’t rush things
Changing the structure of government is a major step which should be taken with extreme care; it should not be rushed in the same way the 1987 Constitution was rushed under Cory Aquino, or the way the shift to electronic voting was rushed and put in the hands of a technically ill-prepared body in 2010. Revising the Constitution in order to change the existing government structure (unitary) to a new one (federal) is a sovereign act, which is not the same as writing a new Constitution, ex nihilo–from nothing. In writing a new one, the only clear duty and mandate of those writing it in the name of the sovereign people is to write a “new” Constitution, without any pre-conceptions or preconditions. The structure and form of government–whether unitary or federal, parliamentary or presidential–and everything else will emerge in the course of the free deliberations, not laid down ab initio by some powerful leader.

In the case of a proposed revision, those proposing the revision must make sure that they proceed from a clear decision to abandon the existing system in favor of the desired alternative, and that such a change, rather than anything else, prevails. To be abhorred and avoided is the disaster that occurred in 1986 when after working so hard on a constitution for a parliamentary government the appointive constitutional commission ended voting for a presidential government. This resulted in the current mismatch between the Constitution and the present form of government in operation.

Why not a referendum first?
Who will make sure that the same fiasco will not happen again? Only the people can. Since those who would be proposing the revision would be exercising constituent powers, they would be “omnipotent,” as it were–free to propose anything. But since the people are the real authors of the Constitution, the people could avoid being presented with a fait accompli, by declaring beforehand whether or not they favor a shift to the federal system, through a referendum.

Let the people decide.

If the people support the shift, then there’s no other way to go than to formally propose it. The key is the people. What the people say should govern. In 1986 after “people power” ousted Marcos and installed Mrs. Aquino as “revolutionary president,” she picked 50 men and women to draft a new Constitution just because she could not trust those who had made her president to elect their own delegates to write their own Constitution. This should not happen again.

This means a Con-Ass is out of the question. The more workable proposal is the one coming from the incoming Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and Drilon and reportedly favored by the President, even though he has no defined role to play in amending the Constitution, strictly speaking. This means a ConCon.

This needs a vote of two-thirds of all the members of both Houses, voting separately. If it passes, we could have a Concon by middle of next year. Without a referendum to provide the operating instructions, nothing would bind the Concon, a priori, to a federal shift; the best hope of its proponents is that the global political situation would evolve to favor the proposed shift, and their specific proposals on what federal model to adopt would win the debates on the floor.

No fast-tracking please
Whatever happens, I would very strongly caution against “fast-tracking” the proposed shift. We have to learn our lesson from our failure to implement reforms well, just because we gave ourselves no time to gain the necessary knowledge and experience before implementing them. Having failed to make the unitary system well after so many decades, we cannot expect to have become experts on federalism. We should therefore provide for a reasonable transition period so we could acquire sufficient understanding of the system, and a satisfactory level of competence to make it work.

Where federalism has worked, the autonomous or semi-autonomous character of the component states, regions, or provinces is often touted as the strongest glue that has kept the federal union together. This is not exactly correct. These federal unions have prevailed because their component states have decided to remain together despite their autonomous or semi-autonomous individual status. Those who are opposed to federalism on the other hand see the autonomous or semi-autonomous character of the various component units as the real fault-line that could bring about the federal union’s destruction. It is a foot in the door toward “balkanization.”

Dynasties and warlords
Indeed, the proposed shift could end the reign of “imperial Manila,” which appears to have already significantly begun to recede in favor of Davao upon DU30’s election. But it could also create fiefdoms revolving around regional political warlords and dynasties, which the central government may not be equipped with sufficient powers to curtail. Davao could be the first such example. The President is from Davao; many members of his inner circle are from Davao; the mayor of the city is his daughter, and the vice-mayor his son. This was the fear expressed by some with respect to former Vice President Jejomar Binay during the election: had he won as president, he would have run the country with a daughter in the Senate, a son-in-law in the House, and a daughter on top of Makati, the country’s financial district. They did not count on the DU30 phenomenon.

There is something terribly amiss about the constitutional reform. There is indeed an urgent need to redistribute political and economic power and the opportunities for economic and social development, and there is enough space in the Constitution to would allow the necessary adjustments. But the mismatch in the Constitution is not between the fundamental law and the unitary form of government, but rather between the rules proper to a parliamentary system and the current presidential form of government. And yet what is being proposed is a reform of the unitary system rather than of the presidential system.

Not federal but parliamentary
If the intention is to correct the most obvious defects of the Constitution, we should make its provisions conform to the requirements of the presidential system, or replace the presidential with the parliamentary altogether. As I have written a few times before, the presidential system seems to work well in only two places–in the United States and in Rotary Clubs, and not necessarily in that order. But in this election, the US electorate could be having a serious rethink.

The parliamentary system allows a democratic state to more easily elect the best qualified leader, and to get rid of one who has failed, than the presidential. All things considered, it allows you to hold transparent and credible elections. This is because not a single official is elected nationwide, which involves an archipelago where supervising elections remains an obstinate problem. In a parliamentary system, the voters merely elect a Member of Parliament, and the MPs later choose the Prime Minister. Transparency is easier to guarantee, even in the midst of so much cheating.

Winning in a lottery
The last elections have shown that, despite DU30’s election which all his rivals readily conceded, we are not yet prepared to conduct clean, honest, transparent and credible elections in all parts of the country and at all levels. Many parts of Mindanao are not prepared to conduct any kind of elections. How then could we continue holding national presidential elections when we know we do not have the means to ensure that the voting or the counting and transmission of votes would reflect the popular will?

DU30’s election will be invoked as an argument against this proposition. Sometimes, even a presidential system could produce a Lincoln (in our case DU30?). But this would be like winning in a lottery, says Bagehot. And winning in a lottery is no argument in favor of a lottery, where one loses most of the time.

fstatad@gmail.com

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7 Comments

  1. Danny Cascolan on

    No to ConAss, I wouldnt even trust a de facto like result of comelec, even a shift to parliamentary looks like self-serving only ti syndicated party elites without hope for inclusivity of lower class real patriots.
    Excerpt commentary,

    Lol factors in america or europe are not factors nor history of the Philippines, seeing apples same as oranges is dumb fallacious. No matter what the form of government does not become as same as economy wanted if factors necessary are stumped. Political institutions is half of the story of economic institutions and Philippines fail on both, but observably inverse to the political and economic success of the few elites. Even U.S. failed to follow federalism as sovereignty and rectracted to behave as one nation state during depression in 1930’s and Roosevelt had to regulate nationally to stabilize the situation which gave inclusive growth to the U.S. and it’s not because of federalism philosophy that U.S. economy grew at all. If in a unitary form a government cannot enforce or make amends ( post marcos sham leaders did not intend to really; Japan had violent wars in order to unify their country ) to better economy inclusively then what more in a federal form? Federal form for the Philippines as is obvious will be exarcebating the extractive aim and forces of neoliberalization which are even now bane to europe and americas, for the elite with everything fiat insidiously colonizes countries for the benefit of a growing nationless elite. Goodbye Greece, goodbye federal for of U.K. could be.Are you expecting those filipino dynasties syndicates who were not able to draw straight lines of integrity with clarity nor had the genius for industrialization and commercial innovation but had been content in perpetrating extractive economy of the Philippines since Aguinaldo plus now selling sovereignty insidiously to neoliberalization would be able to draw a lot more straighter lines? Did you ever consider the rebellion aim of malaysian supported milf in mindanao? The resources of the Philippines where it go and gone? And did you consider the capital to put up nations? Lol we don’t even have a Democracy to speak of now with automated cheat in the Comelec for years now, and here you are all blind to see authoritarianism that is being evolved. And here a Concon of the few is being concocted to steal your one nation-state.

    It is possible however for regions to have economic spikes ( while the resources are extracted by neoliberalism ) if the nations are at the same time converted into rogue states, that is producing all illegitimate goods and services for the world, managed by pirate elite but there will be no real rule of law but only arbitrary agreements at the whim of rulers. Would you rather have that kind of nation existence.

    – Danny Cascolan

  2. Jose dela Cruz on

    While there is no guarantee that our leaders in a federal/parliamentary system will not be as corrupt as the ones we had in the past, many of the the countries which adopted the federal system are the richest and most progressive in the world. Examples of countries with federal system of government: United States, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, Russia, Belgium and Canada. While the EU is federal, it is a multi-country federation and therefore subject to the pressures of different aspirations of member countries, as what happened in Brexit.

    This unitary form of government where most of the powers rest on a central government had failed us. In our system, provinces which are not bailiwicks of the sitting president do not get enough funding. Whereas in a federal form of government, the states get to formulate its own laws at local level and get also a its share of taxes collected.

    However, what we have to watch for is the possible cessation of a state from the union. If the Philippines is to adopt a federal system of government, it must be stated in the Constitution that no state is allowed to pass an Act taking itself out of the union and declaring independence..

  3. Mariano Patalinjug on

    Yonkers, New York
    06 July 2016

    The author FRANCISCO S. TATAD being a scholar of government and a seasoned politician, what he suggests in this column of his, “Maybe not federalism, but parliamentary government,’ deserves a serious hearing.

    Here he has raised some characteristics about a Federal as against a Parliamentary system of government which needs to be carefully studied and threshed out first by the Congress before making a final decision on what system to push.

    I am for giving the Congress the job of making such a careful study because in his Essay, F. S. Tatad suggests that the matter of which system to push should be submitted for decision to the Filipino people first in a Referendum. There is no need for this.

    MARIANO PATALINJUG
    patalinjugmar@gmail.com

  4. A country’s having very honest public officials depends upon what values and how they are instilled and re-emphasized in schools. Currently, there is a very considerable number of dishonest and greedy Filipinos!

  5. ernie del rosario on

    EU is 28 times larger than the Philippines in terms of country count and maybe several hundreds or thousands times more in terms of land area, economic power, population, etc. We cannot just use the Brexit disaster as a disincentive to the Philippines’ Federalism initiative. Our Federalism attempt is only “microscopic” being only 1/28th in scale compared to EU’s. I remember during the time our country was about to enter the Brussels-based SWIFT (System for Worldwide Interbank Financial Transactions) where I was the project manager for a local bank tasked to effect the connection to this system, I saw the many years long voluminous proceedings before the original bank members from a host of different countries reached an agreement on ONLY a set of technical operational standards for each transaction. Imagine in the case of EU where the agreements are so multi-faceted and many-times more complex such as for example tariff codes, common currency, etc. EU as far as my feeble mind can grasp was/is a 40+-year old attempt to mimic the “success” of the U.S. in economic power, global influence, etc. For one, EU might be “failing” perhaps due to the wide and deep diversity of its members in terms of culture, language, basic beliefs on how man can be equitably served by government, industrial strength niches of each country, business management systems, education, etc. It is slowly succumbing to the forces of complexity in the relationships among the member countries. In the 45-year old seminal works in radicalism of Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber in his two books ‘The Radical Alternative” and “The American Challenge”, these are exhaustively discussed. Of course Federalism is not an instant cure-all thing to the oh so many and deeply-ingrained ills of our country but it might be a good option (rather than continue suffering from the failed oligarchy-ruled presidential system in the next several centuries) to escape from the centuries old scarcity-driven and shift to abundance-driven fundamentals of our economy and government. It can usher in radical changes in the ff areas: 1) separation of political power from economic power, 2) access to social equality, 3) the end of hereditary private power, and 4) redistribution of public power (the very essence of federalism). This is not just another empty bagong pagbabago (again) or a piecemeal and narrow reform, it is in fact a wide-scale revolution.

  6. It is not what form of government to install, it is the strict discipline on the constituent.

  7. Would it really make a difference? Whether we have a Presidential or a Parliamentary system of gov’t.? I don’t think so. Because, it seems that changing the game would not matter if we have the same kind of players. Cheaters, dishonest, and corrupt individuals running the gov’t. And I can guarantee anybody that they will not be happy with a meager gov’t. salary, and will find a way to steal. Until we find individuals who would truly dedicate their talents and even lives for the country, and not to inflate their bank accounts, Presidential or Parliamentary would not make a difference. Last time I checked, one of the most corrupt countries in the world is under a Parliamentary system.