Setting the agenda for constitutional reform

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(Third of four parts)
Does a parliamentary government necessarily promote socio-economic development faster than a presidential system? The record of a nation is a mixed bag. The greatest economy in the world has adopted a presidential form; the second is parliamentary while Western Europe has hybrid forms that range between the basically presidential form of France and the parliamentary system of the UK and Germany. The rapid rise of Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea and Malaysia can be attributed largely in substance if not in form to such personalities as Lee Kuan Yew, Chang Kai Shek, Park Chung Hee, and Mahathir. All of them strong and authoritarian, hiding behind the trappings of a parliamentary form of government.

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At the end of the day, what matters the most are electoral reforms that can produce honest, orderly, and peaceful elections. Secondly, there is the need to encourage the development of political parties that are not personalistic and ideologically-neutral. This can be developed not only through electoral reforms but through the total mobilization of the economy which can rapidly develop the middle class, the thinking class that possess the capability to elect development-oriented governance.

As Alexander Pope once observed “over forms of government let fools contest.” Another sage also said the “best form of government was an absolute monarchy with an angel on the throne.”

Should Congress decide to amend the constitution even through the constituent assembly process which is decidedly more expeditious and cost-effective, it is recommended that the US approach be adopted which is the piece-meal process. This does not necessarily mean amendment by articles. Indeed more articles can be incorporated. This will greatly pacify sectors of the nation that are very sensitive to a complete overhaul of the Saligang Batas. Provisions such as, the recognition of the sanctity of family life and the protection of and strengthening of the family – a section that is held very dear to the Church, must be preserved to gain the support of that institution for constitutional reform. Moreover, the elimination of articles that tend to preserve the economy to only a small sector – the local capitalists – will go a long way to elicit the support of the millions of unemployed and underemployed Filipinos.

Lastly, in the discussions of these limited amendments, the most transparent procedures must be employed. Congressional hearings must be more substantial than formal and should call on the most informed sectors that are truly representatives of the cross-section Philippine society.

This process might even be superior than a constitutional convention at the time when perhaps ninety percent of the populace have most probably not even read the constitution and can easily be manipulated by powerful vested interests who will attempt to buy a new constitution that can best serve their interest. As a senator wisely commented, there is no guarantee that “second-raters” will not dominate the convention. These are certainly the scions of political bosses operating in the countryside.

To be sure, a constitutional convention at this time cannot guarantee the election of the best and the brightest.

Arguments against the presidential system
A major explanation for the decline in the power of the legislature is the tendency of these bodies to be dominated by the executive branch of government. In many countries, the initiation of policy and the control over financé has passed the executive branch. In the U.K, for example, the bulk of public legislation is initiated by the government. Parliament thus responds to the agenda set for it by the government. It may subsequently be able to influence the detailed content of this legislation, but it is not the driving force behind it. Additionally, government may be able to utilize procedural devises to expedite the progress of their legislation. In the UK, one such device is the guillotine. This is a mechanism that limits the time devoted to a debate which ensures that the progress of a government measure is not halted by unnecessary or excessive parliamentary debates.

Executive dominance of legislatures has occurred in both parliamentary and presidential forms of government. There are three reasons that might account for this development. The first is the agility of the executive branch of government to act independently of legislatures in certain circumstances. This has enhanced the power of the former, eroding the latter’s ability to initiate public policy or scrutinize the activities of government. In the UK, the government may make use of the royal prerogative and undertake certain actions without having to first obtain parliamentary approval. In other liberal democracies, chief executives are given emergency powers with which to act as they see fit to deal with an emergency of may govern by some form of decree. The American president, for example, may issue executive orders and this act in certain matters with the approval of Congress.

The second explanation for executive domination of legislatures concerns the ability to cope with the volume of post-war state activity, much of which is of a complex and technical nature. This has made it difficult for members of legislatures to keep abreast of the affairs of modern government and has tended to result in ministers and civil servants within the executive branch exercising a dominant position in policy making because of the superior information they have at their disposal.

The final explanation for executive dominance of legislatures is the development of the party system. The party system possesses some obvious advantages for legislative anarchy (in the sense of members seeking to pursue individual interests to the exclusion of all else) and organizes the work of these bodies thus ensuring that specific goals and objectives are achieved. But there are also disadvantages for legislatures that arise from the party system.

The party system aligns members of the executive and legislative branches. Members of both branches, when belonging to the same party, have common ideological and policy interests. They have a vested interest in successfully translating these common concerns into law. These mutual interests are underlaid by party discipline which serves to induce members of the legislature to follow the lead given by their party leaders within the executive branch of government. In extreme cases, where party discipline is strong, disobedience to the wishes of the executive might result in expulsion from the party, a fate which befell the “Eurorebels” in the United Kingdom Conservative Party in 1994.

The emergence of disciplined political parties has the effect of ensuring that legislatures do no act as corporate institutions exercising their functions on behalf of the nation as a whole. Instead, they operate under the direction of the executive branch of government.

(To be continued)

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