CONSIDERING the strengths and weaknesses and risks of the presidential and parliamentary systems—decisiveness, efficiency, accountability, checks and balances and familiarity—and considering our political context and what is needed for a successful shift to federalism, I conclude that the best system for the Philippines is a semi-presidential form of government, at least in the transition period of 15 to 20 years. This transition period is important. All successful federal parliamentary systems take time to develop and they take root and succeed along with a broader middle class.
First, the transition to federalism will be challenging and, ironically, it will need a strong political leadership to make it work and for it to take root. There will be inherent resistance from national government agencies which will lose their powers and budgets. There is a need to strengthen the capacities of the regions to assume these powers. There will be many implementation issues to be sorted out. A decisive and focused president is needed to ensure a successful transition to federalism. If we choose to have a pure parliamentary system, there is a high risk of instability in the initial years of transition. The experience of early adopters of parliamentary systems in the early 19th century showed the difficulties of adjustment. Most early parliamentary systems lasted no longer than 15 years before they were overtaken by military rule or shifted to presidential systems.
Second, the French Fifth Republic (1958 to the present) provides a good example of a semi-presidential system. France struggled with a parliamentary system in their Fourth Republic (1946-1958) when they had 20 governments in 10 years. The instability was the result of gridlock between executive and legislative branches over contentious policy issues. Today, the Fifth French Republic—a semi-presidential system—is relatively stable. They have adopted the following mechanisms to make the system stable: the president as head of state plays a steering, arbitration and stabilizing role while the Prime Minister and Cabinet initiate major economic and social policies and legislation.
Collective but cohesive leadership
Third, a semi-presidential system in a federal set-up allows for collective leadership where responsibilities are divided among the president, prime minister, the cabinet, regional governors and local governments. Collective but cohesive leadership—with more horses pulling the wagon together—is a superior alternative to the current highly centralized presidential system. For example, in Vietnam and China, both highly decentralized countries, it has proven to be an effective arrangement for the rapid growth of highly decentralized developing countries. Both countries have a president as the head of state and who looks after national security and foreign affairs, a prime minister and cabinet who look after economic and social policy, a party secretary-general and powerful provincial governors who execute policy on the ground. Leadership cohesion is achieved through a system of democratic centralism (i.e. debates are encouraged but once a collective decision is made, everyone is expected to abide by it).
Fourth, a decisive, stable and collective leadership is needed to deal with many outstanding national security issues that the country is facing and will continue to face in the years ahead—the war on drugs, terrorism, US-China relations, economic competitiveness, not to mention the transition to federalism. Stability is critical. As the experience of many parliamentary countries have shown, there is no certainty that a prime minister can provide decisive and stable leadership in the early years of transition. For example, most parliamentary systems in the early 19th century lasted no more than 15 years before switching to a presidential system or were overrun by military rule. A semi-presidential form of government provides a balance between the decisiveness of a presidency and accountability in a parliamentary system.
Fifth, a decisive presidency is needed to deal with gridlocks and instability associated with parliamentary systems, especially in a transition period where political parties are very weak. We may end up with many political parties along ethnic and ideological lines, resulting in the ruling party being hobbled by unstable coalitions. The question of party discipline and cohesion, a pillar of parliamentary systems, is untested in the context of the Philippines. Moreover, in the transition to federalism, it is likely that there would be major contentious issues, for example in passing the enabling law for the creation of the regional governments, their powers and boundaries. Irreconcilable disputes between the executive and legislative branches of government could lead to gridlock and votes of no confidence against the government. This is what happened to France in their 4th Republic in which they had 20 governments in 10 years. The lesson here is that a sudden shift to a pure parliamentary system without a stabilizing and familiar anchor is risky. A semi-presidential system can provide anchor and stability during this period of transition.
Why not retain the presidential system?
If the transition to a parliamentary system seems to be problematic, then why not just continue with the current presidential system? There are at least even reasons as earlier pointed out. First, a powerful president can undermine a successful transition to federalism. Presidential systems tend to centralize powers and this is likely to happen because our regions remain weak and dependent upon the central government. In federal-presidential systems such as the US, a strong president is not a threat to the constitutionally independent states.
Second, powerful presidents can also undermine fragile democratic institutions. Third, the vast powers of the presidency perpetuate a system of patronage and undermine political maturity. Fourth, most successful federal republics are parliamentary systems. Fifth, parliamentary systems can help develop more political maturity such that voters choose political parties based on their platforms and credibility to deliver and not just personalities or family names. Sixth, parliamentary systems are more efficient in terms of policymaking and implementation because lawmakers and cabinet members are one and the same. Seventh, parliamentary systems have more cost-effective accountability mechanisms via the vote of no-confidence and question time compared to impeachment and recall procedures in presidential systems.
In choosing among presidential, parliamentary or semi-presidential forms of government, we have to carefully consider their strengths, risks and weaknesses, our own political context and the experience of other countries and most importantly, what is best suited if we shift to a federal republic. We have to carefully balance the trade-offs.
All things considered, a semi-presidential form of government is the most appropriate option for the Philippines if it transitions to a federal system. It brings together the strengths of both presidential and parliamentary systems—decisiveness, accountability, checks and balance efficiency and familiarity—and is also able to mitigate the weaknesses and risks of both systems of government. All systems have their risks and uncertainties and therefore we have to provide for low-cost mechanisms to fix these problems as they arise. In the long run (15-20 years), when our political parties have become strong and when we have a much broader middle class, we can shift to a full parliamentary system.
The author is vice dean and associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the UP Law Center Project on Federalism.