Monday, October 22, 2012


In a recent news interview, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile has made the suggestion that the establishment of the Bangsamoro political entity envisioned in the recently signed framework peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) can be seen as an experiment which will test if a parliamentary system of government will really work in this country.  He has also been quoted as saying that "there is in the psyche of this country, a desire to adopt the parliamentary system" and that this desire was already expressed and proposed for implementation in working versions of both the 1973 and 1987 constitutions only to be overtaken by fate and other events.

In the same interview, he even goes further to say that there are no provisions in the 1987 Constitution that prohibits a shift to a parliamentary structure of government since there already exists in the country a multi-party system.  That is why, he says, the Bangsamoro can be viewed as a "good experiment on how a parliamentary system of government will operate."

The venerable senator, whose five decades in politics and public service has oftentimes been tumultuous and controversial, may have national renown as someone possessing one of the country's most astute legal minds but this recent less than subtle pitch for the nation to shift from a presidential to a parliamentary form of government in the near future should be, in my view, examined more closely and not merely taken at face value.  There is more here than meets the eye.

The debate on which is better, a presidential or a parliamentary setup of government, for the Philippines has been going on for decades with the fervor and urgency accompanying such discussions surging and ebbing like the tides that rise and fall along the vast shorelines of this archipelagic nation.  Intrinsically related is also the discussion on whether the Philippines adopt a federal or decentralized system like that of the United States or stick with the centralized and unitary structure we inherited from our Spanish colonizers.

Parliamentary governments have many distinct advantages over their presidential type counterparts.  Since the executive and legislative branches of government are linked and interconnected in the former, the work of lawmaking or legislation if often faster and more efficient since the prime minister, as both head of the government and his own political party, must necessarily have majority support in the legislature and thus can easily push through their preferred legislative agenda.

Public accountability on the part of most government officials including senior ministers and even the prime minister himself is enhanced as a consequence of the fact that they hold office simply because of popular support for them and their parties in elections.  A prime minister and his government can theoretically fall anytime when it loses control of the parliament.

In parliamentary systems, people tend to vote more along party and ideological lines rather than personalities and individual candidates.  And because under such a setup a multi-party system is inevitable, more sectors of society are represented in the legislature unlike in a presidential system where a limited or two-party system is often the case.  This feature can be advantageous in a multi-racial and multi-ethnic country like the Philippines where many sectors of society are either under-represented or not represented at all in government.

Yet despite all these, at least in the Philippine setting at the present time, I cannot see why a shift to a parliamentary form of government would serve any useful purpose except exacerbate what is already a lopsided and unbalanced political system decidedly favoring the rich, politically powerful and connected, and the established political clans and dynasties.  In a nation where elections are won on the basis of personalities and not by political parties, where celebrity status and personal popularity trumps personal integrity and ability, where political ideology or conviction means nothing in the face of an economic elite that holds the reins of power, what does it matter if our government is presidential or parliamentary in form and structure?

For a true parliamentary government to work it must depend on the existence of true political parties and groupings, all organized from the grassroots level and all distinguishable from each other by distinct ideologies and platforms of government.  It presupposes a system of suffrage that is fair, honest and truly reflective of the will of the people.  It is predicated on the existence of a well-informed, well-educated and responsible electorate who take their responsibilities as citizens seriously and who do not sell their votes to the highest bidder or kowtow to a well-entrenched system of political patronage that demeans and enslaves them.

The same thing applies to the call for the establishment of a federal system in this country.  Such a setup can only work when local governments are the true,efficient and accountable servants of their constituents.  When local warlords or the select members of the wealthy ruling class hold the reins of power within their own local territories and fiefdoms how can federalism as a concept exist except as a misnomer for national anarchy and chaos?

So I ask Sen. Enrile and to those in the power elite who think as he does, to spare me the platitudes and pontifications about the virtues of parliamentarism over that of our present presidential system.  Our deficiencies as a body politic cannot simply be remedied by changing our form or structure of government.  It involves fundamental problems in the way we as a people view our basic roles and responsibilities under a supposedly democratic system of government.  Unless we first fix these defects and evolve to become more committed and involved citizens of this country, citizens who are deeply jealous and protective of our prerogatives as the ultimate source of all government power, no matter what the form or structure of the government we put up, it will either only fail dismally or else oppress us terribly in the long run.

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