THE biggest opportunity we missed because of the EDSA uprising, and Corazon Aquino’s assumption to power because of that political upheaval, was our failure to shift toward a parliamentary system. (Its most important feature is that the head of government is elected not through people’s direct votes, but through their representatives, i.e. the Parliament to which the head is accountable.)
Cory, I had learned years after the 1987 drafting and adoption of the Constitution, told those most loyal to her in the Constitutional Commission—all of whom she appointed—that of all proposals, it was the one proposing a change to a parliamentary system that she hated.
It is such a tragedy that our present political system wasn’t really a consensus among members of the commission that drafted the Constitution. The 1987 Constitution was approved only by a very slim margin of two votes.
There were several reports that Cory was more interested in having a new Constitution as soon as possible, whatever its content was, since her revolutionary government under a “Freedom Constitution” (which she alone decreed) was, almost by nature, a legally and politically fragile one.
The four-month period for the information campaign was not only too short, but because at the time, the media was a Cory media, there was actually little national discussions on the provisions of the proposed Constitution. With her popularity and power then, most political leaders backed what Cory wanted.
While a debate on which system is better, presidential or parliament, would be endless, I submit we simply look at what has worked in the world.
We are one of the very few countries in Asia, which maintain a system in which the people directly choose the President, who is both head of state and government. Our system hasn’t even been “debugged” in the way that of the US had been, with such refinements and checks as the system of electoral colleges, primaries, a strong party system, and one-on-debates among presidential contenders. Yet, even in the US, Donald Trump’s victory, based on his skill in demagoguery and appeal to American working class’ frustrations, is another proof of the fatal weaknesses of a presidential system.
Because of the presidential system that was restored, the dictator’s widow, Imelda Marcos could even have become Philippine President, if her husband’s crony Eduardo Cojuangco, who insisted he was Marcos’ legitimate heir, had not split the pro-Marcos votes. (Imelda’s and Cojuangco’s votes in the 1992 election totaled 28 percent of the ballots, more than Fidel Ramos’ 24 percent.)
We’ve had a presidential system since the nation’s birth, with the 14-year dictatorship as a hiatus, and we are in a mess. It was the presidential system in fact which led to the quagmire of the late 1960s that encouraged Marcos to impose martial law. On the other hand, our neighbors with parliamentary systems—such as Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand—have had parliamentary systems, and have overtaken us in terms of economic development.
Direct voting sounds so democratic. In reality, it has been one of the biggest hoaxes of modern society. It is usually the political and economic elites and the mass media which determine whom the masses will vote, without such a leader going through the rigorous process of being tested and judged by his peers. Such pure democracy really works only in a community of a few thousand voters, without any mass media to mediate reality for them.
Thus, the masses voted for a President Joseph Estrada whose movie persona as a working-class hero the people thought they were voting to office. In reality, they voted for a drunkard and a libertine who saw nothing wrong in amassing billions from jueteng, rigging the stock market, and skimming off tobacco taxes.
But at least Estrada had two decades of experience as a town mayor and then senator. But because of the presidential system, and the features of a mass media- dominated modern society in which reality and illusion are mixed, the country nearly had as President Fernando Poe Jr., an aging actor with zero experience in government, whose fairy-tale persona as a hero brandishing a magic sword in a never-never land Filipinos quite foolishly thought they were voting for.
Last elections, if a phenomenon called Duterte had not emerged and there wasn’t a phenomenon as computerized voting, a Balikbayan that swore allegiance to the US, and totally without any experience in government would have become President—merely because she was Poe’s daughter.
It is the same presidential system which made a President out of a spoiled unico hijo who practically had not worked a single day in his life, whose performance in Congress had been mediocre that he was largely ignored by his peers, but whom the masses voted for in sympathy with the death of his mother. A superstitious people also foolishly thought the spirits of the anti-dictatorship martyr and his widow, the heroine of democracy, would be possessing B.S. Aquino, or from the beyond would be whispering to him how to run government.
Of course, an argument that has only recently emerged would be that Rodrigo Duterte would never have become the country’s chief executive if not through a presidential system. He touched a raw nerve among Filipinos, who directly voted for him, and allowed him to win by a landslide. Duterte, without the skills of a horse-trading politician and really an outsider from the national political class, would not have been voted as primus inter pares, i.e. prime minister, by a parliament.
But Duterte is a fluke, a sui generis (one of its kind), a lucky break for our unlucky country, in that he has mass charisma, a populist, while he seems–so far–to be committed to, and having the balls for, radically changing our society.
The other proposal for a different political system, federalism would worsen our weak sense of nationalism, and would even eventually lead to the extinction of the notion of a “Filipino”. Under that system, Ilokanos would deepen their identification as “Ilokanos” rather than Filipinos; Cebuanos as Cebuanos; Warays as Warays; Mindanaoans as Mindanaoans; with Metro Manilans most probably developing a crazy identification as “citizens of the world.”
We should move first towards a parliamentary system, and if that doesn’t work either, it would be parliament that could be in a better position to decide on moving towards a federalist nation, and implement it with the least disruption.
With his immense popularity and huge political capital, Duterte can, if he moves fast enough, move us towards a parliamentary system. That could be his greatest legacy, a hundred times more important than his war against illegal drugs.