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August 2009
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Charter Change and the Parliamentary-Federal Form

It Takes Only One to Cha-cha
Bernardo M. Villegas

Sometimes it makes sense to ask for the moon. By being over ambitious and daring, we may achieve the seemingly impossible. That is why I am joining my voice to those who are asking Congress to amend the Philippine Constitution in 60 to 90 days.

I am a recent convert to the parliamentary form of government. When I was a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission that drafted the present Constitution, ratified in 1987, like practically all of the other members, I was opposed to a parliamentary form. I must admit the reason was more emotional than rational. Anything that had to do with the Marcos dictatorship was a no-no. President Marcos manipulated the Batasan Pambansa. It was easy for us, traumatized by abuses of political power during the Marcos years, to easily dismiss the parliamentary form of government.

As an aside, a hot debate centered on the issue of a unicameral vs. a bicameral Congress in a presidential form of government. Not because I had any special clout but because my surname gave me the right to be the last to vote, I broke the tie by opting for the bicameral form. I must plead guilty of naiveté. I had the quixotic image of a lineup of 24 Senators (the very word senator connotes "wise and old" statesmen) who would go beyond parochial but legitimate issues such as building waiting sheds and basketball courts and naming streets—the turf of the Lower House representatives. I saw 24 Filipinos made unto the image of a Claro Recto, Lorenzo Tanada or Jose Diokno. So much for idealism. After witnessing the types of politicians we have been electing to the Senate for the past twenty years, I'm convinced that a unicameral chamber would be more efficient for quicker legislation.

When the Government of former President Fidel Ramos started in 1992 to advocate for a shift to the parliamentary form, I was quite lukewarm to the idea. My main objection was based on the fact that a parliamentary system requires real political parties that have distinct ideologies and platforms. It is obvious that, with the very common practice of our politicians butterflying from one party to another, we don't have authentic political parties. Philippine politics is ruled by personalities. This situation would be a sure formula for very frequent changes of government in a parliamentary system. Every drastic change in alliance can provoke a crisis in government. I argued that we could have a new government every six months or less, following the disastrous path of the French Republic in the 1950s.

The events of the last twenty years have convinced me that a parliamentary form may actually be more suited to the peculiar circumstances of Philippine politics today. With the exception of the relatively stable environment during the Ramos Administration, it seems that we have not yet nurtured national leaders whom the Philippine populace can tolerate for more than two to three years. Let's then have a system that makes frequent changes of leadership possible in a peaceful and constitutional manner. At this stage of our painstaking road to a true democracy, I wouldn't mind frequent changes of leadership as long as they do not involve military coups, street demonstrations and impeachment processes.

The charter change can provide for the building of a strong party system and a professional bureaucracy by penalizing shifting from one party to another and prohibiting the removal of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries with every change of government. The bureaucracy must be made up of career officials who are promoted or hired on the basis of merit, not political patronage.

From our experiences in choosing national leaders over the last twenty years, it has been very difficult for principled and qualified but nationally unknown leaders from the regions (like Jesse Robredo of Naga City or Bayani Fernando of Metro Manila) to rise to the top of national leadership. Nationally famous actors and other entertainers have an edge over them. A parliamentary form will address this problem while at the same reducing significantly the expenses required to run for a national position. Corrupt practices can be minimized if not totally eliminated.

I also no longer fear that it is easier for a traditional politician to bribe some 300 to 400 members of parliament to select the wrong Prime Minister. In my frequent trips to the regions, I have met outstanding local officials who are both honest and competent. I am convinced we have a critical mass of the new breed of politicians who, when catapulted to national leadership via the parliamentary system, will choose their Prime Minister on the basis of merit. This may not happen overnight but with a few more frequent changes of leadership, I am convinced we will learn to finally choose a Prime Minister whom we can trust for a longer period of time.

The evidence is clear. The presidential system has not delivered the 7to 8% growth of GDP we need to eradicate mass poverty in the Philippines. I have high hopes that a parliamentary form of government, founded on a true party system and a professional bureaucracy, can deliver the high growth we need to improve the lot of the poor.

The parliamentary system need not be immediately coupled with a federal form of government. We may first fine-tune the granting of more autonomy to local officials by implementing more strictly the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA). I would wait for at least another twenty years before we move to a federal form of government.

If the majority of the Senators continue to be obstructionists in this desirable move towards a parliamentary form, a well-informed populace can make them irrelevant. After all, unlike the tango, the cha-cha can be danced by only one person. Contrary to recent statements by opponents of charter change, it doesn't take two to cha-cha. The House can get the popular support of the people and make the Senate irrelevant.

Comments
(Anonymous)
My comment about cha-cha

As far as I I'm concern, what can I say about it is, this is not the right time change our charter because while our politicians keep on pushing it to the public more people in Albay are suffering a severe and intense agony from the typhon. Instead of political dispute and other things that detriment the ideology of the public why dont we create a solution to the fical crisis and economic disorder.

(Anonymous)
Re: My comment about cha-cha

please wind up. your opinion is in vain.

I've just recently made up my mind on the issue. One of my main contentions was that for a parliamentary system to work, you need a strong party system, which the Philippines obviously does not have. Also, I used to think that a change in the form of government wouldn't matter if the political culture stayed the same.

But the relationship between formal institutions (laws, political structures) and informal institutions (culture, patterns of behavior) is a dynamic one. They influence each other and a change in formal institutions can lead to a change in informal institutions. Such a change is possible if, as Dr. Villegas says, charter change provides for "the building of a strong party system and a professional bureaucracy by penalizing shifting from one party to another and prohibiting the removal of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries with every change of government. The bureaucracy must be made up of career officials who are promoted or hired on the basis of merit, not political patronage."

A parliamentary system makes the Prime Minister more accountable. Your stay in office depends on your ability to defend your policies in parliament week after week. In such a system people like Erap Estrada or Fernando Poe Jr., if they even manage to get elected at all, would not last a week. I agree with Dr. Villegas that ”we have a critical mass of the new breed of politicians who, when catapulted to national leadership via the parliamentary system, will choose their Prime Minister on the basis of merit.

Also, this new breed of politicians shows that the political culture is changing. The change is most obvious on the local level. "There are examples of well-run communities (a good number of them are cities) in the country. Marikina, Naga and Davao are just some of the more famous examples. Less famous examples would include Lanuza Bay municipalities in Mindanao and Pandan in Antique. Examining these cases should give us a more nuanced view of Philippine society (actually, societies) and the potential for genuine democratic politics." [link]

If development is possible in those aforementioned localities, what is preventing it from happening all over the country? It's a question of effective leadership. Our country's problems may seem insurmountable on a national level, but if you disaggregate the problem, the situation is a lot less dire. It's a lot more manageable. There are enough examples of outstanding LGUs to prove that it can be done. That is why I favor a political system that will empower the local government officials.

The president cannot solve the country's problems on her own and we should not expect her to do so. I think that the national government should concern itself with things like fiscal policy and foreign policy and leave the running of the day-to-day affairs to the LGUs.

I don't think we even need to wait twenty years before we attempt federalism. I think that as early as now, we should let the developed regions go. What do they need the national government for? They are self-sufficient and dealing with the national government only makes things unnecessarily complicated for them. Perhaps we can shift to federalism gradually. We could draw up list of indicators (number of schools, hospitals, quality of roads, birth/mortality rates, unemployment rates, economic growth, investments, etc) and set targets. Those who already meet the targets can go. Then maybe after five years or so we can conduct an evaluation of how the other regions are doing. If they meet the targets, then they can go as well. So on and so forth.

(Anonymous)
cha-cha


i think charter change shall be pushed as soon as possible despite criticism brought about by the critics. charter change as we all know is really important for the amelioration of economy. i will be very sure that in the ensuing years, our country under the said form of government will be highly industrialized. i do not care with the fiscal crises, the only important thing here to be emphasized is change, where the the latter can be fixed after so.......

(Anonymous)
help me naman..!!!

help me naman..,ndi ko kci makita ang pulitika na tagalog..