The politics of constitutional reform

Interesting proposals are being revived in current moves to amend the 1987 Constitution.  They seem at first like piecemeal responses to problems encountered in the course of the nation’s return to democracy. But one cannot fail to notice that, unlike the progressive intentions that animated the crafting of the present constitution, those that inform the drive for charter change today are, with the exception of the call for federalism, basically conservative.  Their direction is toward consolidation of power rather than its democratization.

Three proposals in particular are being promoted:  (1) the shift to the parliamentary system, (2) the proposed restrictions on the power of the courts to rule on economic issues, and (3) the dismantling of constitutional provisions that restrict the entry of foreign investments. Here I address only the first.

The shift to the parliamentary system is traditionally defended as a solution to legislative gridlock.  By making the prime minister the head of the state and by forming the Cabinet from the elected members of parliament, the integration of executive and legislative powers is expected to make government more efficient and responsive.  The outcome, however, is not always assured. Essential parliamentary bills may be buried in the shifting sands of coalition politics as governments without a clear majority strive to form alliances.  Public service itself may be disrupted by frequent changes of government, unless a professional civil bureaucracy has been fully institutionalized.

It is argued of course that greater dangers exist in a presidential system.  Advocates point to the election of Joseph Estrada in 1998 and his ouster from office in 2001 as proof that a young nation like the Philippines courts disaster when it places the future of the entire country in the hands of a leader directly chosen by a mass vote but who knows nothing about governance.  There is no way of correcting this mistake under the present system, they say, except by a divisive impeachment process, or by the risky extra-constitutional route of people power intervention.

The other day, Ms Arroyo defended the parliamentary system by pointing to its built-in mechanism of getting rid of an undesirable head of state through peaceful and orderly means.  What she didn’t say is that under a parliamentary system, it would be impossible for the merely popular, the Eraps and the FPJs, to become head of state. The prime minister will be chosen by elected representatives rather than directly by the people.

Ms Arroyo called the presidential system a 20th century invention as if to say we need a system suitable to the 21st century.  Yet in fact, all our ideas about parliamentary democracy today come from the practice of early 19th century Europe when parliament was little more than an instrument of, in the words of Roberto Unger, “a republic of notables that carefully filtered out the fickle mob and the dangerous demagogue.”

It is the presidential system that is historically associated with political progress. This was the government of choice of nations that were extending the right of suffrage to every adult citizen regardless of wealth, education, or gender.  If people could be entrusted with the right to vote, they should be worthy of the right to directly elect their highest leader.  That is how the argument goes, and there is no reason to think that conditions have so changed as to falsify this view today.

The presidential system undoubtedly spawned its own share of problems, not the least of which is authoritarianism.  The reaction to this phenomenon came in the form of new forms of parliamentary government that sought to ensure the obedience of the executive to parliament.  But in the process, parliaments ironically came to assume almost unbounded powers.  They imposed so many constraints on government ministries tasked to carry out legislative policy that many governments collapsed because of their failure to adjust quickly to the challenges posed by new production systems and an emerging world economy.

If we look back to the conditions that led to Martial Law in 1972 and later to the post-Marcos constitution of 1987, we will note that such shifts are not entirely unfamiliar to us.  Leaving aside his enormous personal ambition and the corruption that hobbled his regime, we must grant that Marcos did have an economic vision that he could not actualize because of the interminable debates in Congress.  He wanted for himself the same powers that made it possible for Park Chung Hee in South Korea and Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore to hasten the growth of their economies.  In “constitutional authoritarianism,” he saw the perfect tool for rapid development.

After 1986, our perspective was dominated by the singular wish to make it impossible for another dictator to come to power again.  The outcome of our efforts was a framework of government that replicated the same mechanisms of dispersion of powers and checks and balances that stripped the government of the day of any flexibility.

Today we again find this system of accountability and decisionmaking rigid and inappropriate to the times.  But our reaction is leading us not to an enrichment of our democracy but to a conservative liberalization that seeks to supplant national planning with the rules and logic of the world economy, and to an elitist consolidation that distances the head of government from the mass of voters.   This is not an overcoming of Edsa I, II, and III, but their total erasure from the nation’s memory.


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