Thursday, July 8, 2010

Critique of the Presidential Form of Government

by Alan S. Cajes

Being a republic, the Philippines operates on the basis of consent of the governed, a concept that is imported from the US Declaration of Independence (1776), which, in turn, is inspired by John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (1690) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762). The unanimous declaration of the thirteen united States of America on July 4, 1776 said in part:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”. (see

A republic refers to “a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and is usually a president” and to “a government in which supreme power is held by the citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives governing according to law” (see The seed of republicanism is planted in Article 4, Section 4 of the US Constitution, which states that the “United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence”.

Government, therefore, exists by the consent of the people who are governed. It is the people who constitute themselves into a State. This is expressly stated in Article 2, Section 1 of the 1987 Constitution: “The Philippines is a democratic and republican State. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them”.

It should be noted that republicanism is not something that the Constitutional Commission borrowed from the US Constitution in 1986 while rewriting the Philippine Constitution. Article II, Section 1 of the 1935 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines provides that the “Philippines, is a republican state. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them” (see This provision was, in turn, based on the 1899 Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines, otherwise known as the Malolos Constitution, that states in Title 1, Article 3: “Sovereignty resides exclusively in the people” (see
The concept of republicanism is not something new to the Filipino people. The Ilustrados who studied in Europe could have gotten the idea from the Spanish Constitution of Cadiz of 1812, and the constitutions of the US, Mexico, France, and others.

The Philippine Constitution (and the Philippine government) is inspired by that of the Americans. This needs to be clarified.

The Philippines and the US are similar in the sense that both mandate the separation of co-equal powers that are lodged in co-equal branches of the government, namely, the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judiciary. Under this rule, an executive can neither be a legislator nor be a member of the court. But there are also glaring differences in the constitutional provisions of the two countries. These differences include the following:

  1. In the US, the president is elected for a term of four years and can be elected for another term. In the Philippines, the president is elected for a single term of six years.
  2. In the US, the vice president serves as president of the US Senate. In the Philippines, the vice president may not even be appointed to any position.
  3. The US is a federal republic. Unlike the Philippines, the US is composed of States that have residual powers, and have their own elected governments.
  4. In the Philippines, the president is elected by all qualified voters during a national election. In the US, the president is elected by the Electoral College, which is composed of electors who could not hold any other office of trust within the federal government. Each elector has two votes but is required to cast one vote for a candidate not from the elector’s state. If the Electoral College fails to elect a president by a majority of the votes cast, then the House of Representatives chooses from the top three candidates. Each state, however, is entitled only to one vote.
  5. In the Philippines, more than two political parties are allowed to contest elections. In the US, two parties traditionally dominate the elections, although there is no law mandating that only the Democrats and the Republicans can field candidates.

It is interesting to note that the executive and the judicial branches of government in the US were established in 1787 during the Philadelphia Convention. The US Articles of Confederation in 1777 created only one federal institution – Congress, which is an expression of the Americans’ dislike of the monarchical system of Great Britain. The addition of the branches of government had two objectives: to address the economic depression following the American Revolution, and to create a new government.

Clearly, the US presidential form of government evolved in response to the unique challenges that the American people faced. In the case of the Philippines, the US presidential system of government was customized to the unique requirements of the Malolos Republic (for example, the legislature was superior to the executive and the judiciary in order to prevent the rule of the uneducated generals who were loyal to President Emilio Aguinaldo) but was adopted in the 1935 constitution (except for the unicameral legislature and the unitary system of government). In the 1987 constitution, the same presidential system is in effect, with some modifications. This time, there is a bicameral legislature, and a stronger supreme court. Lest it be forgotten, the 1973 constitution did not technically change the form of government from presidential to parliamentary because then President Ferdinand Marcos exercised the “powers of the President and of the Prime Minister” (Agoncilio 1990: 576).

The presidential systems of government in the Philippines and the US are, therefore, similar in terms of the foundational principles but different in many respects. Thus, to claim that the Philippines is better off with a presidential system because such system works quite well in the US is tantamount to an overstretching of the political imagination. The federal republic system in the US, for instance, gives the States residual powers and authority to elect their respective governments; hence, the States have a high degree of autonomy. Under this system, the States will go on even if there is a gridlock between the president and congress. In contrast, the system in the Philippines concentrates political power in the national government, through the president. This makes the local government units highly dependent on, and beholden to, the national government. A gridlock between the president and congress will have a significant impact on the local governments.

Given this, the other remaining reason for keeping a presidential form of government is the fear that the proponents of the shift will become the beneficiaries of the parliamentary system. But since it is only the first year of the new administration, then the fear is not wholly founded. The proponents of the shift are identified with the previous administration of Mrs. Macapagal-Arroyo. Besides, the change in the system of government can be effected towards the end of the term of the new administration. This implies that every possible contender for the position of prime minister will have sufficient time to prepare.

What may be considered as the strongest reason for keeping a presidential form of government is that the people want to elect their president directly. Perhaps, the election of a president, the head of state, can be done by universal suffrage, although this will require more budget than having the president elected by an electoral college. But it is high time to adopt a parliamentary system of government due to the following main reasons:

  1. Principle of knowledge: To ensure better scrutiny of the qualifications of the candidates. Having members of parliament elected by legislative districts would allow the voters to have an opportunity to know the candidates well. In national elections, voters hardly know the people they are voting into office; hence, they vote for the popular candidates although they pale in comparison to the qualifications of their opponents.
  2. Principle of cost-effectiveness: To save money. Having members of parliament elected by legislative districts will cut election spending.
  3. Principle of efficiency: To ensure executive-legislative alignment of priorities and programs. Having members of parliament as agency heads will most likely produce laws that are responsive to the needs of the nation while at the same time within the priority of the party in power. This will also avoid the executive-legislative gridlock.

The possible bases for keeping a presidential system of government can hardly stand criticism. The system has flaws, such as the following:

  1. Having a fix term of office implies that even if the incumbent president has very low satisfaction rating and performance level, the president cannot be removed from office unless the term of office expires or the president is impeached;
  2. Having a single term of office implies that a popular and good performing president cannot serve for another term;
  3. A president may not be part of the political party that controls the Senate and the House of Representatives; hence, creating a difficulty in having legislations that will support the programs of the executive branch;
  4. Electing a president and the Congress is tantamount to what Juan Linz called as dual legitimation. If the president and the Congress oppose each other, both can claim direct mandate from people;
  5. Election of the senators by universal suffrage does not guarantee that the voters know their candidates well;
  6. The senate does not have clear constituents, unlike the members of the lower house; hence, it is not clear whose interest they are representing, and;
  7. The cabinet members derive their authority not from the people directly but mediated though the president; hence, they are primarily accountable to the president.

Note: Many of the ideas contained in this article are gained from readings of various writers, chiefly John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Florentino Hornedo, Teodoro Agoncillo, Horacio de la Costa, Apolinario Mabini, Claro Recto, Onofre Corpuz, Norton Long, and L. Sandy Maisel, among others. Maisel authored a very short introduction on American political parties and elections published by the Oxford University Press in 2007. An eighth edition of Agoncilio’s “History of the Filipino People” was published in 1990 by GAROTECH Publishing.

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