Sunday, July 4, 2010

Should we change our form of government?

by Alan S. Cajes

Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her son, Rep. Diosdado Arroyo, filed House Resolution No. 8 "calling for the Constitutional Convention to propose amendments to the revision of the 1987 Constitution." Pundits like Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ was quoted as saying that the proposal “might get going again next year” and not this year since the country just held the national and local elections. The administration of President Benigno S. Aquino reacted by hinting the formation of a Charter Change Commission to determine the need for a constitutional change.

Regardless of the intentions of those who are proposing and opposing constitutional amendments, one critical decision that needs to be made is whether or not the form of government be changed from the present presidential system to one that is parliamentary. In the presidential set up, authority emanates from the people and exercised by three co-equal branches of government: the executive branch, which implements laws; the legislative branch, which enacts laws; and the judicial branch, which settles actual controversies involving rights, and determines any abuse of discretion of any branch or instrumentality of the government. In the parliamentary system, the members of the executive branch come from the members of Parliament or the legislative branch.

There are other important features of the two forms of government. These features will be discussed in subsequent articles.

The basic tenet of a republican state is expressed 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”.

Sovereignty is the modern term for political authority. It essentially means supreme authority within a territory (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Because sovereignty is derived from the people, the process of deriving such sovereignty is of utmost importance. In the current presidential system of government, the three co-equal branches of government perform distinct sovereign functions. On the part of the legislative branch, sovereignty is derived directly from the governed through voting in an election. Thus, the senators and the representatives are elected directly by the people. On the part of the executive branch, only the president and the vice president are elected directly by the people.

The government officials and the staff are therefore performing sovereign functions that are ultimately derived from the authority of the president. The same is true with the justices and judges of the judicial branch. The political authority of the courts is derived from the people through the president. It should be noted, however, that certain appointments of the president require the confirmation of the Commission on Appointments, which is composed of representatives from the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The direct electoral mandate enjoyed by the senators and the representatives is, according to one view, an important consideration in giving more political value to the legislature as compared to the executive department or the bureaucracy. In this view, the legislature is more important in the sense that it directly receives its mandate from the sovereign; hence, more representative of the people. That is why congress debates and enacts laws that the executive department merely implements. Although the president can “play politics” and ask congress to enact urgent laws, it is still congress that has the final say whether or not the policy of the president or of the bureaucracy can be translated into legislation.

The legislature, therefore, is the “one supreme power,” as political philosopher John Locke would have it, “to which all the rest are and must be subordinate”. The president, being a remnant of the monarchy, is relegated to a lower degree of importance and simply tasked to implement the laws enacted by the people through congress. This is one of the key arguments for a shift to a parliamentary system of government.

This political reading is important in the sense that it has an intellectual appeal although it may not jive with the political culture that prevails in the Philippines. Here, the executive is approximated more political value than congress for various reasons, chief of which is that the former has more money to spend than the latter. And the reason why the president is accorded a higher degree of importance than the members of congress is that the people are likely longing for a physical symbol of the State, someone who embodies their identity, ideas, and ideals. This is probably the strongest argument in favor of a presidential system of government. The Philippines today is a republican state by virtue of its form. In substance, however, there is a tension between regalism and liberalism.

Another point to consider in selecting the form of government is the view that a strong bureaucracy is increasingly regarded as the fourth “co-equal branch of the government”. Although the bureaucracy does not possess legislative powers, it has managed to formulate and implement policies that congress is unable to legislate. And despite the absence of judicial powers, certain branches of the executive department perform quasi-judicial functions. The bureaucracy has also been able to establish listening posts for the people, although the effectiveness and validity of the process of listening to, and converting the, will of the people to policies and programs are deployed differently.

Inspite of these innovations, there is still much to be desired in as far as the levels of competence and professionalism are concerned in the executive department. However, it could not be denied that the bureaucracy has the potential to become stronger when nurtured well by competent and professional chief executives, regardless of whether they are presidents or prime ministers, although the opposite could also be true. A strong bureaucracy, therefore, can thrive under a presidential or parliamentary system of government. And so can a weak one.

So, what is the reason for amending the constitution in order to change the system of government?

Perhaps the reason to change the form of government is because we have failed miserably in reaping benefits from our collective experiment of the presidential system of government.

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