"A strong democracy can only be built upon the shoulders of an able party system and a discerning electorate."
One of the inherent weaknesses of the 1987 Constitution was the absence of electoral arrangements that would have ensured political cohesion. In order to prevent another strongman from wresting political power once more, efforts were taken to ensure wider political participation, albeit in a reactive sense. Stronger term limits were set in place. The party-list system was introduced. Political dynasties were to be prohibited. It was, in a way, an offshoot of the post-EDSA political climate, that seemed poised to deliberately dismantle the “ancien regime” of the Marcos years – and almost everything and anything that came with it.
So, the country’s brief experiment with parliamentary democracy suddenly came to a complete halt. The late Vice President Salvador Laurel found himself appointed Prime Minister one day – the only other in our country’s history – then the following day learned that the same office was effectively abolished – thanks to an interim “Freedom Constitution” enacted by former President Corazon Aquino in 1986.
It would have been interesting to re-imagine Philippine politics, had the parliamentary system remained in place. Owing to the “fusion” rather than “separation of powers” especially between the executive and legislative branches of government, there would have been a closer synchronization between those who craft laws and those who execute it and put an end to this seeming dissonance between policy and practice.
Take for example the way we pass the country’s national budget. The executive submits a national expenditure program to Congress, who in turn, crafts an appropriations bill based on it. After a rather lengthy process of legislative deliberation, Congress passes the appropriations act for the President’s signature. Now, the budget becomes part of the law of the land. However, despite that, there is a wide latitude on the part of the executive to decide on whether or not to actually release the funds appropriated therein. To an extent, “power of the purse” of Congress is actually tethered to the executive’s prerogative.
Had the parliamentary system stayed on, the executive, being composed of the majority in Congress, would have drafted the budget and defended it themselves before their colleagues – and at the same time, be directly responsible and accountable for the manner it is released and spent. If the executive fails to act according to the approved expenditure program, it is then possible for the government to be censured through a vote of confidence. If the vote of confidence fails to pass, the entire executive is deemed resigned, and a new government will be formed and elected into office.
Another longstanding change needed is reforming the office of Vice President. In the United States, after which our present fundamental law was originally based upon, there are no separate elections for the highest and second highest offices of the land. A vote for a specific presidential candidate is counted as a vote for his or her running mate. This way, a disparate accommodation between a President and a Vice President belonging to two different political parties will be avoided – so is the political instability and uncertainty that come with it.
Strengthening political parties is also one aspect where the 1987 Constitution can be found wanting. While lesser legal regulation for political parties is ideal, it is still important to emphasize the role of political parties as public democratic institutions. Consequently, political parties have been sadly exploited into convenient vehicles of patronage rather than strong programmatic entities. Many political aspirants switch political parties for convenience, rather than conviction, and ideological commitment among party members is almost non-existent.
Having a mature political party system is important, whether in a parliamentary or presidential system. The long-term effectiveness of political programs and policies that foster long-term development depends heavily on the presence of a working political party system that does not only ensure the emergence of capable political leaders of a similar conviction, but more importantly in shaping a governance culture that is aligned to that set of political principles. Thus, it is now possible for the voters to set expectations on what one party can deliver from another, or how their platform is differentiated from another.Unfortunately, the inherent weaknesses in our political party system has become detrimental to national development. Our political parties have become tied up to patronage rather than platforms. They have become more identified with personalities than programs. Instead of being a platform for governance, our parties have been relegated into tools for elections devoid of the principles and platforms that would have set the measures for good governance.
Constitutional reform may seem to be a long shot proposition, but should our country ever take that path, strengthening the role of political parties in our democratic system would be a key priority. By incorporating political parties in our constitutional framework, we could effectively solve many of the political ills that beset the current system – including the need for more active and inclusive political participation.
Arguably, there are at least three key reforms needed to strengthen our political parties: membership, leadership and financing.
First, as democratic entities, our political parties must be based on membership, and minimum membership quotas must be required at the local, regional, and national levels. For example, a minimum number of members at the local level will be required in order for a party to be registered and to run for local elections. Similarly, a minimum membership at the regional or national level shall be required for a party to field national candidates. In order to realize this, individual voters shall be required to indicate their party membership in their voter’s record, and each party shall be mandated to maintain their rolls of membership.
Second, open leadership contests within political parties must be encouraged. The conduct of party conventions should be required during which candidates for local and national positions are nominated with official COMELEC observers present. Even those running as independents should be required to attain a specific “nomination quota”, so as to avoid nuisance candidates. However, it should be emphasized that a candidate’s membership in the party of his election should be a continuing requirement to stay in office. This means, especially in legislative bodies, an elected official who switches political parties automatically forfeits his seat, and shall be barred from seeking election under another party within a determined period of time. This way, the political arrangement actually incentivizes political loyalty, and reprimands turncoatism.
Lastly, political party financing through government subsidies would be an effective way to eradicate patronage, as well as increase transparency in election spending. Subsidies would be proportional to the volume of votes received by each party in the past election. In return, political parties will now be open to public scrutiny and audit. In addition to campaign spending, the subsidies must also be spent for membership development, leadership training, as well as policy research. A candidate, however, who switches political parties, will be compelled to return any party funds used during the campaign.
With national elections in the offing, rumblings within political parties are to be expected, if not, have already begun. It would be best to learn from their mistakes and this way, know how to do it better – for there is no doubt that a strong democracy can only be built upon the shoulders of an able party system and a discerning electorate.