Because it is currently and most loudly coming from Congress, and because the members of that body proposing it want it to happen by 2004, the proposal to shift to a parliamentary system has become suspect.

It doesn’t say much for the citizenry’s faith in its elected representatives. But the suspicion is that the shift to a parliamentary system through constitutional amendments is being supported by House third-termers banned from running again under the present system, and that it is being vigorously pushed by those who see parliament as the only way they can end up heading the government.

Both suspicions are enough to create opposition to the idea. No one wants to be duped into giving the trapos what they want in the guise of national interest, or to wake up one day with someone who couldn’t be elected president in 1998 occupying the post of prime minister.

Both would not only be possible should the House proposal be carried out; they would be a certainty. The third-termers could run for seats in parliament after the amendments to their liking—which as the constituent assembly the House could assure—have been made. From among themselves they could then elect the prime minister, the likely victor in this scenario being the current Speaker of the House, whose party holds, and should have no trouble keeping, the numerical majority in that chamber.

The suspension of the 2004 election implicit in the campaign for constitutional amendments also helps harden resistance to a parliamentary system.

There is, first of all, something about suspending elections that Filipinos won’t tolerate for a number of reasons.

There is the civic one, which says that elections are an opportunity to throw the rascals out and to bring a new set of officials in. (That the country usually ends up with just a new set of rascals is for many people beside the point. It is the sheer pleasure of throwing them out—the illusion of sovereignty—that matters.)

There is the selfish one, which sees elections as opportunities to make a few extra bucks, not necessarily by selling one’s vote (although that’s part of it too), but by being in the temporary employ of the politico whether local or national. Elections not only employ the otherwise unemployable; they also help distribute the wealth politicians have appropriated. That they don’t do much else is for entire communities immaterial. It’s the money and not the principle, stupid.

In the second place, the suspension of the 2004 election—the proposal is to move them to 2007—would also mean three more years of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her wild bunch, and, worse, her husband Mike Arroyo. That is a consummation devoutly to be opposed, because it would mean that the Philippines would be under the presidency of someone who’s never been elected to that post.

However, it is not as attractive an option to Mrs. Arroyo as some commentators claim. These commentators say she could be lured into supporting the suspension of elections because that way she could remain president without risking losing the election to Fernando Poe Jr., Raul Roco or even Sen. Panfilo Lacson.

She could also end up being a figurehead President after 2004, the prime minister being the real power in a parliamentary system. She could reign but not rule, the ruling part falling into the waiting lap of Jose de Venecia Jr. After 2004 she could end up doing nothing but attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies to open dog shows. That would be a fate no one can wish on one’s worst enemies, thus her recent statement that the 2004 election will go on, despite the supposed clamor for constitutional amendments by then.

The proposal for a shift to a parliamentary system is thus getting short shrift, not because it is without merit, but because it is the politicos making it.

And yet the parliamentary system has other, not as selfishly motivated, proponents. Former University of the Philippines president Jose V. Abueva, for example, heads a group of civil-society people and academicians that has been proposing a shift to the parliamentary system, among other reasons to break the gridlock between the executive and the legislature that often afflicts Philippine governance.

Members of parliament would also be elected by district, a process that could put an end to the expensive and fraud-ridden elections that make a mockery of democratic participation in the Philippines.

Elections would theoretically be less expensive and cleaner. Although it is true that candidates for parliament could spend millions for a seat, the very same thing is happening right now. What would be eliminated are the costs of waging national campaigns, since the prime minister would not be elected directly, but chosen from among members of parliament on the basis of which party has the majority.

The parliamentary system, says the Abueva group, would not solve all the country’s problems. It would not make the electorate any more likely to elect MPs of vision, dedication and honesty any more than the presidential system has led them not to elect clowns and idiots.

No system can, by itself, impart that kind of wisdom. The key to any system’s success or failure is the state of political literacy of the electorate. For that, a period of education on the new system, which could also educate the electorate on its responsibilities and on democratic values, will be needed.

The Abueva group thus proposes constitutional amendments no earlier than 2010, to give the citizenry enough time to acquire the information it has to have so it can weigh with some degree of understanding the consequences and implications of the changes being proposed. This means going through with the election of 2004, and electing delegates to a Constitutional Convention at the same time, or immediately after.

This is one of the areas where the Abueva group departs from the House initiatives, which are based on a supposed “public clamor” for constitutional changes by 2004. If the House proposal were to prevail, the 2004 election would be suspended and everyone now in office would remain there for three years. What’s worse is that there would be no period of citizen education, and the electorate would in effect be rushed into making uninformed decisions crucial to the country’s present and future.

The Abueva group is also proposing the establishment of a federal system of government in the Philippines as a necessary companion to a parliamentary system. Under that proposal, the Philippines’ 80 provinces would be integrated in eight or 10 states which would deal with the immediate concerns of the population. A federal system would enhance the capacity of the people and the government to deal with the country’s problems, while at the same time protecting citizen rights because government power would be dispersed.

In short, a parliamentary system in a federal republic could do wonders in, indeed, throwing the rascals out and keeping and putting in power the men and women with an authentic concern for the country, who could begin to address its immense problems. The country has a supply of such people, except that only a few of them are, and would like to be, in government.

The way things are turning out, however, the parliamentary system as an option yet to be tried in this country (forget the Marcos period; his Batasang Pambansa was just a rubber-stamp “parliament”), and which the obvious failure of the presidential system should at least encourage, is losing out because of its loudest and most self-serving proponents.

It shouldn’t be, and to be so misled is to miss an opportunity to put in place a system which, if well-thought out and seriously implemented, could make a huge difference in the fortunes of the country of our despair.

(Today/, December 14, 2002)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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