I agree with the GMA government when it says that the Philippines needs a change in the government system, and even that the constitution needs to be amended as part of this process of change. However, I differ with it in that I feel that the constitutional proposals they have put forward are ineffective. We need real changes, not cosmetic ones.
The proposal to change from a presidential system with a bicameral legislature, to a parliamentary system with a unicameral legislature is not automatically going to address the big problems with the present system. Gridlock in the making of laws, corruption, weak party system – all these features will not only be maintained by the proposed changes in the constitution, they will even grow worse.
The key change that needs to be made is not on what we elect, but on how we elect our representatives.
The proposed changes to the constitution will keep the basic workings of the system intact. Under the current charter change proposal, the parliament members will be elected on the basis of whoever gets the most votes (note, not the majority of the votes, but a “plurality”) in the present congressional districts. This means that the present system of patronage and pork barrel will likely be maintained.
In order to abolish the system of patronage and pork barrel, we need to cut the link between local interests and national policymaking. Thus, representatives should no longer be elected on the basis of constituencies, or districts. Under the proportional representation system of electing parliament, the voters choose the party that they like (hopefully, on the basis of the party platform) and the seats are allocated on the basis of the percentage of the overall national votes that the various parties get. This means that if a party gets 10% of the votes, it is entitled to 10% of the seats (which, in a 200 member parliament, means that it would get 20 seats).
This system is not that new to the Philippines. We have it already in the form of the party-list system. At present, though, the party-list system only applies (at most) to 50 seats out of 250 in the House of Representatives. It is also only open to parties which represent the “underrepresented sectors of society” – and thus excludes the main political parties. What we need to do is to expand the party-list system to include all the seats in parliament, and to include all parties.
Since, with this system of electing parliament, there is no longer a direct link between a constituency area and the individual seats, there will be no need to develop patronage in one’s “base” in order to get elected. It will also mean that “pork barrel” as a way of developing patronage will also no longer be needed. What will instead develop will be a party system – since representation will be thru parties. It will also mean that the parliamentarians will need to concentrate on their main work, which is to make national policies.
We should also adopt the rule in the present party-list law, wherein the lawmakers represent their parties, and when they leave the party, they automatically lose their seat in parliament. This will make it impossible for one to shift party affiliation in between elections. The list of party candidates will be the official list of succession for party seats in parliament, and this list is filed before the elections. And nobody is allowed to be in more than one list.
This system forces parties to form coalitions in order to get a working majority. It means that the ruling coalition will grow on the basis of inter-party negotiations, and not on recruiting members from other parties.
The proportional representation system also ensures that a majority of the population gets represented in the government. Since the parliamentarians’ seats are apportioned according to the votes their parties get in the elections, a majority in parliament will need to represent the majority of voters.
With this system, it would be possible for parties which represent a wide variety of views and interests to run for parliament. This is good for democracy, in that no significant group of voters would be left out of the political life.
The proportional representation system also would improve party discipline among parliamentarians. If a parliamentarian is consistently absent during sessions, this would be bad for the party, and thus the party could expel the delinquent parliamentarian from the party – meaning that he/she loses the seat. In many parliaments, this system ensures good attendance in parliament sessions. It also means that if a member of parliament regularly votes contrary to the party’s position she/he risks being thrown out.