Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Archive for September, 2006

Parliamentary-unicameral?

Posted by butalidnl on 28 September 2006

The charter change proponents are pushing hard for setting up a “parliamentary-unicameral” system as the alternative to the present “presidential-bicameral”. It is as if a parliamentary system is necessarily unicameral. A look at how other countries’ parliamentary systems work show that many of these have a bicameral arrangement. Even the “mother” of parliamentary systems, that of Britain, has both an upper house (known as the “House of Lords”) and a lower house (“House of Commons”).

Countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy all have a bicameral parliamentary system. The usual reason for having two chambers is the need to balance the overall needs of the country, with the needs of the various states or component provinces. The upper chamber is usually then composed of representatives of the various provinces/states, and the lower chamber represents the population at large.

Another reason for having the upper chamber is the question of representing the aristocracy e.g. in the case of the British House of Lords. In some kingdoms, e.g. those in the middle east, there are advisory councils made up of royal appointees – these could eventually also evolve into upper chambers when a system of general elections are set up that could elect representatives of a “commons” chamber.

Some other countries with a bicameral parliamentary system are: Austria, Canada, France, India, Japan, Ireland, Malaysia,Pakistan, South Africa and Switzerland. As you can see, having a bicameral parliament is not uncommon at all.

It seems that countries with a diverse population e.g. India, Malaysia, Switzerland and South Africa have adopted the bicameral parliamentary system. Probably this is in order to ensure that national policies also take full consideration of differing regional and ethnic needs. For the Philippines, I feel that we would also need to have a bicameral parliament, to give justice to our diversity as a nation.

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Eliminate pork barrel, make legislators concentrate on lawmaking

Posted by butalidnl on 25 September 2006

Philippine congressmen and senators now enjoy  “pork barrel” benefits – which means that they have the right to designate local projects which will be implemented by national agencies, up to a certain amount. This “pork barrel” has become essential to legislators because it is important toward building patronage ties with local officials. Also, it is a source of corruption, in that the legislator gets a certain percentage of these expenditures as kickback from the national government agencies concerned.

If we decide to amend or revise the constitution, it would be good to eliminate pork barrel, for two reasons: First, pork barrel maintains and nurtures the patronage system and the culture of corruption. Second, it distracts lawmakers from their primary duty – that of making laws.  As I suggested in a previous posting, the shift to the proportional representation system of selecting legislators would do a lot towards eliminating pork barrel. However,  this is not enough.  We should have some kind of rule or law which would say that local government units should be the ones determining local projects, and that national government agencies’ projects in the country’s various areas should be apportioned among local government units on the basis of population and area.

The question that naturally arises from this idea is that local officials are as likely to be corrupt and to mismanage the projects as the national legislators. True. But at least the local officials would have been elected to take care of local issues, and that would then include national government projects in their areas.  This task properly belongs to them. And if they mismanage these projects, they are directly accountable and should be voted out during the next elections.

And of course, if legislators are elected on the proportional representation system, they would be dependent on the national vote, and no longer on the vote in a given district. They would not need pork barrel to get elected into office.  Hopefully, this would mean that they would be more able to take care of their main task of making laws for the nation as a whole.

There is also the chance that legislators would then resort to crafting the national budget in such a way as to benefit their supporters.  In the USA, congressmen have the knack of inserting pork barrel expenditures within laws, even if these don’t have any natural connection to the law.  There should be rules against this hidden pork barrel – this should be explicitly prohibited by law. 

This leaves legislators with no choice but to advance the projects or laws of national impact, on the basis of the platforms of their respective parties. It is in the nature of politics for parliamentary coalitions to be formed – temporarily or long term – with the intention of pushing for various laws. On the basis of their performance in making laws, the public could then choose the party or parties that they feel best represents their views and interests.

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Elect parliamentarians based on the proportional representation system

Posted by butalidnl on 18 September 2006

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.

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Discussions on pro-people Consti Revisions should start now

Posted by butalidnl on 15 September 2006

The political opposition in the Philippines has so far held to the position that charter change under GMA’s presidency is not desirable. I agree, strictly speaking, since GMA and her allies will always use any change in the constitution to their own purposes. However, at the same time, we should also note that this position is not an excuse just to postpone our own discussions re the constitutional changes that we would want. I feel that now is the right time to start. Why?

To start with, ChaCha under GMA is now mainly a matter of the traditional opposition vs GMA. The task of progressive groups should now be to prepare the people for the tasks ahead – i.e. what to do after the GMA ChaCha campaign fails. One of these tasks would be to push for structural reforms thru amending the constitution. After all, if the opposition kills GMA’s ChaCha there remains the question of whether we want or need to change the constitution at all. And the trapos are sure to want to maintain the status quo. We should now prepare the ground for real reforms in the Phil. political system – we should specify what changes are needed, and why.

Second, the 2007 elections are approaching, and in theory there will still be time to push for an election of delegates for a constitutional convention simultaneous with the regular elections. Thus, if we call for a concon to be formed in 2007, we may even excite people enough to support it.

Also, the opposition in general have so far been working on a negative campaign – “oust GMA”, “oppose GMA’s ChaCha” etc. A call for systemic change thru a pro-people constitution would change our stance to a positive campaign. Who knows? This may just be the nudge to get bigger parts of the population moving. Of course, as part of the constitutional change discussion is the call for immediate implementation of the parliamentary government, with an immediate election of a ceremonial president.

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11 September

Posted by butalidnl on 11 September 2006

It is now September 11, and the news media is full of “anniversary” coverage of the 2001 attacks in the US. It seems that, even now, the people in the US are much more into the event etc. than people in Europe. For us here in Europe, the terrorist bombing was terrible, but it did not really “change the world forever”, as Americans are prone to think. We don’t use the event as a dividing line in history, e.g. “in the post 9/11 world”, as Americans do. Why is that?  Well, for Europeans, terrorism has been there long before 9/11. True, before the 2001 bombings, we didn’t experience mass bombings by suicide bombers. What we had were urban guerillas – bombs went off, but usually with adequate warnings, or military targets get hit by “terrorists”. Sometimes there were dramatic kidnappings. But in a sense, “9/11” indicated an escalation of terrorism.  For people here, “9/11” did indicate that America had at last joined the rest of us, in that it too had been hit by terrorism. Before “9/11” Americans were rather snobbish towards European appeals to coordinate anti-terrorism measures; probably because they never got hit.

Where in the past the US was oblivious to the danger of terrorism, it is now paranoid about it. It declared a “war on terror” that it will wage throughout the world. Europe, on the other hand, has simply intensified its anti-terrorism measures, many of which were already in place. It now has to factor in the added danger posed by terrorists who are willing to die in the course of their bombings. Tactics against the RAF, Red Brigades and ETA, were no longer sufficient in the face of Islamic terrorists ready to blow themselves up. But taken together, the framework remains the same – the terrorist threat is a police/prevention matter mainly. Europeans do not agree with the US framework of a “war on terror”.
In fact, Europeans are rather turned off by the American attitude that since they were hit on 11 September 2001, the world should sympathize and support them in their “war on terror”. The Iraq war, which is quite unpopular here in Europe, and the many human rights violations by the CIA and the US troops done in the course of this war on terror have discredited it in Europe.  Americans shouldn’t be allowed to trample on other peoples just because they were hit on 11 September 2001. At this point, five years later, it is quite difficult to think of the US as the victim; after all, it has killed many tens of thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of “protecting the American way of life”.

For Overseas Filipinos, “9/11” and the “war on terror” has both positive and negative effects. On the “positive” side, the US harassment of workers from islamic countries has led to more job openings to Filipinos. Specifically, this applies to seafarers – Muslim seafarers have a hard time entering the US; thus, international shipping companies have tended to hire more Filipinos and other non-muslim seafarers to take their place.  On the other hand, there are a lot of Fil-Americans serving in the US military. Many FilAm soldiers have died in Iraq.  
The increased security on money-transfers imposed by the US on other countries as part of their war on terror, has made it impossible for our modest money-transfer business among Overseas Filipinos here in the Netherlands to continue to operate. Pasali Padala BV (mainly owned by sea-based Filipino workers in the Netherlands) had to cease operations in 2002  because of stricter (and in my opinion, unreasonable) rules on reporting and reserve requirements that were imposed by the Dutch central bank (DNB) in 2002.

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