Nation building is the deliberate fashioning of an integrated political community within the fixed geographic boundaries in which the nation-state is the dominant political institution. Socio-economic progress is the sustained and widely diffused improvement in material and social welfare. These goals can be achieved from a wide choice of options and varying methods and strategies that should be the subject of discussion whether in constitutional assemblies or constitutional convention.
Oftentimes, these goals are obscured by politicians who are motivated by other competing goals, explicit or latent, such as survival or enrichment in office, or the protection of vested social and economic interests. Indeed, these objectives oftentimes take precedence over and constrain the goals.
Assuming nation building and socio-economic development are major political goals, what patterns of organization and action are most likely to move societies efficiently toward these twin goals? Only a constitution forum could answer this question.
To deal with these overriding goals, a modern and reformed constitution must cope with a series of major tasks, among which the following seem highly significant: integrating diverse ethnic, religious, communal and regional elements into a national political community.
This is the essence of nation building, the process by which groups with strong and even hostile particularistic interests antedating the idea and the fact of nationhood agree to coexist and identify with a newer and larger entity, the nation. In this process, individuals originating these groups transfer a portion of their loyalty to the symbols and institutions of the new national entity. This is an acute problem in many developing nations which are attempting to fuse diverse particularistic interests in a national policy.
Indeed a new constitution must be devoted to close the gap between groups divided by ideology, religion or regional loyalties, be these the New People’s Army, the Muslim separatists, and some tribes who are seeking autonomy as in the Cordilleras. The creation of real political parties can go some way in mainstreaming these alienated at marginalized elements who can only voice their demands and air their discontent in the parliament of the streets or in their jungle lairs through the barrel of a gun.
Organizing and distributing formal powers and functions among organs of central, regional, and local governments and between public authority and the private sector should also be another major concern. This can be implemented through a system of devolution, decentralization, and even federalism to stop the cry for the abolition of “Imperial Manila” and its centrifugal power of governance.
Constitution-making is not only a formal authoritative act. It is also a continuing adjustment and re-interpretation of legal norms in response to changing needs originating in such areas as technological and social developments, international pressures, ideological commitments, and shifts in relative power among organized interests. Especially in developing societies, our institutions and arrangements relating to the distribution of power are likely to be in flux and under pressure for frequent modification especially in this age of multilateralism and globalization. To guide and manage these adjustments place a major claim on the attention of constitutionalists.
It is not surprising that there is the continuing and periodic clamor for changes in the form of government – from national assemblies and to bicameralism to parliamentarism and federalism.
Since socio-economic developments require shifts in centers of power in order that new technologies may be successfully introduced and institutionalized, resource may be mobilized and allocated to development functions. The population may be brought into an effective pattern of communication with national political and administrative authorities.
Managing the affairs of a modern nation requires a wide range of complex and sophisticated skills. Certainly localized governance can make the effort more manageable.
Equally essential is the fact that model physical and social techniques must be carried out through specialized institutions which either did not exist in traditional societies or require radical restructuring in order to discharge the function associated with nation building and development. In effect, the building of new institutions is as deliberate a process in developing nations as the fostering of modernizing skills. This is particularly important in the rural, agricultural societies which will require development of modernizing skills and institutions. Devolutions of power from the center will surely accelerate rural mobilization and usher the industrial revolution.
If we cannot draft a new constitution that can attend to all these, cannot we at least under the present system pass the necessary executive fiat and congressional enactments to do the same?
Constitutional experts in the countries I visited have advised me against copying wholesale their form of government which to this late date continue to evolve. For example, in Italy, because the disaffection of some with their Prime Minister, they now want a directly elected head of government. In the United Kingdom (UK), there is an attempt to abolish the House of Lords, its second chamber. I must confess that I came back perhaps less enlightened than when I left. I have, therefore, prepared this paper which perhaps reflects my ambivalent feelings towards such weighty issues as Presidentialism vs. Parliamentarism; Unicameralism vs. Bicameralism and Unitarism vs. Federalism.
We have learned from the past that under a strong leadership backed up by parties with a philosophy of government, a presidential bicameral form of government is not a hindrance to the process of development. Moreover, a presidential system can even speed up the process of development if this is equated with strong leadership as in the tenure of President Quezon, Magsaysay, and even Marcos. This is not a brief for perpetuating a system that obviously depends on authoritarianism or backed up by a strong party system as in the case of the US and France.
What we are simply saying is that the reason for amending our constitution should not be based on false dilemmas or unsupported political hypotheses but rather on more cogent arguments such as the need to amend certain articles such as the elimination of “bumiputra” provision which has successfully impeded the flow of foreign direct investment into the country.
You may recall that the last administration was bent on implementing constitutional amendments that would eliminate the restrictive economic provisions from the Saligang Batas.
Some of us feel that any change should be better than today’s situation which is punctuated by legislative gridlock and a system of elections producing an upper house which at least in the time of my father was the haven of the best and the brightest; but today, with a few exceptions, has become the house of the brightest stars of showbiz, sports, and the darlings of media.
If we must change, it must be for the better. If the proposed charter change leads us to political maturity, the underpinnings will have to be an improved electoral system and the development of political parties based on philosophy of government rather than on personalities. A presidential or parliamentary form of government when driven by development-oriented political parties can do a lot to accelerate total development.
In the process of changing the constitution, perhaps the most cost-effective and expeditious way would be by a constituent assembly.
The reasons for these are the following:
1) A constitutional convention, given the level of political immaturity of our people, cannot guarantee the selection of the best and the brightest.
2) A thorough overhaul of constitutional provisions will unnecessarily prolong the process of change and surely divide this country over so many contentious issues and articles that are possibly better preserved in the charter.
3) The cost will be enormous and will distract the whole nation that should now concern itself with generating greater productivity, income, and employment.
If the constituent assembly is deemed the best course of action to take in the process of charter change, the following are recommended:
1) A very transparent process that can harness the best and brightest on constructive discussion while making the process as participatory as possible.
2) Limit the agenda to just a few important items (e.g. form of government, electoral and economic reforms, and local autonomy).
Presidential vs. parliamentary
Because of the fixed term of office of the president, in a presidential system, the chief executive is not responsible to the parliament and thus it cannot replace a weak, inept, or corrupt president.
The only avenue is through impeachment.
The Estrada case has also demonstrated that an impeachment is not without political risks. It is a lengthy process subjected to the political maneuverings in both houses of the legislature. There is no certainty that a malperforming president can be removed from office. The unwillingness of major sections of society to bear such costs constitutes the second choice: to overthrow the incumbent by resorting to extraconstitional means. As this option will almost inevitably involve the armed forces, it sets dangerous precedents. It will strengthen the political influence of the military and may thus pave the way for a seizure of power in a future crisis.
Great concentration of executive power is in a single person—the president. The executive control over the budgetary process vests the president with superior patronage power. The presidential control over pork barrel is related to the phenomenon of “turncoatism,” a local term for the change of party affiliation after an election.
During her presidency, Corazon Aquino has been criticized for failing to utilize her almost dictatorial power under her freedom constitution. Later President Fidel Ramos, while exerting strong leadership, was known to have closely consulted and in the process shared powers with his Cabinet. President Estrada’s personalistic, and in the end, highly erratic style of government was the bane of his term.
Critics of the presidential system point to the immense power held by Philippine presidents whom political scientists even claim to wield more power than the US President.
While President Quezon was reputed to be dictatorial and President Manuel Roxas dominated the political and economic landscape, the other presidents were held hostage by the strong political parties and vested interests that chose them (e.g. the Nacionalista Party and the sugar bloc that dominated the same).
Moreover, then President Aquino yielded to the civil society group that carried her on their shoulders to the place during EDSA I. Former President Ramos was a team player who relied on his political allies and official family. He was moderate in the exercise of his immense power given the fact that he carried only less than a third of the popular vote. Former President Estrada depended mostly on his midnight and daylight cabinets showing very little personal executive initiative.
In brief, presidential styles determine the weight of the presidency on governance.
It must be mentioned in this context that the foreign influence must be factored into presidential decision making. Today, globalization, multilateral organizations like the IMF and World Bank can effectively constrain the use of presidential power of a nation. Only the likes of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir have what it takes to defy IMF conditionalities.
The system of checks and balances can hold the President hostage. Congressional intransigence of say budgetary matters and Supreme Court decisions can frustrate executive initiatives. Finally, in a relatively loosely organized coalition of parties that form a government, the power of the president can easily be contained. Former President Marcos had to invent the concept of constitutional authoritarianism to be able to get away with his political if not personal agenda for better or for ill.
Victims of parliamentarism
Political stability is not guaranteed by the parliamentary process. Weak parliamentary democracies have in the past provoked military intervention. The military took over the government of Thailand in 1947, 1971, 1976, and 1991. In Indonesia in 1957, in South Korea in 1961, in Burma in 1958 and 1962, and in Cambodia in 1997.
Parliamentary government in Southeast Asia have been characteristically marked by personalistic balkanized, non-ideological parties that are brokered by politically entrenched economic elite operating in rural areas where dynasties reign supreme. One thing that the strong presidential style brought about in the reign of the Quezons and Magsaysays was the dismantling of private armies wielded by political bosses who held sway in their respective bailiwicks through the use of the powerful guns, goons and gold. In a parliamentary system, political parties that compose parliament does not necessarily represent the mosaic of sectoral interests that comprise a liberal democracy.
Does a parliamentary government necessarily promote socio-economic development faster than a presidential system? The record of a nation is a mixed bag. The greatest economy in the world has adopted a presidential form; the second is parliamentary while Western Europe has hybrid forms that range between the basically presidential form of France and the parliamentary system of the UK and Germany. The rapid rise of Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea and Malaysia can be attributed largely in substance if not in form to such personalities as Lee Kuan Yew, Chang Kai Shek, Park Chung Hee, and Mahathir. All of them strong and authoritarian, hiding behind the trappings of a parliamentary form of government.
At the end of the day, what matters the most are electoral reforms that can produce honest, orderly, and peaceful elections. Secondly, there is the need to encourage the development of political parties that are not personalistic and ideologically-neutral. This can be developed not only through electoral reforms but through the total mobilization of the economy which can rapidly develop the middle class, the thinking class that possess the capability to elect development-oriented governance.
As Alexander Pope once observed “over forms of government let fools contest.” Another sage also said the “best form of government was an absolute monarchy with an angel on the throne.”
Should Congress decide to amend the constitution even through the constituent assembly process which is decidedly more expeditious and cost-effective, it is recommended that the US approach be adopted which is the piece-meal process. This does not necessarily mean amendment by articles. Indeed more articles can be incorporated. This will greatly pacify sectors of the nation that are very sensitive to a complete overhaul of the Saligang Batas. Provisions such as, the recognition of the sanctity of family life and the protection of and strengthening of the family – a section that is held very dear to the Church, must be preserved to gain the support of that institution for constitutional reform. Moreover, the elimination of articles that tend to preserve the economy to only a small sector – the local capitalists – will go a long way to elicit the support of the millions of unemployed and underemployed Filipinos.
Lastly, in the discussions of these limited amendments, the most transparent procedures must be employed. Congressional hearings must be more substantial than formal and should call on the most informed sectors that are truly representatives of the cross-section Philippine society.
This process might even be superior than a constitutional convention at the time when perhaps ninety percent of the populace have most probably not even read the constitution and can easily be manipulated by powerful vested interests who will attempt to buy a new constitution that can best serve their interest. As a senator wisely commented, there is no guarantee that “second-raters” will not dominate the convention. These are certainly the scions of political bosses operating in the countryside.
To be sure, a constitutional convention at this time cannot guarantee the election of the best and the brightest.
Arguments against the presidential system
A major explanation for the decline in the power of the legislature is the tendency of these bodies to be dominated by the executive branch of government. In many countries, the initiation of policy and the control over financé has passed the executive branch. In the U.K, for example, the bulk of public legislation is initiated by the government. Parliament thus responds to the agenda set for it by the government. It may subsequently be able to influence the detailed content of this legislation, but it is not the driving force behind it. Additionally, government may be able to utilize procedural devises to expedite the progress of their legislation. In the UK, one such device is the guillotine. This is a mechanism that limits the time devoted to a debate which ensures that the progress of a government measure is not halted by unnecessary or excessive parliamentary debates.
Executive dominance of legislatures has occurred in both parliamentary and presidential forms of government. There are three reasons that might account for this development. The first is the agility of the executive branch of government to act independently of legislatures in certain circumstances. This has enhanced the power of the former, eroding the latter’s ability to initiate public policy or scrutinize the activities of government. In the UK, the government may make use of the royal prerogative and undertake certain actions without having to first obtain parliamentary approval. In other liberal democracies, chief executives are given emergency powers with which to act as they see fit to deal with an emergency of may govern by some form of decree. The American president, for example, may issue executive orders and this act in certain matters with the approval of Congress.
The second explanation for executive domination of legislatures concerns the ability to cope with the volume of post-war state activity, much of which is of a complex and technical nature. This has made it difficult for members of legislatures to keep abreast of the affairs of modern government and has tended to result in ministers and civil servants within the executive branch exercising a dominant position in policy making because of the superior information they have at their disposal.
The final explanation for executive dominance of legislatures is the development of the party system. The party system possesses some obvious advantages for legislative anarchy (in the sense of members seeking to pursue individual interests to the exclusion of all else) and organizes the work of these bodies thus ensuring that specific goals and objectives are achieved. But there are also disadvantages for legislatures that arise from the party system.
The party system aligns members of the executive and legislative branches. Members of both branches, when belonging to the same party, have common ideological and policy interests. They have a vested interest in successfully translating these common concerns into law. These mutual interests are underlaid by party discipline which serves to induce members of the legislature to follow the lead given by their party leaders within the executive branch of government. In extreme cases, where party discipline is strong, disobedience to the wishes of the executive might result in expulsion from the party, a fate which befell the “Eurorebels” in the United Kingdom Conservative Party in 1994.
The emergence of disciplined political parties has the effect of ensuring that legislatures do no act as corporate institutions exercising their functions on behalf of the nation as a whole. Instead, they operate under the direction of the executive branch of government.
The French system of government
The French System of governance has been proposed by some quarters for adoption. Let us examine closely how the system works.
In France, the traditional division that exists between parliamentary and presidential systems of government has been obscured by the emergence of dual leadership within the executive branch of government.
The 1958 Constitution established the new office of the President with powers additional to those normally associated with a head of state. The President was given a very wide range of functions and powers with which to perform them. These included acting as a guarantor of national independence and protecting the functioning of public powers and the continuity of the state. Key duties included appointing the prime minister, presiding over the cabinet, and acting as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Special emergency powers could also be exercised by the President.
The power and prestige of the presidency has grown, especially since direct election was introduced in 1962.
The “monarchical drift” of the office was acknowledged by President Jacques Chirac during the 1995 presidential election. The president serves for a period of seven years and the office is seen as France’s key political prize.
The division of power between the President and prime minister is of central importance to an understanding of the operations of the French system of government. A major role of the President is to appoint (and dismiss) the prime minister. A newly appointed prime minister does not have to seek a specific vote of confidence from the national assembly, although he or she is accountable to that body. In making such a choice, however, the President is constrained by the political composition of the National Assembly. It follows, therefore, that the power of the President is greatest when the President’s party controls the National Assembly and when the prime minister is effectively a presidential nominee.
However, if the party affiliation of the President and the majority in the legislature differs, the President is forced to select a prime minister and a government who enjoy the support of the National Assembly. The prime minister is more likely to be assertive in such situations since he or she possesses a separate power base and is not totally reliant on presidential support to remain in office. This may, thus, reduce the President’s power, and it occurred between 1988 and 1989 and between 1993 and 1995, when a socialist President (Mitterand) was forced to coexist with a right-wing government dominated by the Gaullists. It occurred subsequently (in 1997) when the Gaullist President Chirac was forced to appoint the socialist Lionel Jospin as prime minister following the latter’s victory in the elections to the National Assembly.
In such period of cohabitation, however, a President is far from impotent. Ultimately, it is possible to dissolve the legislature.
In September 2000, electors voted in a referendum to reduce the presidential term in France to five years. This reform would reduce future periods of cohabitation although potentially sacrificing the greater degree of stability provided when the President serves an elongated term in office.
The American President
The American Constitution placed the executive branch in the hands of a President who is now directly elected. The President serves a term of four years and may be re-elected on one further occasion. The power exercised by a President depends to some extent on personal choice. The President may be viewed as an official who should merely enforce the laws passed by Congress, or he may be a dynamic initiator of public policy. These views are further flavored by popular opinions.
The belief that the American President should be strong and assertive in the conduct of public affairs was bolstered by the need of decisive presidential action to cope with the Depression in the 1930s. But this view has subsequently been revised by the perceived failings of a strong President as revealed by the outcome of the Vietnam War (which was associated with presidential initiative) and the belief that strong executive action could lead to abuse of power, as was evidenced in Watergate and the subsequent forced resignation of President Nixon in 1974. Such factors have tended to make the public suspicious of presidents who wish to exercise dynamic leadership. Their ability to initiate actions was further weakened by the size of the budget deficit, which grew enormously during the Reagan-Bush years (1980-1992) and served as a constraint on policies involving state intervention.
Such considerations have greatly affected the climate within which contemporary presidents operate. But even within such a climate, presidents retain a considerable degree of maneuver. They possess a range of formal and informal powers and may also exploit their position as the only unifying force to secure the attainment of their objectives. We shall now consider a range of factors that have a bearing on the power of a modern President.
The President’s mandate
The mandate that a President obtains in a general election may greatly influence subsequent behavior. A President may feel it is legitimate to exercise the initiative in public affairs when the outcome of an election is less clear (for example, the President fails to secure a majority of the popular vote) or it appears that the result was more concerned with the rejection of one candidate than with the popular endorsement of the winner. The President may find it more difficult to promote policy vigorously especially when this involves initiating radical changes. The power of President George W. Bush is especially likely to be undermined by the lack of a mandate. He secured victory in the 2000 presidential election by the very narrow margin of five Electoral College votes. Not only did his Democratic rival in the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore, secure over 500,000 more popular votes nationwide, but considerable concern remained regarding the legitimacy of Bush’s victory in the key state Florida. This may suggest that attempts by President Bush to pursue a right-wing political agenda will not meet with popular approval.
Presidential success in initiating public policy may be most easily realized when policy goals are clearly focused. This suggests a limited set of key objectives that enable both Congress and public opinion in general to appreciate the President’s fundamental concerns. It has been argued that President Carter (1975-1981) put to disparate a range of proposals at the outset of his presidency, which presented a confusing statement of presidential objectives. Accordingly, President Reagan (1981-1989) presented a program that included fewer key issues. Subsequently, relations with Congress were fashioned around achieving these. The initial efforts of President Clinton (1993-2001) to focus on domestic policy issues was impeded by the emergence of defence and foreign policy issues (including the Bosnian crisis) which demanded attention at the expense of the original objectives.