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Paradigm Shifts in Power: The Philippines’ Plans to Shift to a Parliamentary Democracy

Nicole S. Castro
In status quo, most countries practice a democratic form of government. This is because
officials have realized that true power and cooperation needed to develop a nation can only be
achieved if the people are integrated in the decision-making. After all, success of any policy is
determined by the extent to which the people will comply with them. “Although slow and
uncertain in operation, democracy has the decided advantage over other political systems of
providing an opposition which not only acts as a check on government, but also gives scope for
passionate disagreement…it provides ‘enemies’ who are clearly serving a useful function”
(Bailey 127). Democracy’s key advantage over other political systems is vastly due to its ability
to cater to a wider scope of sectors in society.
But people fail to realize that there are different forms of democracy, each with its own
strengths and weaknesses. Choosing which one is best for one’s nation is difficult because of
varying economic, social, political, and even historical circumstances. Nevertheless, many
scholars here in the Philippines feel the need to re-evaluate whether we are currently practicing a
democratic system that is actually suitable for us.
Our presidential system was modeled after that of the United States’. This is due to the
Americans’ influence when they colonized us for forty-eight years, along with the Filipinos’
national resolve to never again experience the dictatorship of the Marcos regime by allowing a
ruler to stay so long in office. While the success of said system has proven itself well for the US,
careful analysis has shown that it might not be the same case for the Philippines. Our neverending problems of electoral sabotage, inefficient policy-making, and rampant corruption are just
a few of the best-known examples of our many complaints to the government.
In terms of public opinion, it is true that some of our officials are not always competent
enough to handle our nation’s problems. From inexperienced celebrities trying to invade the
political scene, to corrupt, but well-educated officials with good family backgrounds (and who
most certainly do not need the extra money), we have them all. But it is also noteworthy to
mention that these problems may also have underlying causes that are beyond anyone’s control.
Everyone goes on and on about how all politicians are the same, but no one ever considers that

our political system has remained unchanged as well, and even more so. It is time to realize that
the problem also lies in the political structure. The effective cooperation of government officials
to ensure the welfare of our nation not only requires a general consensus to cooperate with one
another, but also entails a systematic political hierarchy that can help them to effectively
communicate with one another. The Philippines is in dire need of a government that can fulfill
the needs and ideals of the people, along with equal distribution of power and wealth (Bantigue
1626). If our current complaints about economic discrimination are anything to go by, then it is
safe to assume that we are extremely dissatisfied with status quo. In order to solve our many
problems regarding inefficient policy-making and unclear accountability with irresponsible
politicians, the Philippines should shift from a presidential to a parliamentary system of
government. This is not to say that parliamentarism is perfect or that its flaws are not as major as
those of presidentialism’s, but given our nation’s circumstances, parliamentarism shows a great
potential in addressing our dilemmas. “Proponents of a parliamentary form of government regard
it as the more viable solution to solving systemic and structural problems in Philippine
governance (Macasaquit, 2006).

Structural differences in presidential and parliamentary systems and their effects
Characteristics
Branches of
authority
(executive,
legislative,
judicial)
Center of power

Parliamentary
United

Presidential
Separate

Advantages
Par: Collective
responsibility

Disadvantages
Pres: Gridlock

Legislative

Executive

Par: Efficient
policy-making

Adherence to
constitution

Flexible;
constitutions may
sometimes not
even exist

Rigid; changes in
constitution may
require military
intervention

Par: Flexibility
(which is possibly
linked to political
stability)

Pres: Power of
veto (may be
advantageous in
certain cases)
Par: Potential
inconsistency

Pres: Consistency

*Par-Parliamentary democracy
*Pres-Presidential democracy

Pres: Political
instability

Both systems possess the three branches of authority (the executive, the legislative, and
the judiciary), but presidential systems separate the powers and purposes of the three branches
whereas parliamentary systems unite them (particularly the executive and the legislative). This
means that the three branches are independent from one another in the former, and dependent on
each other in the latter. Independence from one another creates a grave problem that is most
likely responsible for our inefficient policy-making: political gridlock. If the legislative and the
executive branches in a presidential system disagree about implementing a certain policy, then it
will lead to nothing but a stalemate since both branches will refuse to back down because of their
equality in power. There is no ultimatum that the two bodies should wholeheartedly agree on a
decision, so everything ends abruptly in a stalemate. Parliamentary governments possess the
distinctive trait of collective responsibility wherein all ministers are obligated to support
government decisions in the eyes of the public, which prevents the gridlock that is characteristic
of presidential democracies. If they do not assent, they either resign from office or reconsider
their stand (Bantigue 1626). This serves as the necessary ultimatum for the government body to
take action.
Another key difference in the two systems is in which branch the center of power lies. In
presidential systems, the center of power lies in the chief executive, namely the president. “In its
ideal form, it is the legislative branch which is the center of power in parliamentary systems.
Transferring the power from the Executive to the Legislative branch is therefore an institutional
paradigm shift for the country” (David, 2006). This is probably the main reason for most
Filipinos’ reluctance to shift to the parliamentary system; the fear of such great change that will
gravely disrupt the status quo. Presidential systems will always rely on the president as the final
verdict in implementing policies, as the president can reject the implementation of any policy
that has gained a majority vote in the legislative through the power of veto. This is done to block
change and thereby preserve status quo (Haggard and McCubbins 75). Unlike in presidentialism,
the executive in parliamentarism does not overpower the legislative through the power of veto.
The fact that the Prime Minister (chief executive) must listen to the opinions of the members of
parliament (leaders in the legislative, usually from the more powerful House of Commons) in
order to reject change shows that the Prime Minister’s great power clearly arises from the
general consensus reestablishing it, unlike presidential systems wherein power mostly lies in the
constitution.

Mentioning the constitution provides yet another difference in the two systems; the extent
to which they abide by it. Presidential systems create a constitution and faithfully abide by it,
with revision only occurring after several decades. Doing so tends to create political instability
and chaos due to technicalities and again, political gridlocks. Parliamentary constitutions tend to
be more flexible, as they are constantly shaped and modified according to the needs of the people
(meaning it is more practical). Changes can occur anytime as long as all parties have consented
to them just as they can dissolve any party and allow others to take over. This means that
transitions tend to be easier as there are fewer technicalities involved. “One of the results of the
practical and experimental development of British political institutions has been the avoidance of
abrupt transitions, or the substitution of one general plan for another…The combination has been
feasible because it has been conducted on the practical plane. It has been possible to retain what
has been found of practical service in previous arrangements and to guard against weaknesses
and dangers in new elements introduced” (Bassett 10).

Systemic differences in parliamentary and presidential systems: Delegation
Electoral Methods
Parliamentary
(indirect)

Advantages
Party system allows equal
representation

Disadvantages
Cronyism

Party system allows for clear
allegiances and representation
Less funds used in campaigning
CLEAR majority

Presidential
(direct)

Transparency of direct voting
(identifiability)

The issue of “outsiders”
“Winner-takes-all” dilemma
Problems regarding
automatic succession of vice
presidents in certain cases
Fixed terms and their
relation to
impeachment/retention of
officials

Verdict
On the rare chance that
cronyism occurs in a certain
party, other parties can keep
them in check through debates
that frequently occur regarding
policies.
The
numerous
advantages also outweigh the
disadvantage.
Clear
representation is of utmost
importance to ensure wise
voting.
The misconception of electing
the “best” president gives both
concrete and psychological
motivations for the president to
believe that he/she is a solitary
political figure whose powers
are at least somewhat superior
to that of the other politicians’.
This is impractical because
his/her responsibilities are too
much for him/her to handle
alone to such an extent.

Delegation
Parliamentary
(indirect)

Advantages

Disadvantages

Verdict

One-to-one correspondence of
superiors and their subordinates

More chances of error in
chain of command

The advantages of parliamentary
democracy can only be fully
experienced if there is careful
planning in the hierarchy from the
very beginning. Errors in the chain
of command can be grave if this is
not taken into consideration.
The effects of chain reaction in a
parliamentary government are
minimized
in
presidential
governments due to multiple
accountability. However, constant
disagreements among the various
bodies can impede progress in
terms of policy-making and proper
execution of existing policies.

Always accountable to public

Presidential
(direct)

More checks and balances

Gridlock

While structural differences determine the efficiency of policy-making, systemic
differences determine the stability of the political structure as a whole. “Stable democracy is
defined here strictly on the basis of democratic longevity, more specifically, at least 25 years of
uninterrupted democracy” (Mainwaring and Shugart, 1993). Presidentialism and parliamentarism
differ in how powers are exercised before (electoral methods) and while in office (delegation).
The people elect an official (thereby granting him/her power), who in turn delegate to fellow
officials in order to carry out certain laws/policies. The delegation chain of parliamentarism
possesses the following characteristics: 1.) It is indirect, as the voters can only elect
representatives of parliament. The other officials are elected by the representatives themselves;
and 2.) Delegation in parliamentary governments is simple, as agents are accountable only to one
person/group above them (Linz and Valenzuela 21). This one-to-one correspondence between
superiors and their subordinates in the chain of command allows for clear-cut delegation and
accountability. The unified stands of the parties in parliamentarism make representation (and
eventually, accountability) much easier. However, there is always room for error in a chain of
command because delegation is inherently risky, as errors can always occur somewhere along
the way. Mechanisms of accountability must be created in order to minimize these errors (Linz
and Valenzuela 20). The vote of no confidence plays a big role in this.

The greater flexibility of parliamentary systems in decision-making enables it to adapt
and solve new problems in order to ensure regime stability (Mainwaring and Shugart, 1993).
This is again linked to the extent by which the government abides by the constitution. Pure
presidential governments tend to be unstable. Most, if not all, stable democracies are at least
partly (if not purely) parliamentary. While we cannot absolutely say for certain that
parliamentarism’s greater flexibility is the secret to its long-term success, this historical trend is
worth considerable attention (Linz and Valenzuela 4).
Parliamentarism holds additional advantages because of its heavy reliance on political
parties. Politicians with similar ideals conjugate to form these parties. Then, the members of each
party choose a representative among themselves who will participate in the elections. The public
chooses among these representatives until a clear winner arises. The winning representative
along with his party becomes the majority party in parliament. Of course, minority parties also
exist to act as the healthy opposition of the majority party. They must be prepared to take over if
ever the majority party decides to dissolve itself for whatever reason. “’…there must be a
relatively stable majority that will support the government and an opposition that not only
criticizes but is ready to assume control of the government if necessary” (Bantigue 1626).
This system of parties presents the following advantages: 1.) Elections require less funds
in the campaigning process because there are less people to elect; 2.) The public can clearly
identify the candidates’ platforms because of their representation of the parties; and 3.) The
existence of minorities allows equal representation of the different sectors in society. The Prime
Minister is then elected by members of the House of Commons. In order to gain the position, a
candidate must gain more than 51% of the votes or else he/she will have to share their executive
powers with another party or a minority government (Linz and Valenzuela 14). Once a Prime
Minister has been elected, he/she chooses among the members of the parliament to become
members of his cabinet to represent the executive branch.
On the other hand, the electoral structure of presidential systems creates a trend of
“winner takes all” since the president gains full executive control as long as he/she wins even a
scant majority vote (meaning at least 51%). While it does hold the advantage that the people
directly elect the president (whereas it is up to the parliament members to elect the Prime
Minister), it also holds the disadvantage that the president may abuse his power once in office.

Prime Ministers can never abuse their power because they can always be removed from office by
a simple vote of no confidence from the House of Commons (the lower house in parliament).
Furthermore, the House of Commons demonstrates the great power that the public holds despite
being unable to directly elect their Prime Minister. This is because the officials in the House of
Commons function as the representatives of the people. It is more powerful than the House of
Lords (the upper house of parliament and acting judiciary body) since it is the primary body in
legislation. It mainly deals with financial affairs and in hearing the people’s petitions (Bailey 52,
58).
The two distinct electoral systems spell additional differences. Presidential elections tend
to create openings for “outsiders” (candidates without any the past government experience), who,
upon victory in the elections, find it difficult to gain strong support from Congress in creating a
party organization (Linz and Valenzuela 26). It has often been our complaint that celebrities tend
to gain positions in office more so because of their popularity rather than their actual experience
in politics (which they only seriously attempt to gain after being elected). This never occurs in
parliamentary systems because all candidates must come from political parties, and being a
member of a political party automatically gives real, political experience to its members.
Political parties serve as training grounds for potential Prime Ministers.

Another problem with presidentialism is the immediate succession of the vice president
to the president in case the latter dies or becomes incapacitated. This is because the two positions
are elected separately, which means that there is a possibility that they can come from two
different parties (the parties they were affiliated with during the campaign) who may not exactly
share the same political ideals (Linz and Valenzuela 32-33). Again, parliamentarism proves
advantageous in these situations because all parties in the parliament must consent to the election
of a new Prime Minister. Even if the Prime Minister wishes to abdicate his/her office, he/she
must first come into agreement with the Sovereign (the monarch/president) before dissolving
parliament. If the Prime Minister’s request to dissolve parliament is rejected by the Sovereign
but the Prime Minister refuses to remain in office, then the Sovereign must search for a new
Prime Minister with the help of the House of Commons (Bailey 18-19).

Our policy of creating fixed terms in office has created the misconception that
parliamentary systems tend to be more unstable because of the fact that Prime Ministers can be
removed from office anytime. However, this has eventually proven to be disadvantageous. For
one thing, it prevents the people from immediately removing a bad president, so much so that
they must resort to impeachment or military intervention, which in turn cause political
instability. On the other hand, it is also a fact that we cannot retain a good president (which is not
always easy to find) for more than two terms in office. The former disadvantage regarding bad
presidents is actually quite ironic to our historical situation; seeing as we fear the threat of a
repeat of Martial Law, and yet our political system insidiously makes it more possible for it to reoccur. Moreover, presidentialism’s fixed terms demand accountability only at the end of the
term. This means that bad presidents who managed to remain in office will only face trials after
the end of their term (after all, they have the power of veto to reject whatever law the legislative
passes against them). Parliamentary systems are accountable at all times due to the vote of no
confidence (Linz and Valenzuela 13-14).

Preparing for the big shift
After thoroughly evaluating the two democratic systems, there are now strong reasons to
strongly reconsider the Philippines’ plans of shifting to a parliamentary system of government.
The British Parliamentary, also known as the Westminster model, is the most popular form of
parliamentary democracy, which would make it the ideal model for the Philippine government to
adapt. Staying true to the model, the elections would make use of the majority party system,
which will be held every five years. The Prime Minister has the privilege to stay in office
indefinitely unless a vote of no confidence is issued by the House of Commons. The legislature
will remain bicameral, with the Upper House as the House of Lords and the Lower House as the
House of Commons (which will now be more powerful in contrast to our current system wherein
the upper house has more authority). Slight differences from the model would be: 1.) The
existence of our current constitution, which we will still follow, but with revisions more flexible
to ensure political stability; and 2.) The existing judiciary body will now act as members of the
House of Lords. Any additional changes will be made once the Philippines has fully adjusted to

the new system. This will not be too difficult seeing as the system provides flexibility in the first
place.
Summary
All in all, either system may prove advantageous depending on a country’s
circumstances. The reason why the presidential system has been so successful in the United
States is because they have a strong middle class who cannot be so easily exploited by the
government. This means that if ever the all-powerful president goes against the people’s wishes,
they can unite and keep him in check. This does not apply as well to the Philippines because of
our highly divided social classes (with an almost non-existent middle class). With so many
sectors in our society whose views and ideals greatly differ, it is more suitable to have a
parliamentary system because the use of political parties can ensure the representation of these
sectors.
Again, this is not to say that parliamentary systems are not flawed. In terms of
identifiability, presidential systems hold an advantage since voters are fully aware that whoever
they choose as a majority will assume power, whereas parliamentary systems are composed of
officials indirectly elected by the voters who directly vote for the representatives of parliament
only. This always leads to the fear of electing candidates who will only use their power to benefit
their party; however the vote of no confidence somehow equalizes this possibly serious flaw. In
terms of accountability, parliamentary systems are considered advantageous because all
members of one party represent one stand, whereas politicians in presidential systems are not as
unified seeing as no tightly-knit party compels them to do so (Linz and Valenzuela 10-11).
Parliamentary systems are also more efficient in decision-making because the executive and
legislative bodies are fused, meaning there is prevention of gridlock. Meanwhile, presidential
systems are more transparent as the delegation is direct from the voters to the officials. The
division of powers in presidentialism also guards against errors in decision-making, as more
divisions offer more checks and balances (Bergman et al 93-95). However, such divisions more
often than not cause gridlocks in our country, seeing as some of our officials are less than willing
to pass on justice due to mere technicalities.

Shifting to a parliamentary system will be very difficult for the Philippines as it requires
great preparation in shifting the center of power from the executive to the legislative. Moreover,
it requires careful voting for the party candidates since they will affect the succeeding politicians
in the chain of delegation. And of course, there is always the reluctance of the people to diverge
from the status quo. However, we have proven that parliamentary systems possess great potential
in developing our nation due to their flexibility, stability, and simplicity in delegation and
accountability. Whatever flaws the parliamentary system possesses are secondary to the possible
benefits it could give us. The presidential system has obviously had serious shortcomings that
have led to grave systemic and structural problems in our country. Rather than endlessly looking
for the “best” president whom we believe can solve everything, we should try to fix our
problems from the inside and elect people who can help us maintain the stable status we hope to
achieve.