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Essays on the Parliamentary Form of Government

Ateneo De Manila University

A Reflection on Parliamentarism
Lydia N. Yu Jose
Department of Political Science
Ateneo de Manila University
I am not yet making a stand for or against constitutional change. Neither am I making a stand
for or against a shift to a parliamentary type of government. But, since there seems to be a
strong sentiment in favor of parliamentarism, I would like to pursue a question closely related to
it: can a parliamentary form of government have only a head of government? To ask it in
another way, can it still be called parliamentary if it does not have a separate office for a head
of state?
For simplicity of terminology, let us interchangeably call, only for the purpose of this essay, the
head of state "president" or "monarch" (she may be a king, queen, or emperor/empress) and the
head of government "prime minister" or "chief executive." The nature of the office of the
president and the prime minister, and the division of functions and powers between them have
been thoroughly discussed by my colleague Millard Lim in his three-part contribution to this
series. (Only the last part has his name; in the first two, he is simply identified as "a faculty
member.") This reflection takes off from his essay.
It is possible for a parliamentary type of government not to have a president. When the British
transferred most of the powers of the monarch to the Parliament centuries ago, they could have
decided, were it not for the concern about continuity of history and tradition, to get rid of their
monarch. To turn to the more recent time, if serious scandals plagued again members of the
British nobility, the British might once and for all decide to get rid of it. If they do, the probability
of them creating a new ceremonial head would be greatly remote. The same thing may be said
about the Japanese emperor system. Were it not for its usefulness to the Allied Powers, it would
have been non-existent since 1945. Even now that Japan still has an emperor, he absolutely
has no power. Moreover, there are sporadic calls from the leftists to get rid of the imperial family;
a few intellectuals have mused over the possibility of a Japan without an emperor. Japan, for all
intents and purposes of governing, is run by the bureaucracy, the prime minister, and the
parliament. Whatever role the emperor has is purely ceremonial and may be dispensed with.
Admittedly, the Japanese government has many flaws, and it is not my intention to present it as
a model for us to copy. I only want to make the point that if a parliamentary government like that
of Japan can have an emperor who is absolutely powerless, then, it is possible to have a
parliamentary form of government with only a prime minister, and no president.
A friend of mine got worried when he heard this idea of mine. He said, if there is only a prime
minister, and no president, who will intervene in case of a deadlock in the parliament, such as if
it cannot decide on who should be prime minister? Obviously, my friend thinks of the Queen of
England who still has some residual prerogatives, such as to intervene in a deadlock like this, if
called upon to do so. Only if called upon to do so. Otherwise, she cannot intervene. In other
words, the parliament has to break the deadlock. My friend has forgotten about the Japanese
emperor who cannot even be called upon to intervene. The political parties in the Japanese
parliament are always able to elect a prime minister.
Methinks, what is the rationale for having a president and a prime minister? To go back again to
Great Britain and Japan, the rationale was to avoid a complete break from the past. And since
the Queen of England and the Emperor of Japan embody their nation's long history, they are

Essays on the Parliamentary Form of Government


Ateneo De Manila University

now called the symbol of national unity. Other states which do not have a monarchical tradition,
are now parliamentary, and have a president and a prime minister, may have their own reasons
for having them.
What would be the rationale for the Philippines? To have a neutral person who, like the British
Queen, can intervene in case of a deadlock in the parliament? I think it would be very difficult to
find a Filipino politician who would be and could be truly neutral. To have someone who would
perform ceremonial duties so that the prime minister would not waste so much time cutting
ribbons, visiting orphanages, receiving credentials of foreign ambassadors, attending
coronations, inaugurations, weddings and funerals of heads of states and of heads of
governments? Such ceremonial functions are not only excellent photo opportunities; most of
them are also venues for informal political campaigning. A Filipino prime minister would not be
willing to pass off many of these opportunities. She might wish to do them herself, leaving the
president with only the most inconspicuous, insignificant ceremonial functions. The prime
minister would still be busy with both actual governing and posing for ceremonial photo
opportunities. To divide the actual powers of government between the president and the prime
minister, so that the latter would not be too powerful? I do not think this is possible.
In the last sequel of Millard's three-part essay on the chief executive, he talks about "taming" the
chief executive who, among the three organs of government (chief executive, legislature,
judiciary), tends to monopolize and even abuse power. There is indeed this fear, and there is a
need to guard against a prime minister getting too powerful or abusive. But dividing the actual
powers of governing between the prime minister and the president is not the way to do it.
In the first place, the powers cannot be equally divided, and even if they can be, doing so would
result in an illogical situation of having two chiefs-executive. If they were equally strong-willed,
bur of different minds, they would be at loggerheads most of the time. If they were like identical
twins who think, feel and act alike, they would wield power as one person. The situation would
defeat the purpose of tapering off the powers of the chief executive. It would only give the chief
executive a twin accomplice to abuse power.
In the second place, even if the division of power would be uneven, that is, the prime minister
would still have most of the powers, I cannot think of an actual political power that can be given
to a president, without it conflicting with some of the powers of the prime minister.
The Center for Social Policy and Governance of Kalayaan College has come out with a way of
unevenly dividing actual powers between the proposed "presidente" and the proposed "punong
ministro." One of the provisions in its proposed constitution gives to the president the duty to
"address the Parlyamento on the State of the Nation at the opening of its regular session. This
address may include an assessment of the people's well-being and welfare and of the quality
of governance and democratic institutions, and policy recommendations for the nations' welfare
and development" (Article X, Section 8). It describes the president as the head of state and
symbol of the people's sovereignty and unity (Article X, section 1). At the same time, the draft
proposal states that "the Punong Ministro and the Gabinete shall be responsible to the
Parlyamento for the Program of Government. At the beginning of each regular session of the
Parlyamento, and from time to time thereafter, the Punong Ministro shall present the Program of
Government and recommend for the consideration of the Parlyamento such measures as he or
she may deem necessary and proper" (Article XI, Section 3).
I believe these two provisions unrealistically assume that the prime minister would base her
program of government on the president's analysis of the state of the nation and policy

Essays on the Parliamentary Form of Government


Ateneo De Manila University

recommendations. What happens if the prime minister differs from the president's view of the
state of the nation? What happens if she has the same view but does not agree with the
president's policy recommendations?
I cannot think of any rationale for the Philippines, even if it becomes parliamentary, to have a
president and a prime minister. If we want to be parliamentary, we might better think of having
only a prime minister, and focus on how we can arrange the relationship between the prime
minister and the people and between her and the parliament. This involves questions such as 1}
should the prime minister be elected directly by the people or indirectly, through the parliament?
2} how can we increase the efficiency and sense of responsibility of the bureaucracy, so that it
can de depended upon to carry on the routine of governing during the periods following the
dissolution of the parliament, or defeat of the prime minister in a no-confidence vote? 3) how
can we improve the quality of the vote, so that we could have a parliament consisting of
legislators who represent the will of their constituency, and are above the temptation of serving
narrow and particularistic interests? 4) what arrangements should be instituted so that the
government officials prime minister and cabinet, parliament, bureaucracy, judiciary, local
government -- may be made truly accountable to the people, with speed and fairness?
The questions above arise from my perception that the essence of parliamentarism is liberal
democracy. This may be operationalized through a democratic arrangement of the relationship
between the parliament and the people it is supposed to represent, and the relationship
between the prime minister who, as chief executive of the cabinet is supposed to execute the
people's will expressed through the parliament. That is why I believe, if we are going to tinker
with our fundamental law, we might better focus on these questions, rather than on the
peripheral questions about the president and the prime minister