Written by Aries A. Arugay.

The Aquino Administration would like to believe that it has made strides in improving transparency and accountability. While there is empirical support for this, corruption is not the only gripping problem of Philippine democracy. There is also a need to improve government responsiveness, political inclusion, and popular participation. There is reason to believe that current political leadership has not paid attention to these dimensions of democracy. With this in mind, the 2016 elections should be an opportunity for the new administration to explore instituting political reforms by amending the 1987 Constitution.

Existing assessments of Philippine democracy reveal a current state of stagnation. Democratization, a process that was rebooted in 1986, seemed to be trapped in suspended animation. One study attributed this to the inability of the democratic regime to integrate different groups within society to the electoral process as well as policy-making. The long-list of identified challenges relate to dynastic politics, costly elections, clientelism, weak political parties, and the absence of meaningful public participation. The deficits, if not addressed, could worsen into a full-blown crisis of representation as seen in other countries, some of which descended into a downward spiral of polarization and instability.

Many of the progressive provisions of the 1987 Constitution, a document that will turn 30 years old next year, remain only on paper. Bills related to the prohibition of political dynasties, freedom of information, campaign finance, popular initiative, and local sectoral representation languished in Congress that only wanted to tinker with the charter if it will lift their term limits, or remove the protectionist provisions in the country’s economy. Some presidents have pushed for a shift to a parliamentary system.  As the constitution that was borne out of a brutal and corrupt dictatorship, it is particularly interesting that oligarchic interests predominate in charter change debates, rather than a desire for popular empowerment and political institutionalization. Unsurprisingly, such moves in the past were met with opposition from civil society and the public at large. Even the BS Aquino Administration entertained the idea but quickly backtracked given overwhelming negative public opinion.

If the next administration is sincere in implementing political reforms, amending the 1987 Constitution should figure prominently in the 2016 Presidential Elections. So far, only one candidate has espoused a grand redesign of the political system by advocating for federalism. Other candidates have hinted to an openness to changing the charter’s economic provisions.

But what is to be done to remove the scourge on charter change. The answer could be in framing it toward institutional and electoral reform aimed at improving political representation.

In the institutional design scholarly literature, political scientists believe that changing rules and institution alter the incentives of politicians and the public in their electoral choices. However, political culture, historical legacies, and other factors, can muddle the pure effects of institutional change as well as generate unintended consequences. It is therefore important to adopt reforms that are calibrated in nature rather than seek grand redesign of the political system without regard to contextual conditions.

What are some institutions and rules that could be subject to constitutional change?

  • The Presidency and the Vice-Presidency. One proposal is to have two-round elections for the president. If no candidate is able to get the majority vote in the run-off, there will be a second round where only the top two candidates will be allowed to run. This is aimed at providing a strong and popular mandate to the chief executive for effective governance. Another change should be the adoption of a straight-ticket rule in choosing the president and the vice-president. The current rules that allow vote-splitting undermine cohesion and loyalty between the two. Also important is to discuss whether to allow presidents to run again but not immediately after their term, a rule observed in Latin American democracies.
  • The Senate. Compared to its counterparts around the world, the Philippine Senate is unusual given its national-level constituency and equal powers with the other chamber of the legislature. Bicameralism is often adopted in federal systems to ensure all the regions or states are equally represented in one house of the legislature. The change could be oriented toward having regional-level representation, increasing its number, and diminishing some of its powers related to the House of Representatives
  • Supreme Court. Several countries have created a Constitutional Court to settle issues related to constitutionality. This court is separate from the Supreme Court and will exclusively interpret disputes between interpretations of the charter. This can de-clog the judicial dockets as well as temper the powers of the Supreme Court.
  • Campaign Finance. To date, only individual candidates rather than parties are required to report campaign expenditures to the Commission on Elections. Also, there is no state funding or contributions to election campaigns of parties whether in the form of finances or free air time to media outfits. Reforming campaign finance can address the costliness of the elections and limit the ability of powerful economic interests to fill a politician’s electoral war chest.
  • Popular Initiative. There is no current law to give substance to the 1987 Constitution’s provisions on popular initiative and other mechanisms of direct democracy. This is despite the fact that it is considered as a mode of constitutional change and policy formulation. In addition, while there is a law that allows for the electoral recall of local politicians through popular initiative, none exists at the national level.

 The proposals in this five institutions are only some of the possible reforms to improve the quality of democratic representation in the Philippines. Extensive research and debate is necessary to fully appreciate the consequences and limitations of these proposals.

However, a critical caveat is in order. The chosen means of changing the 1987 Constitution is of pivotal importance. Any attempt for members of Congress to lead this initiative will sow doubt and be deprived of public legitimacy. It is time for the country to have a genuinely popular, inclusive, and meaningful process of constitutional change as seen in several Latin American countries. An elected constitutional convention that ensures representation from different regions as well as under-represented sectors of society will allow ordinary Filipinos to own the process and therefore the outcome. To quote one ex-civil society leader, “We must take away reform from those who needs to be reformed”.

The 2016 presidential elections is a great opportunity to pressure politicians to make a stand on the need for political reforms to make Philippine democracy representative but also to pave the way for ordinary Filipinos to be part of this process. After all, what other great presidential legacy could there be than to have a genuine people’s constitution enacted during one’s term.

Aries A. Arugay is an Associate Professor at the University of the Philippines-Diliman. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

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