I think it is safe to assume that each of us here has more or less operational notions about the advantages and disadvantages of either the presidential or the parliamentary form of government in theoretical and/or conditional/contextual terms. The Philippines has normally had an actual experience of how a presidential government is being run since the time the United States of America introduced it to our political life as a nation. It was only during the Martial Law interregnum under the Marcos regime that we had had an experience of how government is run via a parliamentary system—an “abnormal” type of parliamentary government during an abnormal stage of our nation’s evolution. As we study the governments of our Asian neighbors, both proximate (in the ASEAN region) and distant (at least the East Asian countries, at most the whole of Asia), most—if not all—of them have the parliamentary form of government. Obviously, it is only in the Philippines where we find a functional presidential form of government with all its nuances and uniqueness acquired through time by way of adaptations and ramifications. Our Asian neighbors could therefore provide us with a point of comparison and assessment to reflect on the merits and weaknesses of the presidential system on the one hand and the parliamentary system on the other. The situation, in fact, has been taken advantage of by certain interest groups to pursue an agenda that, if realized, would bestow them an enormous advantage to control the general political landscape of the nation thereby perpetuating themselves and their minions in the present era and in that to come. An assessment of whether a presidential or a parliamentary form of government is better in the context of the Philippine political experience is not actually reflective of the inherent strengths or flaws in either system but really an appraisal of why a system would succeed or fail in the context of the level of political maturity we have achieved at this point of our collective political consciousness’ development.
Theoretically, we say that all so-called democratic countries are either presidential or parliamentary in terms of government system on the basis of a condition that relates the head of government to the constitutive system.
. . . The presidentialist form evolved first in the United States. It replaces monarchs with presidents elected for a fixed term. They have the authority (at least nominally) to manage the governmental bureaucracy. Some comments on the historical situation that led the “Founding Fathers” of the U.S. “Constitution” to reproduce the powers of the king of England while rejecting the principles that legitimated the monarchy will be discussed below.
Concurrently, an elected assembly was created to co-exist with the president on the basis of a principle referred to as the “separation of powers.” This principle has been reproduced in all presidentialist regimes — I use ‘presidentialist’ in preference to ‘presidential’ because many parliamentary regimes also have presidents and it is easy to confuse them (Riggs 1994a). However, by “presidentialist” I do not imply an “imperial presidency,” which has also become a meaning of “presidentialist.” To avoid confusion, I often insert “separation-of-powers” to characterize the type of system I have in mind.
By contrast, in parliamentary regimes, a balancing rule prevails that produces the fusion of executive/legislative authority in some kind of cabinet. The cabinet and its leader, a prime minister, needs the support of a parliamentary majority to stay in power with two fundamental consequences. Because the constitutive system in such regimes is fused — i.e. the chief executive is accountable to the elected assembly and can be discharged by a vote of no-confidence — deadlock between the two branches can be avoided. Moreover, control over the bureaucracy is enhanced by the fusion of powers — officials are not held responsible to a multiplicity of centers of authority. This means that they can administer more effectively and also that they can be controlled more effectively. /*/
Practically looking at the general experiences of so-called democratic countries in the world today, it could further be theoretically claimed that the parliamentary system is more or less a better democratic system than the presidential. In view of this, we could safely infer that in the context of a democracy, the parliamentary system has more survival mileage over and ahead of the presidential system. This view, however, should not be taken at its face value in the context of the Philippine experience. One important consideration in the theoretical analysis cum evaluation quoted above is the ideal notions presented that apparently are implicative of their relative significance to the high level of political evolution achieved by the most successfully run parliamentary governments in the modern (or even in the postmodern) world.
The Philippine context is a very complicated one. I would like to believe that at this stage of the country’s political evolution in its experience of democracy, either a presidential or a parliamentary system of government is bound to fail. In fact, we have experienced the failure of the presidential system. But the advocacy of certain interest groups to push for the change to parliamentary by way of a charter change is not the result of a deep and serious consideration of the failure of the presidential. Our more reflective citizens have the unified notion that such agenda is pushed for the concealed attempt to perpetuate certain “endangered” political personae in power and not really to strengthen the democratic principles. In the first place, it is lamentable to note that we as a nation have not actually deeply immersed ourselves into the genuine arena of a democratic political life. What we have come to know about the essence of democracy is only theoretical and hence superficial.
As a basic thought, both the parliamentary and the presidential systems are two aspects of what we call representative democracy. A real misunderstanding is present if there is no way for us to see the link, if not an outright identity, between representation and delegation. In a true democracy the representatives of the people are at the same time their delegates. What we presently see in the workings of our so-called democratic government are alleged “representatives” of the people whose agendas that they carry to their respective government loci are not necessarily the people’s agendas but these so-called representatives’ own agendas to serve their personal interests as well as the interests of their affiliations, whether business or civic or whatever. The basic issue that we need to seriously attend to in consideration of genuine democracy is whether the people in general are truly participants in the running of government. In other words, the issue is: Is our democracy participatory or not? Participatory democracy is authentic democracy and we have all the possible agencies in non-government and people’s organizations to get the people involved in governance. Whether the system of government is presidential or parliamentary, the most important consideration that we see at this point is the crucial participation of the people in running the government that they have democratically put up to serve their general welfare and interests.
It is therefore useless and futile to simply draw all the theoretical advantages and disadvantages of either the parliamentary of the presidential system of government without any consideration of how a nation can actually and deeply experience the operationalization of the principles of authentic democracy which are popular sovereignty, political equality, popular consultation and majority rule.
/*/ “PresidentiaIism vs. Parliamentarism: Implications for the Triad of Modernity” by Fred W. Riggs. http://www2.hawaii.edu/~fredr/6-lap9a.htm
©Ruel F. Pepa 2006