The problem with getting derailed is that it takes a superhuman effort to get back on track. The result is a post more kilometric than usual.
I have a bone to pick with those who argue that the presidential system has gotten us nowhere. This is the kind of victim mentality whining, for example, that attempts to acquit the majority of the sins of the minority, by sidestepping the culpability of the majority in what the minority has done. It’s the same kind of mentality that blames the United States and colonialism for the shortcomings of Philippine society, or, put another way, thinks that by blaming the United States, the majority can be kept pure and untainted. A simple explanation seems logical, but of course it’s unpleasant: what if, either the United States is less capable of influencing our affairs, or, we are better at manipulating the United States than either Filipinos or Americans would like to think? You then have the specter of a Philippines with Filipinos who like America, want to wheel and deal with America, and most of all, deal with America in order to get what they want, which more often than not is not what America would want? There lies the complexity of real life.
Anyway, with regards to the presidency: to have had it as an institution for much of the past century, requires not just dictation by the ruling class, but the collaboration of the led. It is a reflection of certain realities in our communal way of thinking, which involves the selection of a communal leader, and expectations that the role of a leader in a political setup is to mediate between the many and the few. You will find this in the social background of many, if not most, of our past presidents, who reflect origins from the periphery, but whose achievements or professional reputation indicates the ability to master the social complexities of dealing with the ruling and professional classes. The argument that they have achieved nothing ignores the status of the country as second only to Japan in the early 1960s: the breakdown of the system of regularly selecting and changing leaders, of keeping social mobility going, is what what wrecked the country. The man who wrecked the system, of course, was Ferdinand Marcos and he wrecked the system with the enthusiastic support of those upon whom the system relied to continue functioning. I have tackled this in two essays for PCIJ, Elections are Like Water and Circle to Circle.
The Presidency as an institution is dysfunctional because the professional politicians have been unable to keep up with a fundamental requirement of politics -communication. Losing out in the communications game, they want to change the game altogether. This ignores the reality that the public is both accustomed to the game, and likes to play it.
Most of all, the central assumption that the presidential system is leading to bad leadership has as its central assumption, that the public is no longer capable (if it ever was, in the minds of such critics) of selecting sensible leaders.
To select a sensible leader requires some things, foremost of which are: clear alternatives, and limited choices, a sense of self-restraint among those presenting themselves as alternatives.
Let’s look at the so-called bad choices of the past national elections, since the 1987 Constitution demolished institutional controls that served to limit the electorate’s choice to (usually) two main contenders. The bad choices are usually limited to two, Joseph Estrada and Fernando Poe, Jr. I’d say, they were three: Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, and Fernando Poe, Jr. Once again, let’s examine the results of past presidential elections.
From 1935 to 1969, all presidents achieved majority victories, with one exception (Carlos P. Garcia in 1957), and several elections resulted in “landslide” victories that served, for a time at least, to send the signal of a definitive repudiation of those who failed to achieve either election or reelection. Quezon’s landslides in 1935 and 1941, for example, served to provide his administration with an unquestionable mandate during two crucial periods, the institutionalization of autonomy prior to independence, and on the eve of war; Magsaysay’s landslide in 1953 signaled a generational shift, and the birth of a new era of populism; Marcos’s 1969 landslide signaled that his ruthless methods were acceptable to the public, at a time when the system seemed increasingly incapable of withstanding outside challenges. Thus you also had the most influential, and domineering, administrations in our political history. Each one played the mediator card: they would be the court of final appeal, the supreme arbiter, the ones who could intimidate the elite, and speak for the electorate. Garcia, as the lone plurality, and not majority, president of the era, could at least point to his leadership over the Nacionalista Party at a time when Magsaysay had already put the mechanisms to destroy party influence in place. His plurality was still equal to his two leading opponents, Jose Yulo and Manuel Manahan, combined.
Since the 1987 Constitution went into effect, which instituted a multiparty system without runoff elections to guarantee a majority victory for a president, the presidency has had to hobble along without a proper electoral foundation for every president eventually elected. In fact, the elections prove that the failed presidents of recent years have been overwhelmingly not the choice of the majority of voters. Let’s just use the official figures, regardless of allegations of fraud:
1992: Fidel Ramos, 23.6%. An astounding 71.4% of voters voted against him; indeed, the unrecognized “close call” of that election is that had Eduardo Cojuangco (18.2%) and Imelda Marcos (10.3%) combined forces, they would have achieved victory (28.5%), since no other combination seemed likely. As I’ve said, Ramos’s gift was the self-assurance that comes from long experience in handling, and commanding, men, so that having won, he acted like a winner and had the skills to get others to follow him. But the people never, ever, loved him.
1998: Joseph Estrada, 39.6%. An overwhelming 60.4% of voters rejected him; like Garcia in 1957, his votes (almost 11 million) dwarfed that of his 4 leading opponents (de Venecia, Roco, Lito Osmena, and Alfredo Lim). The last candidate to obtain a comparable number was Cory Aquino (or Marcos), most significantly, Estrada’s opponents all appealed, more or less, to the same constituency. It isn’t the fault of that constituency that its leadership was incapable of self-restraint, in figuring out a leader they could all unite behind to defeat Estrada. Cojuangco and Imelda pointed to the enduring ability of the Marcos KBL machinery to deliver. It delivered for Estrada this time around. But 1992 and 1998 were it’s last hurrah, as the Marcos machinery is dying off, and getting fragmented.
2004: Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, 40%. An undeniable majority of 60% voted against her; Fernando Poe, Jr. got even more votes than Estrada, while Lacson, Roco and Villanueva denied Arroyo a landslide (presuming those that voted for them would never have voted for Poe). At the time, I suggested to colleagues that if Lacson had been the candidate, with Poe as Vice-President, they would have achieved something close to a landslide win, and a majority victory at the very least, which even Roco and Villanueva’s withdrawal in favor of the President wouldn’t have prevented (or, if they’d thrown their support behind Lacson, an even bigger victory). In a sense, the opposition elders were incapable of either the statesmanship, or pragmatism, that led Laurel and Recto to back Magsaysay in 1953.
My point is, the leaders who were in a position to make the presidential system work, despite its institutional limitations (the lack of a run-off election), did their best to guarantee that the candidate they all feared the most, would win, anyway. The tools were always there, in fact, the overwhelming majority of voters were there, to court. Political leaders today bewail our lack of unity, but the unity, on a very basic level, has been there. But it takes leadership to transform potential into reality.