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Jan 06

The Explainer: Public opinion versus party opinion

That was Ben Kingsley in “Gandhi” expressing a view Filipinos with a colonial mentality have never understood. But now that we’re independent, what happens if we have bad self-government?

Put another way, remember the old typing exercise? “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party.” But what if party politicians idea of help, is helping themselves? We’re familiar with what Filipinos do, when party opinion stops reflecting public opinion. But how do our neighbors handle it?

 

More on this when The Explainer returns.

 

I.

 

A Filipino politician was once asked what the difference was between his party and the opposition. He replied, “the difference is we are in power, and they want to be in power.” But we also know that if governance is only about power, then it tends to make people misuse their office; and it is when things go wrong, as they often do, that citizens have to find every possible way to complain and demand action. Our Constitution calls that asking for a “redress of grievances.”

As citizens, we use different means to right what we think is wrong.

We play our politicians off against each other, which is easy, because politicians will do anything to shine at the expense of someone else.

So we have senators investigating bureaucrats. We have congressmen doing the same. We have bureaucrats investigating other bureaucrats, whether in the Commission on Audit or in the office of the Ombudsman. We have the President ordering lifestyle checks on people under her departments.

We file cases before the Supreme Court, specially in cases which seem to involved a grave abuse of discretion by officials. Most recently, we saw how concerned citizens filed cases questioning the policy of Preemptive, Calibrated Response, Proclamation 1017 and Executive Order 464.

We also have elections, which are scheduled on a regular basis, and which the politicians prefer as the only means to right wrongs. There’s a saying a week is a long time in politics. By that measure, an elected term is an eternity. And an eternity is useful if you want issues to die down, or for you to build roads and bridges in order to set aside any other issues. And if that fails, guns, goons, and gold can help convince the electorate to cooperate.

And when all else fails, or when elected or appointed officials don’t move fast enough, we go to media. We write letters, call in on TV and radio programs. And if media fails us, we text, write, e-mail and talk to each other. If no one wants to listen, then we exercise our Constitutional right to freedom of assembly, that is, we protest.

All of these activities, put together, make up what we consider democracy. If that’s the case, with the proposals for unicameral, parliamentary government, how do our neighboring parliamentary governments handle these methods? 

After all, these countries have what proponents of charter change want to emerge here at home. Parliamentary proponents want strong parties, a long period of continuity for prime ministers, and the elimination of our present system of checks and balances. Instead, they want what the consider the more rational system of uniting the executive and legislative and subordinating the rest to parliament.

These changes will, they claim, eliminate our country’s two major problems: corruption and poverty.

So let’s see how our neighboring parliamentary governments handle the questions of checks and balances, of independence of the courts, of free and fair elections, of press freedom and freedom of assembly. And let’s see if the parliamentary systems of our neighbors are reducing both corruption and poverty.

How has parliamentary government had an impact on corruption and poverty in our neighbors?

 

Let’s begin with a note on scale, which we tend to overlook.

 

We often hear admiration for Singapore, but it’s not a democracy, and it’s population at 4.5 million, equals that of the Philippines in 1867. And yes, their economy is impressive, but Singaporeans themselves are worried about the increasing gap between the haves and have nots, as we’ll see.

Even Malaysia, at 24 million, which has the population the Philippines had in 1956, which incidentally was around the time we were 2nd to Japan, has been rocked by questions on corruption, vote-buying, and rigging: but they have a controlled media, so the news doesn’t get out, as we’ll see. 

Of the three countries with populations similar to ours, one, Vietnam at 84 million, is a Communist dictatorship, in which Transparency International says corruption is endemic and which is forcing the Communist government to crack down or else suffer diminished public confidence;

another, Egypt at 78 million is a presidential dictatorship, in which the President is grooming his son to succeed him amidst allegations of corruption;

and of the two democracies, one, Mexico at 107 million (the population we’re expected to have in 2020) is a federal presidential system with an election under protest;

while Germany at 82 million, is a federal parliamentary system which had one of its most famous Chancellors, Helmut Kohl, lose power in disgrace over allegations of corruption.

Indonesia, on the other hand, Malay, like us, and with a big population like ours, is presidential but unitary, like us –and is widely admired for pushing forward anti-corruption drives under a popularly-elected president.

But what about checks and balances, independence of the courts, free and fair elections, and public opinion in neighboring parliamentary governments? More on this, when we return.

 

II.

 

That was a scene from the HBO biopic on Churchill, “The Gathering Storm,” in which the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, plots to destroy Churchill for daring to oppose his party’s policies.

Let’s take a look at how our neighbors handle things familiar to us, and which we’ve come to expect: checks and balances and the independence of the courts.

In Malaysia, their Constitution once  had something similar to our present, 1987 Constitution. Unlike the British system, in which parliament is supreme, even over the courts, the Malaysian constitution adopted the US model saying the constitution, is supreme. The Malaysian Supreme Court was given a power our Supreme Court presently enjoys –that of judicial review, which allowed it to do as our Supreme Court did in the cases of CPR, EO 464 and Proclamation 1017. This power of the Malaysian Supreme Court was even made part of the national ideology.

But in the 1980s, Malaysians started bringing cases to their Supreme Court for the redress of grievances at a time when the Malaysian parliament was expanding its powers and limiting political and civil rights. In 1986, the court struck down the government’s decision to deport a foreign journalist. Other media cases were lost. In 1987, the court banned United Engineers Malaysia, a company in which the ruling party, UNMO, was the majority owner, from signing a huge contract with the government.

Then the ruling party was split, and a fight began over the huge financial assets of the party. Prime Minister Mahathir’s faction moved swiftly to prevent inconvenient court decisions. He swiftly passed a constitutional amendment through Malaysia’s unicameral parliament. The amendment removed, from the Constitution, the stated powers and obligations of the Supreme Court. Whatever powers the courts would continue to have, would depend on parliamentary legislation. The power of judicial review was also eliminated.

When the case concerning which of the factions of UNMO was a real one reached the Supreme Court, Mahathir suspended the Chief Justice for a breach of protocol. Mahathir set up a body to investigate the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court handed down an injunction against the body; Mahathir suspended fife supreme court justices. He filled the vacancies and the government’s enjoyed favorable decisions ever since.

What about free & fair elections? Again, we can look at several instances in our parliamentary neighbors that would be familiar to us.

In Malaysia, the ruling party was accused of adding tens of thousands of Filipinos and Indonesians to their version of the electoral rolls in Sabah. A judge who wanted to investigate the allegations was called by the government-friendly Chief Justice and told to stop. When he didn’t want to stop, the prime minister and other officials attacked him. No serious investigations have prospered.

 

And what about press freedom?

 

The tension between prime ministers and the press revolves around press reports of government corruption. The more controlled the press is, the less of a chance embarrassing news about corruption will reach the voters and the rest of the world. Because of a relative absence of checks and balances. Let’s take the case of the country that serves as

The model for many of the parliamentary systems in the world.  How much freedom does the press enjoy in england?   in the UK, the British press is quite noisy and eager to expose corruption. An American, Greg

Palast claimed he had audio tapes in which lobbyists for American interests revealed how they paid bribes to Tony Blair’s government in exchange for favors. Blair’s administration demanded that the the tapes be played. IT WAS a trap, a sucker punch. When the tapes were played the government WAS ABLE to argue the law on privacy was

violated, and that ended the controversy. So tony blair avoided addressing whether the allegations were genuine or not.

An American, Greg Palast claimed he had audio tapes in which lobbyists for American interests revealed how they paid bribes to Tony Blair’s government in exchange for favors. Blair’s administration demanded that the the tapes be played. They were. Which enabled the government to argue the law on privacy was violated, which ended the controversy –but never addressed whether the allegations were genuine or not.

Let’s look at freedom of the press. It’s important not because the press should be privileged, but because access to information, even inconvenient information for governments, is important for voters to make an informed choice. Parliamentary Malaysia and Singapore have anti-sedition laws with a colonial original like ours, except theirs are even harsher. They have used their anti-sedition laws to crack down on dissent and uncooperative journalists. Thailand has seen Prime Minister Thaksin, who owns some media outfits, attack the independent press.

In parliamentary Singapore, the ruling party recently suffered an 8 point drop at the polls last May. The main issue was the opposition’s allegation that the gap between those getting richer, and those who aren’t. In response to the allegation, the government did a couple of things. It filed charges against oppositionists, such as Dr Chee Soon

Juan, who is being tried for allegedly defaming the reputations

government leaders and for speaking in public without a police permit. and it also imposed conditions on the circulation of some foreign publications.

And yet, after the election, the Singapore government had to admit that the income gap was bigger than at any time since independence in 1965. The bottom 30 per cent of households have seen their income fall since 2000.

Thing is, the Singapore government had to admit the election issue was valid –but only admitted it after the elections. the government revealed that the income gap was bigger than at any time since independence in 1965. The bottom 30 per cent of households have seen their income fall since 2000.

But the point here is that Singapore isn’t beyond holding back data inconvenient to the government during election time, and from censoring foreign coverage it doesn’t like. Singapore isn’t beyond, suppressing negative information, it has never

hesitated to censor local  and foreign news reports it doesn’t like.

Let’s take a look at freedom of assembly.  It is an essential part of democracy and let’s not forget that.

In Mexico which is presidential and federal, 100,000 have protested the results of their recent presidential election. In Paris, a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, a million students took the street to protest the elimination of job security for young people. In parliamentary London, 100,000 took to the streets to protest Tony Blair’s Iraq policy. In presidential and federal America, 100,000 in Chicago, half a million in Los Angeles, 10,000 in New York City and 100,000 in Arizona took the streets to protest anti-immigration legislation.

In parliamentary Spain, two million protested in the streets against the manipulation of investigations into the Madrid train bombing, and a government fell. Hundreds protested in parliamentary Malaysia against the persecution of Anwar Ibrahim. In parliamentary Thailand, 20,000 took to Bangkok’s streets to protest Prime Minister Thaksin’s alleged corruption and electoral manipulation. So long as a system claims to be democratic, People Power will always be there. Parliamentary regimes in Georgia, with its Orange Revolution, and Kyrgzstan with its Tulip Revolution, fell on the question of electoral fraud and dictatorial tendencies of  their rulers.

In Singapore and Malaysia, you need a police permit to protest. Anti-government protesters aren’t given permits. If they protest without a permit, they get the water cannon and truncheon treatment familiar to Filipinos. In Thailand, prime minister Thaksin tried to stifle protests by adopting his  own version of preemptive, calibrated

response. But protesters in Bangkok were left unmolested  because the Thai military refused to bow to pressure from above.

In all these and many more cases, specially in a parliamentary system with fewer checks and balances, public opinion serves as the ultimate check and balance versus party opinion, which like all parties everywhere, tends to be firmly of the opinion governments should be run like the Mafia.

So how does party opinion versus public opinion work in our

neighboring parliamentary democracies? My guest, will help us find out more.

 

Conclusion:

 

Local contests may be easier to grasp for the electorate, they’re also easier to keep hold of for those used to holding office. I remember an otherwise distinguished former Speaker thunder that he would let someone else hold his seat over his dead body. He made his daughter run for his old congressional seat. But was it his seat, or the people’s? And by making his daughter run, was he behaving democratically or not? I once heard another congressman proudly say, by next year his family would have continuously represented his province for a hundred years. And a colleague said, “that’s a century too long.”

I think it’s fair to say that if any proposed change to our form of government, included a provision to replace all our current officials and replace them with new ones, who haven’t had the chance to either inherit or learn old bad habits, we’d have a unanimous agreement to try the new in order to bury the old. But let me ask you: are the same officials in a new political system simply not a case of old wine in new bottles?

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