A ‘Sixth Republic’ a Win-Win Situation

Arab News

A ‘Sixth Republic’ a Win-Win Situation

by Manuel L. Quezon III 

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo proposed, in her State of the Nation Address last week, that a new, “Sixth Republic” be established for our country. At first, it seemed she wanted this done in a manner that went against what she — and her father before her — felt was the only way to properly lay down the framework for a new republic: Through a convention. But her press conference last Thursday suggested that, after pandering to her party mates at the Batasan, she has other ideas of her own as to how a new constitution should be drafted.

In that press conference, the president said she has in mind some sort of a consultative constitutional commission that would propose exactly what changes should be made to the Constitution. This seems to be the president’s way of making the amendments through a constituent assembly acceptable to the public. There is no greater proof of how our elected representatives — particularly in the lower house — are perceived as unrepresentative of their constituents than the public mistrust of placing constitutional change in Congress’ hands.

Were our representatives (and their family members, too) to deny themselves the fruit of their labors by vowing not to hold office in the first legislature of the new constitution, then people might be less skeptical. But our officials are advocating constitutional change not only for them to live on, but also for their tribe, so to speak, to increase. Hence, the president’s toying with the idea of a supplementary commission.

Such a commission would offer a way out for both houses of Congress, which are on a collision course.

The one proposal in the “Ramosian trinity” — federalism, unicameralism, parliamentarism — that was seemingly swallowed hook, line and sinker by the president and cheered by absolutely everyone in the admittedly captive audience inside the Batasan (legislative building), was federalism. It captured the imagination of people on both sides of the political aisle, in the cities and in the provinces. Federalism, in itself, does not require the other -isms in former President Fidel Ramos’ trinity. We can be bicameral and be federal, we can be presidential and be federal.

Indeed, we can sacrifice parliamentarism and unicameralism to achieve federalism, and it would be enough to excite a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise support the Ramos plan. Federalism would, for example, appeal to people in the provinces and reduce the scope of authority of both the president and the bureaucracy to foreign affairs, national defense and inter-state and world trade.

But what of those who want to get rid of the presidency as a powerful institution, or of the Senate as a component of the legislature? They are asking for the sun, the stars and the moon. I am convinced that our culture demands a chief executive who is not only nationally elected but who is also with national responsibilities. The problem with the presidency is not the institution; it is the near-impossibility of having a presidency armed with an unquestionable majority, not just a plurality.

We have not had a president armed with an unquestionable majority since 1965. We have not had a president armed with a landslide victory since 1969: Cory Aquino had to have a revolution to enforce her victory. All presidents from Aquino down have had pretty pathetic pluralities (Joseph Estrada’s so-called impressive showing in 1998 wasn’t even as good, percentage-wise, as Carlos P. Garcia’s plurality in 1957), and Filipinos are like the French: We respect only majority victories, and instinctively rebel against minority rule, which is what pluralities achieve.

Only Fidel Ramos managed to keep his presidency intact with a plurality because he had something other recent presidents lacked: Long experience in handling people, and a fairly solid constituency, the military, that provided loyal and effective backing to his governance. However, the manner by which presidents are selected almost guarantees the failure of any president under the present system.

The solution, then, is run-off elections to ensure that presidents have a majority. Add to this, the political near-impossibility of asking the Senate to abolish itself (which I also believe the public won’t support; the public prefers an inefficient legislature to a rubber stamp unicameral assembly), and what do you have? Either the continuation of the status quo, or some reforms for the Senate. What reforms could those be?

Well, you’re back to federalism. Such a system would suggest a Senate composed of senators elected by federal district, or by region; with more limited law-making powers restricted to approving or vetoing laws passed by the lower house. This might be made acceptable to the senators by giving them the sole power to confirm Cabinet and such other appointments that under the present system has to pass the Commission on Appointments. This would also remove the bicameral conference committee, which produces laws very different from those passed by either house.

Finally, what of the congressmen who are having tantalizing visions of having everything to themselves? Give them what they have always wanted, which is the chance to hold Cabinet portfolios while remaining congressmen. This has been their dream since the time of Sergio Osme?a Sr., who wanted to remain speaker and at the same time hold a Cabinet portfolio under the Jones Law.

A president with reduced powers, but an unquestionable mandate; a Senate that’s a throwback to the 1916-1935 legislature, elected by regions, with confirmatory powers; a lower house that holds Cabinet portfolios, under a prime minister who runs the Cabinet in consultation with the president; and provincial governments with more room for experimentation and self-rule under federalism. Win-win!

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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