The Explainer: The Parliament

I. Parliament: a legacy of monarchy


Why did we begin with the United Kingdom? Because the British parliamentary, or Westminster system, is considered one of the legacies of British colonial rule, in contrast to the political traditions of republican government, a legacy of the Roman republic and the French and American revolutions.

At its height, the British Empire encompassed a third of the land area of the globe. From Canada to India, Malaysia to Australia, the governing systems of former British colonies owe a great deal to that of the United Kingdom. The British system has been hailed as the product of a long, and rich, evolution that has continued for centuries. For example, while Parliament is an ancient institution in England, the function of the prime minister dates to Horace Walpole, in 1721; The title “Prime Minister” itself didn’t even become official in the UK until 1906 with Henry Campbell-Bannerman.

So let’s view the evolution of parliamentary government. In the past, monarchs had absolute power; that power was at first, challenged by the barons and other nobles, whose support was necessary if kings were to be able to form armies and raise taxes for their upkeep. Whether it was through forced agreements such as the Magna Carta in England, or noble-led rebellions and the deposing of dynasties, the nobility over the centuries began to obtain powers previously reserved for the king. What was once the prerogative of one person became a shared authority, exercised by monarchs upon the approval of assemblies of nobles. In turn, the nobles ended up sharing legislative and even executive powers with the middle and professional classes.

We can view the rise of parliamentary government, then, in these terms: what was once totally the king’s, became the powers of a collective composed of large landowners and then the middle and professional classes; and so according to that kind of political evolution, it was natural for the undivided powers of both running government ministries, and of legislation, to remain undivided. A survey of the remaining monarchies of the world indicates this evolutionary process: constitutional monarchies today are overwhelmingly parliamentary, whether one looks at the UK, the Scandinavian nations, or Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia.

In other countries where monarchies have been abolished, the parliamentary system is also found: in these countries, hereditary monarchs have been replaced with Presidents with fixed terms, who, however, serve the same, mainly ceremonial functions, of the monarchies they replaced. Germany and India are good examples.


How does the parliamentary system, in general, work?


Under the parliamentary system, the parliament is supreme. It fulfills both the legislative and executive functions of government. The courts are often subordinate to parliament, which has the power to amend the constitution: former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed of Malaysia, for example, stripped the Malaysian Supreme Court of some of its powers to rule on parliament’s actions, just as he introduced legislation to further reduce the already nominal powers of the Malaysian king.

Parliaments may be unicameral or bicameral, though the majority of parliaments are bicameral, though the powers of the upper chamber varies greatly from country to country.

The electorate chooses members of parliament, or MP’s, who are elected by district. The MP’s, in turn, have party affiliations, and the number of MP’s elected determines which party heads the government. In general, if a party secures a clear majority in parliament, it forms the government by itself. If no single party achieves a majority, then the parties can combine to form a coalition, with ministries and committees divided up according the composition of the coalition.

The government thus formed, has a life for a fixed term. When that term ends, an election is held. During that time, the government has a leader, called the Prime Minister, who heads the cabinet. The Prime Minister and his cabinet select who, from among the ranks of their party or coalition, hold various ministerial positions. At the same time, parliament itself has committees, composed of majority and minority members, who conduct the legislative business of parliament.

The opposition is composed of everyone in parliament who doesn’t belong to the ruling party or coalition. In general, the largest opposition party forms what is called a “shadow government,” under a leader assisted by opposition MP’s who hold the responsibility of concentrating on the various ministries. They are the next government-in-waiting.

The Prime Minister and his government is accountable, not to the electorate, but to parliament. The Prime Minister’s policies and proposed legislation are therefore subject to continuous scrutiny not only by the opposition, but by his own party as well. A Prime Minister can hire and fire ministers as he pleases; but if a Prime Minister or his government conduct becomes controversial or questionable, his mandate can be put to the test.

There are four ways to do this. His party can propose a vote of confidence in parliament: this serves as a positive re-endorsement of the government. The opposition can call for a vote of no-confidence: a rejection of the government. The Prime Minister’s party can also decide for a change in the party leadership: if unchallenged by the opposition, the ruling party could change the Prime Minister but give the position to a new one from within their ranks. Or, if there’s a coalition, parts of  it could use the challenge to the PM to call for a vote of confidence or no confidence. A government, to head off a vote of confidence or no-confidence or a party split, can ask for parliament to be dissolved, and elections held.

Calling for an early election by dissolving parliament ahead of its term, is a way a PM or government can prevent losing a vote of confidence, or a vote of no-confidence, or an intra-party fight spilling over to parliament. Defeat in such a vote means that the government falls, and in general, elections for a new parliament held anyway. And since losing such a vote would be harmful to a party’s chances to reelect its candidates, calling for a caretaker government to be appointed to preside over the election allows the ruling party or government to fight an election on its own, and not the opposition’s, terms.

Either way, since the term of parliament can be shortened, ideally the government of the day is always one that enjoys the support of parliament, regardless of its standing with the people.

In fact in the 1920s and 1930s, Filipino politicians tended to view elections in a parliamentary manner. Party splits and campaigns between parties coincided with elections for the House and Senate: the split would occur before an election, and the election would be fought out on what the parties claimed were the issues of the day. The results would determine the composition of both houses of the legislature; and any coalition-building would take place if the election results denied a particular party a clear majority.

Since then, however, our party system has degenerated: the ability of politicians to disregard party affiliations by switching sides, means no politician ever has to suffer for party principle. Now a politician switching party is not a Filipino invention.

For example, Winston Churchill was a party switcher. He switched from the Conservative to the Liberals, and back again to the Conservatives. His doing so, however, could only assure him future office in a new government but not offer him advantages with regards to the government of the day. One grave defect of our politics today, it is widely agreed, is that any politician can have his cake and eat it, too. He only has to change his party affiliation to prevent any loss of power or influence.

In the past, block voting, in which you didn’t vote for individual candidates, but could simply write-in the name of the party you wanted to credit with your votes, was tried, precisely to foster the party system. When the Senate was restored in 1940, block voting was instituted at the same time, precisely an antidote to what was seen, even then, as the dangers of politics based purely on personalities. But in the 1950s, block voting was abolished: and it’s no coincidence that the first movie star was elected to the senate around that time.

Proponents of the parliamentary system believe that it can provide many benefits. It ensures that a government survives only as long as it enjoys the support of parliament. The moment it fails to do so, the government changes, and more likely than not, the public can then determine how the next parliament will composed, by the manner in which they choose their MP’s. Parliamentarists also point to the benefits of uniting the executive and legislative: they describe the separation of powers as unnatural and inefficient. Parliament, they believe, can be more harmonious, more responsible, and more dynamic than the present system which has failed to produce an essential requirement for the presidential system to work: healthy and unquestionable majorities.

As for the demerits of the parliamentary system, opposition usually relies on four arguments in the Philippine context. First, it’s an unfamiliar system. Second, a chronic lack of political discipline means governments could either perpetually be on the verge of collapse, or that a government could last practically for ever and starve all its opponents to death. Third, it subordinates the courts to parliament in a country where the rule of law is already weak. Fourth, the union of executive and legislative powers is dangerous, because what we would have a unicameral parliament. With no upper chamber to serve as a brake on the enthusiasms of the ruling party, a government could theoretically be in a stronger position to resist opposition, since all resources are in its hands.

Is the parliamentary glass half empty or half full? The stability of the UK parliament stands in contrast to the confusion of Italy’s parliament; and for every muti-party parliament such as the ones in Europe, there are those, such as Malaysia’s, that are virtual one-party dictatorships, and others like Singapore’s, that aren’t even democratic parliaments at all. It all boils down, perhaps, to the trust people have in the parties that compose parliament.


Which brings us to the other side of the parliamentary coin: unicameralism. More on this when we return.


II. The perils of unicameralism


That was a clip from “The Madness of King George,” where an opposition leader explains how parliament is controlled by the Prime Minister.

The kind of parliamentary government proposed for the future is a unicameral one. As we can see, this is not the dominant kind of parliamentary regime in the world.

So why is it a unicameral parliament that’s been put on the table?

Unicameralism is nothing new in the Philippine political experience. We have been unicameral, that is, we have had a legislature composed of only one house, five times. The Malolos Congress was a unicameral body. The Americans at first established the Philippine Commission, a single-chamber, pseudoparliamentary body, in 1903 until 1907. The prewar Commonwealth had a unicameral National Assembly; and the 2nd Republic during the Japanese Occupation also had a Unicameral Assembly. In 1978, President Marcos established the unicameral interim Batasan Pambansa, which then gave way to the regular Batasan Pambansa from 1981 to 1986.

However, only once can our unicameral experience be said to have been under a fairly democratic setup. That was from 1935 to 1941. Our six year experience during the prewar National Assembly was interesting. There was an evolution in how that assembly was organized.

Gil Montilla was hand-picked by the president to serve as Speaker on the basis of his being elegant, pliable, and thus, mainly decorative. The real work of the Assembly was undertaken through a close coordination between the President of the Philippines, who actually established an office in the Legislative Building, and regularly met and held caucuses there with the Majority Floor Leader.

By 1937 to 1938, the process had proven extremely time-consuming, taking away time for executive matters because it was being devoted to managing the legislature. For example, there was one well-known incident when members of the National Assembly were kept waiting by a cabinet secretary. The furious national assembly voted to reduce the department’s budget to one peso. A series of elaborate consultations had to take place to pacify the assemblymen.

In 1938, with the election of the Second National Assembly, the traditional powers and prerogatives of the Speaker as genuine head of the legislature were restored; Gil Montilla gave way to Jose Yulo, who also assumed more direct control of the ruling Nacionalista party, a tradition generally maintained to today: the Speakers of the House have generally served as the effective heads of their respective parties and coalitions.

After 1940, no president actually visited the legislature to coordinate and conduct government business until President Aquino visited the House of Representatives in 1987.

Also at the time, the expansion of the electorate, which had been basically limited to the middle and upper classes, was taking place. There were fears that a unicameral legislature would be easily infiltrated by radical assemblymen. And so, the restoration of the Senate was proposed. These fears on the part of the prewar leaders was validated with the election of radical representatives like Luis Taruc to the House after World War II: the Roxas administration ended up engineering their expulsion, which was one of the triggers for the Hukbalahap rebellion.

Filipinos of a certain generation look back to the prewar era as one marked by cooperation between the executive and the legislative. They consider our postwar system, on the whole a bicameral one, as marked by senseless confrontations not only between the legislature and the executive, but within the legislative, too. It is no surprise, then, that so many of that generation welcomed martial law, which united everything in one man’s hands.

But the postwar generation, equally frustrated with the bickering prior to martial law, argued that it wasn’t the system, but the unrepresentative and unresponsive nature of those holding office, that was the problem. After Edsa, it seemed the national consensus was that it was better to have institutionalized confrontations, than an unhealthy and artificial peace.

Since 1987, though, the electorate, which finds parties irrelevant, has chosen to turn its back on the professional politicians. This has not, however, resulted in an improvement in governance. With no presidency since 1992 having gained a majority at the polls, no government has ever begun a fresh start with an unquestionable mandate. And yet the professional politicians, deprived of this essential requirement for effective government, get all the blame and no credit whatsoever for things not totally falling apart.

This may explain why unicameralism remains an attractive proposition to the overwhelmingly elite composition of our legislature and the middle and professional classes –and even a large portion of the masses our leadership tends to either distrust or look down upon. While both politicians and the electorate have liked strong leaders with charisma, they are also mistrustful of a strong executive with its own means of political control outside the legislature. Add to that a powerful presidency deprived, by a system without presidential runoff election, of a basic requirement for a presidency to be effective, and you can understand the frustrations critics of the presidential system feel.

The great party split of 1922 between the Quezon, or Collectivista, and the Osmena, or Unipersonalista, factions of the Nacionalista Party was as much over personalities as it was over a fundamental difference in attitudes towards political principles. The Unipersonalistas showed a marked inclination toward parliamentary government, viewing the Senate, for example, as subordinate to the House of Representatives, and viewing the role of the Speaker as being along the lines of a Prime Minister: that is, as possessing, by virtue of  being the party leader, the authority to be the one who had the power to moderate and determine party, and thus, legislative, policy.

The Collectivistas viewed both houses as equal to each other, and claimed to represent the view that leadership of the party did not confer the automatic authority to make leadership decisions for both chambers. Instead, each chamber had to be organized according to a regular process of caucuses, or consultations; and that furthermore, coalition government was desirable.

Both views were actually arguing apples and oranges: the Unipersonalists weren’t used to how the bicameral system functions in reality, while the Collectivists were too focused on the legislature’s role as a wholly-Filipino competitor to the foreign Governor-General who held executive powers.

When Filipinos came to control all three branches of government, the Unipersonalista and Collectivista theories became intertwined in practice.

In terms of legislatures and campaigns, it became clear that every party leader would had to pursue collective methods to secure consensus; and that by inclination, our political culture prefers coalitions to single party rule. But the manner in which our government came come to be governed, in terms of executive matters, has proven to be unipersonal in nature: our presidents like to call the shots in the executive department, where party interests are subordinated to the interests of the presidency.

Like most people, politicians prefer to get along than to fight each other all the time. While by their very name –legislators- congressmen and senators are tasked with drafting, approving, and amending laws, in actual practice, their main purpose in life is to lobby for, and secure, resources: money. Money not only makes the world go round, it is the life’s blood of politics.

Since a cozy cohabitation is in the nature of all politicians, so long as everyone has a seat around the table and a piece of the pie, when the system results in conflict that gets in the way of allocating resources, neither politicians nor their constituencies like it.

A republican, presidential, system by its vary nature, is allergic to cozy relationships. The Executive is a separate institution from the legislature, and both are in turn subject to discipline by the judiciary. A unicameral system, in the first place, removes competition between two halves, the House and the Senate, who have a hard enough time, as a whole, Congress, in fighting for scraps from the Executive –and then their every move is subject to judgment, in theory, by the Supreme Court.

Our experience during the New Society and Fourth Republic, emphasized these fears. Proponents of both parliamentarism and unicameralism however point out, that while the Batasan Pampansa under Marcos was unicameral, and theoretically the system was parliamentary, the executive was only partially united with the legislature; and that the fact we had a dictatorship means we had an unusual system that cannot be compared to present proposals.


Here’s a sneak peek at what a unicameral parliament would be like. We actually have two.

The first would be a transitional parliament, an interim National Assembly, composed of our present congressmen, senators, the members of the President’s cabinet, and perhaps some other members to be nominated by the chief executive. This would have, as a minimum, a shelf life of four to three years, or until 2010. The composition, based on present party affiliations, would be as follows:

After that, a regular National Assembly would be elected. We can’t be sure, at present, what exactly it would look like. At its largest, it might comprise about 600 people, as Solita Monsod has calculated. From this body, the government would be selected, comprising roughly thirty five members, from the Prime Minister to the other government ministers. The colors here are of course only projections, based on present party strengths.

In either case, it seems clear that there wouldn’t be the risk of uncertain coalitions, as the present ruling coalition would have the numbers to govern firmly.


III. Conclusion


We have experienced unicameralism several times within living memory. What we haven’t experienced, in its true sense, is parliamentary government. The two approaches, which can be debated on their own, have been joined at the hip. And it’s this joining at the hip that makes some view the proposal as freakish and dangerous, and others to view it as a reasonable, rational, solution to the many defects of our present system. My only question is, are we aware of how it will work? To my mind, no people previously accustomed to directly selecting the executive, has ever willingly given up that power, except as a prelude to a dictatorship. But we Filipinos have always surprised each other, and the world.



Manuel L. Quezon III.

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