The Explainer: Votes in a Parliamentary System

I was watching a television program before, with a kind of roving moderator who spoke to a seated panel of young women who were having some sort of problem with their boyfriends – apparently, because the boyfriends had all slept with the girlfriends’ mothers. And they brought the boyfriends out, and they fought, right there on television. Toby, tell me: these people don’t vote, do they?

On election day, you get a very long ballot in which you have to fill in very many names. The proposed shift from a bicameral, presidential system to a unicameral parliamentary system will change the names you get to fill in. It’s not mentioned in polite company, but some people want to reduce the list because they don’t like the choices voters have made.

How would your choice, your vote, function in a parliamentary system? We’ll look into that when we return.

In 2004, you wrote down, hopefully, the following, for national positions: President, Vice-President, twelve Senators, a party-list representative, and one congressman for the district in which you live. For these positions, the ones with the most votes are supposed to win.

The candidate for President who wins, armed with a direct mandate, appoints people both from the public and the private sector, that is, politicians and non-politicians, to the Cabinet, subject to confirmation by the politicians in the bicameral Commission on Appointments.

Those who win as congressmen elect their majority leader to represent the biggest parties, and the opposition picks its minority leaders. Chances are, whoever heads the biggest party or coalition of parties gets to head the House: that’s the Speaker. In the Senate, they do the same thing, with majority and minority leaders and a Senate President.


But that’s what our leaders do after they’ve won. The first step is winning. And all it takes to win is to get at least 1 more vote than your strongest opponent.

There’s a formal name for the kind of winner-take-all system we have: it’s called First Pass The Post. From  councilor to president, whoever gets the most votes, wins, like a horse-race: even if you win by a nose, you win.

We practice another kind of voting, too, an innovation under the present Constitution. It’s called the party list system.

The party list has a percentage of reserved seats in the House, twenty percent of the total composition of the House. But for a party to fill a party-list seat, it has to achieve certain things in order to qualify: a percentage of the national vote, for example, and accreditation as a genuine party-list organization representing minority interests.

The current proposals would reduce the national names you pick to two: an Assemblyman, which would be the new name for your congressman, and possibly, under the proposed changes, you may have the option of picking a party for your party-list vote. But let’s focus on your assemblyman, first.

Your vote for Assemblyman is what you will have to depend on, to reflect your will as far as the national government’s composition is concerned.

Your Assemblymen, as members of parliament, will pick the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister will pick his cabinet from among the assemblymen. So anyone deciding on who to vote in as assemblyman has to bear in mind several things, which may not really matter today, but are crucial for the changes proposed.

First, to which party does your candidate for assemblyman belong? Do many other assemblymen belong to that party? If you vote for an assemblyman who belongs to a small or weak party, chances are, neither you nor your assemblyman will have an effect on the government to be formed in parliament.

Second, who are the leaders of your party, and among themselves, do they have assemblymen capable of holding the various ministries to replace our current departments?

Third, even if your assemblyman, his party, and its leaders, aren’t the biggest, would they be big enough to be worth including in a coalition government? And if so, under what terms? Will it be based on your party’s programs and principles? If so, good; if not, what can you do about it? You can pray, I guess.

Why do I say this? Because those under the parliamentary system are saying essentially the same thing.

By way of a blog called Blurry Brain, there’s this article by Sue Cameron in the Financial Times. We’ll flash the relevant text, but let me summarize…


Today in Westminster-style democracies such as Australia and Britain, the people seem to have little say in choosing their leaders. In both countries long- serving prime ministers – Australia’s John Howard and the UK’s Tony Blair – are intent on staying in office and trying to line up their successors behind closed doors. Both stand accused of striking secret deals to try to hand over power to their finance ministers – Peter Costello, treasurer, and Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer, respectively.

… in a democracy, no one has a ‘right’ to office beyond that conferred by the people. In Australia and Britain, however, the people are not being consulted. Instead, the backroom dealing over the leadership of two nations looks more like Mafiosi choosing a new godfather than the mature exercise of democracy.

Contrast this with America, where the president is directly elected and may serve no more than two four year terms…

Or take Russia, where presidents must step down after two consecutive terms. Vladimir Putin, not regarded as a friend of democracy, is expected to abide by the rule.


Cameron basically argues that long-serving prime ministers are maneuvering behind the scenes, to select their successors as party leaders, and thus, as the next prime minister. How they do this is basically off-limits to the public, and known only within parliament and the party.

It’s smooth, publicity-free, and isn’t necessarily obvious to the voting public.

The presidential and bicameral system, as we examined last week, is built on the premise that government is too important to leave in the hands of the politicians. To complain of gridlock is to overlook the importance of checks and balances in government.

But I’d like to point out another difference we often don’t appreciate.  Restricting government ministries to members of parliament, ignores the healthy opportunity it gives for non-politicians to participate in government.

Let’s take some non-politicians currently in the Cabinet. Under the proposed changes, until 2010 they’d be safe: they’d automatically become members of parliament, with twice the salary and their own pork barrel. So they’d actually be in a good position to become politicians if they wanted to.

But come 2010 and the start of real parliamentary government, every minister would have to come from parliament. So-

Goodbye Mr. Domingo Panganiban at Agriculture.

Goodbye Mr. Raphael Lotilla at Energy.

Goodbye, Mr. Francisco Duque, III at Health.

Goodbye, Esperanza Cabral at DSWD.

Goodbye, Avelino Cruz, Jr. at the DND.

Goodbye, Arthur Yap at the PMS.

Goodbye, Romulo Neri at NEDA.


And hello, Nani! I mean, hello Nani, and other partymates in Lakas-CMD, from whom, for example, a government would be formed. Today, the House of Representatives is composed of 212 district representatives.

To form a government under the parliamentary system requires a simple majority, or 107 seats.

At 79 seats, Lakas-CMD is the closest. The other parties,

NPC with 40 seats,

or Kampi with 26 seats,

or, prior to its being divided, the LP with 34 seats, could make possible a government.

Lakas-CMD plus Kampi, for example, would have 105 seats, two short of a majority.

Lakas plus the NPC or an undivided LP equals a government.

All the other representatives, roughly 53 belonging to all the splinter parties and party-list, even if they united with one of the other big parties, could never form a government.

As in impeachment, so it is in parliamentary government-making. It’s a numbers game.

So based on the above, presuming the existing parties continue to exist, it’s these party heads that have the best shot at becoming prime minister:


The head of Lakas-CMD.

The head of Kampi.

I’d have added the heads of either-

The NPC, but what head?

Or of the LP, but which head?

But wait- there’s more. Remember the party list? Wouldn’t that affect the political math?

It would –and will, perhaps more than most people think. And we’ll tackle that when the Explainer returns.




Garbitsch: “Corona veniat electus.” Victory shall come to the worthy. Today, democracy, liberty, and equality are words to fool the people. No nation can progress with such ideas. They stand in the way of action. Therefore, we frankly abolish them. In the future, each man will serve the interest of the State with absolute obedience. Let him who refuses beware!

Welcome back. That was a scene from “The Great Dictator,” Charlie Chaplin’s satire on strong party government in Germany.

The proposals for unicameral parliamentary government sets aside 70% of parliament’s seats for assemblymen elected by district. They win or lose by the First Past The Post or winner-take-all system. But an additional 30% of parliament’s seats will also go to party list representatives. This actually increases party-list representation in a future parliament when compared to today’s 20% of House seats reserved for the party-list.


Dr. Jose Abueva has long lamented what he considers the meaningless nature of political parties today. He believes they are not motivated by principle, but instead, are merely gangs of opportunists. Worse, they’re undisciplined gangs. So how can we establish parties in which the members not only believe in something, but are willing to stand for what the party believes in?

The first means is to make parties the lynchpin of government. That is, only a party can form a government. That’s the essence of the parliamentary system, after all.

He has twelve other party-building proposals, adopted by the 

President’s Consultative Commission and endorsed by the proponents of the “people’s initiative,” on whose website the Abueva twelve-step program’s spelled out.

Let’s look at some of his proposals.

 “Article XI. Constitutional Commissions. The Commission on Elections. Section (4). Accredit, after sufficient publication, political parties, organizations, or coalitions which, in addition to other requirements, must present their platform or program of government and assume party responsibilities and accountability in governance….”

Make the parties swear to behave like parties and have pieces of paper to prove it.

Abueva also proposes,

 “Section 12. Any elective official who leaves his party before the end of the term shall forfeit his seat.”

That if you feel rebellious, you had better leave parliament –so you can be replaced by your former political party.

And then Abueva presents something that I admit, I find hard to understand, in light of the way parliamentary math works.

 “Section 9. Parliament shall, by law, (1) promote the development of a party system in which various interests and sectors in society shall be represented, including women, labor, the poor, peasants, indigenous peoples, persons with disability, and the youth; (2) encourage the development of two major political parties to ensure that a majority can assume responsibility and accountability in governance and (3) provide financial assistance to the political parties on the basis of their share of the votes cast for the political parties in the previous Parliamentary elections”

What does this big block of text mean?

It means, first of all, that parties should be inclusive, but as the second part reveals, it means that while parties should pay attention to women, the poor, labor, peasants, retired professors, etc., everyone’s interests will have to be accommodated in one of only two parties.

See, a two party-system will be encouraged, and that means our current multiparty-system would be on the way out. Again, if parliament’s a numbers game, better only two teams than many teams.

And the third? Help parties help themselves by using our taxes to subsidize parties –but based on how they did in the last elections. This means, if you did well, you’ll get money. If you did badly, you won’t get money. How do you measure doing well? The number of representatives you elected. So this means, taxes for Lakas-CMD, the NPC, and maybe for the LP. At least the lion’s share, anyway.

There’s more. Abeva proposes,

 “Section 11. The two dominant political parties shall be represented in the voters’ registration boards, boards of election inspectors, boards of canvassers, and similar bodies. Other political parties shall be entitled to appoint poll watchers in accordance with law.”

So you get taxes for doing well, and the two top dogs –and only the two major parties- get to appoint people to supervise voter registration, the counting, and so forth. Everyone else can watch, but watching, as we know, is different from actually sitting in bodies that do the counting and verification of qualified voters.

Now if the odds are so heavily stacked in favor of the big parties, why even bother with party-list representation? Well, the two-party system won’t happen overnight. So there will be a window of democratic space for a time, where the little baby parties can elect one or two party list representatives to do what they do now: make noise but essentially remain irrelevant to the day-to-day business of the House or our future parliament.

Dr. Abueva, too, recommends that Parliament finds a way to enable absentee voters abroad and those with dual citizenship to vote for members of Parliament, which is fantastic. You need party list to do that, since everyone else is bound by territorial districts.

But as for the rest of the thirty percent seat reservation for party lists. How will they be chosen? Abueva presents two options.

 Proportional representation of the political parties, is the first. This works by establishing a formula, ahead of elections, that will decide how the seats will be divided ,according to the percentage of the votes the various parties obtain. This is actually how many parliamentary systems in Europe operate.

Currently, the House has 212 seats, each representing a district. Let’s assume that won’t change, unless proposals such as dividing Cebu province into three new provinces prospers.

Now add 30%, which is the seats reserved for party list: that’s 42.4 or let’s round up to 25 seats. The 25 seats would be divided according to the formula, whatever it is: 1 seat for every 2% of votes cast, that your party gets? Maybe.

Whichever way the formula is decided, it’s actually what the 1987 Constitution intended for the present party-list system. For three terms after the ratification of the Constitution, seats were reserved for sectoral representatives appointed by the President. But after that, it was supposed to be a free-for-all, in which parties that did well, got more seats. But Congress seems to have gotten confused, so that every party that gets 2% gets a seat, based on which sector the party represents, which means that each party list party never gets more than one or two seats at most, which makes them ineffective parties in the House.

But in contrast to the clear, and praiseworthy proposal of Dr. Abueva, he has another option for dividing up the party-list seats.

He says the divvying-up can be based on the voting strength of the political parties in the previous parliamentary election. Huh?

This option is a reserve option if parliament came into effect without an election. Since you have 25 seats for the party list, how would you divide them without an election? Simple: according to how the party lists did in the previous election. That means, for the parties that now have representation in the House, they can divide those 25 seats among themselves, according to how they did in 2004. A win-win solution, similar to the offer being made to senators. Everyone in Congress now, would continue to sit in parliament.

As Abueva explains it,

“this will give the political parties a great incentive to be united and disciplined, to put up good candidates, and offer a good program of government.”


The future parliament’s designed to help the political parties. And he’s right, as we saw when we tried doing the parliamentary math. A Volkswagen party makes no sense in the parliamentary system. So, if you want to count, vote for candidates who belong to big parties, and make sure the parties stay big.

Now, how, in practical terms, our elections under a parliamentary system would operate, next. 




They say the presidential system works best when there are two parties, because it means a clear winner. In Indonesia, they permit many parties, but they have run-off elections to make sure only one winner gets fifty percent or more. We haven’t had a president with fifty percent of the vote since 1969. Blame it on the multiparty system? They say, after all, it’s suited for parliamentary government.

But the parliamentary government proposed is a two party system. That’s more presidential than parliamentary, isn’t it?

We often hear there are really only two parties in the Philippines: the party in power, and the party trying to get in power. If the rules make for stronger parties, who will benefit from these rules? Parties currently in power, or powers that have yet to be born?

All I can say is, remember the old saying. Whoever has the gold, makes the rules. And the proposed new rules present a golden opportunity.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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