Philippines: How to elect a better Senate

Benjamin Reilly
Philippines: How to elect a better Senate
The Philippine Senate is a national body that needs to represent the full diversity of society, but this is not encouraged under the system where we elect them

Many countries, including the Philippines, divide their legislature into different chambers or assemblies. As of 2015, somewhat less than half of the world’s national legislatures were comprised of two or more chambers or “houses.”

Under this arrangement, the upper house is often used to represent particular states, regions, or territories. “Bicameral” legislatures (with two houses) are particularly common in federal systems, but they also appear in unitary states such as the Philippines.

The Philippine legislature has not always been bicameral. It was unicameral (with one national assembly) from 1907 to 1916,  bicameral  from 1916 to 1935, then again unicameral during most of the Philippine Commonwealth until elections for a restored Philippine Senate were held in late 1941. 

Following World War II, this bicameral structure remained in place up until the abolition of both houses of Congress by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. In 1978, Marcos decided to reinstate a unicameral legislature (known to its detractors as the “rubber-stamp assembly”) that remained in place until his fall in 1986. From 1987 to present, the system has been bicameral with a Senate and a House of Representatives.

Electing senators: What difference it makes

Often in bicameral systems, the members of the two chambers are elected or selected using different methods. These vary from country to country.

The Philippines is a good example: the current Senate is elected on an at-large basis, with the whole country forming one national constituency or electoral district. The lower house is for the most part elected from single-member congressional districts. Both houses use plurality rule as the electoral system of choice, but they differ greatly in term of the number of seats per district. 

The Senate is a multi-member district plurality system, in which voters are given as many votes as there are members of the Senate being elected. As there are 24 members of the Senate, and half the Senate is elected each time, this means that each voter is given 12 votes. The top 12 vote-getters – as elected from the single nationwide electoral district – win seats in the Senate. 

By contrast, most of the House is elected via a single-member district plurality system, with the voters getting one vote and the candidate with the largest number of votes winning election from the district.

In many countries, the upper house has fewer members than the lower house. The Philippine Senate, with just 24 members, is less than one-tenth the size of the Philippine House.  In addition, Philippine senators are elected for a six-year term as compared to the 3-year term of the members of the House. 

Because they are elected from a single national district, senators can credibly claim to represent the country as a whole. Thus, the Senate is seen as a training ground for national leaders and possibly a springboard for the presidency. The large number of “presidentiables” is often seen as a factor undermining legislative coherence.

A plague on all the parties?

The great disadvantage of a multi-member plurality system is that it leads to substantial competition among members of the same party. For a candidate to the Senate, seeking above all to be among the top 12 in terms of numbers of votes, one’s opponents are not only those belonging to other parties but also those running under the same party banner. 

This is highly detrimental to the goal of building stronger and more cohesive political parties, and it is not surprising that Japan decided to abandon a variant type of multi-member system that generated similar patterns of intra-party competition.

When candidates need to differentiate themselves from members of their own party, this can obviously not be on the basis of a different party platform. Under the old multi-member district system used to elect the Japanese parliament, candidates would commonly differentiate themselves both by promising material benefits (patronage and pork barrel) to their districts and making personalistic appeals (including attendance at weddings and funerals). 

In the current multi-member system of electing members of the Philippine Senate, there is often a premium on family name and celebrity status (hence the significant number of senators who are not only former actors, television personalities, sports stars, etc, but who in some cases continue these professional engagements even while sitting as members of the upper house). 

Attention to issues and policies is by no means absent, but it is on the basis of individual stances rather than party platforms. 

Because Senate candidates are elected from a national district, campaigning revolves more around the “air war” (of television and radio advertisements, as well as appeals via social media) than the “ground war” (of retail campaigning). But it is usually still important to build an organization on the ground, with candidates forging their own individual set of linkages with local political forces throughout the archipelago. By its very nature, the multi-member district plurality electoral system makes electioneering as much an individual activity as a party-based activity. 

The selection of senatorial candidates is commonly not transparent and is accomplished instead in “backrooms,” where much political horse-trading occurs. Slates of senatorial candidates are now commonly referred to as “teams” and assembled with little regard to party affiliation. As they bring together candidates from multiple parties along with party-less independents, explains political scientist Ronald Holmes, “winnability trump[s] party representation.” Candidates expected to be especially popular sometimes become simultaneously members of two rival senatorial slates. 

The many purposes of an upper house

Being based in part on the United States example, the two houses of Philippine Congress have essentially equal powers – with a few exceptions. Some types of measures (including those pertaining to revenue and appropriations, as well as impeachment proceedings and “bills of local application”) must originate in the House; the Senate, on the other hand, is the only body that can concur with treaties and try impeachment cases. 

But in most other countries, the upper house is used to represent particular regions or as a means to represent particular ethnic, linguistic, religious or cultural groups. 

Regional representation is most important in federal systems. In the US, each of the 50 states elects two senators regardless of population. In Australia, each of the 6 states elect 12 senators, while each of the two territories elect 2 senators– again without regard to differences in population across states and territories.

A second chamber may also deliberately contain representatives of civil society. In Malawi, for instance, the constitution provides for 32 of the 80 senators to be chosen by elected senators from a list of candidates nominated by social “interest groups.” In Indonesia, upper house representatives are (at least formally) non-partisan to ensure their separate role from the lower house.

Many upper chambers are seen as a place to review, rather than propose, new legislation. The unelected British House of Lords is occasionally defended on the grounds that it contains individuals, with specific policy expertise, who can check the government legislation drawn up by generalist politicians.

How other countries do it

Because of these variations, many second chambers are either partly elected, indirectly elected, or unelected. Of those that are elected, most jurisdictions have chosen to reflect their different roles by using a different electoral system for their upper house to that which they use for their lower house. 

In Australia, for example, the lower house is elected by a majority-inducing “preferential” system that tallies the second and subsequent preferences of voters in the event that no candidate achieves a majority outright. The upper house, which represents the various states, is elected through a type of proportional representation (PR) that again uses ranked-choice voting. 

This has meant that minority interests that would normally be unable to win election to the lower house still have a chance of gaining election, in the context of state representation, in the upper house.

A move to PR for the Philippine Senate would probably have similar outcomes. It would also likely strengthen the prominence of parties over individual candidates, particularly if it were a closed-list system in which it is the party that chooses and ranks candidates.

Another reform option would be to have the Senate elected by regional districts instead of the one national district. This would be a good choice if the move to replace the current unitary system of government with a federal system gains renewed favor. This would resemble the electoral system used to elect the Philippine Senate between 1916 and 1935, and would shift a senator’s accountability to a more defined and identifiable regional constituency. 

The risk, however, might be a further splintering of Philippine political parties by encouraging the formation of parties that are regional rather than national in orientation. This could potentially bring more attention to regional and parochial interests at the expense of broad-based national interests.

Most importantly, the choice of electoral system should reflect the role that the Senate is expected to play. Upper houses around the world have different roles – as houses of review, of independents, of territorial representation, even of aristocrats. 

The Philippines Senate is explicitly a national body and therefore needs to be able to represent the full diversity of Philippines society, something that arguably is not encouraged under the present multi-member plurality system. – 

Professor Benjamin Reilly is dean of the Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia

Read the other articles in the “Elections: What PH can learn from the world” series:

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