Experts mull PH federalism shift, improving electoral system

MANILA, Philippines – Experts and government officials mulled possible changes to the country’s electoral system in light of plans to shift towards a federal system during a forum Thursday, July 14.

Hosted by the Australian Aid program and The Asia Foundation, academics weighed the pros and cons of adopting a federal form of government, as well as better representation in Congress through an improved party-list system.

Support for federalism has been gaining ground ever since President Rodrigo Duterte advocated for the shift during his presidential campaign. Duterte claimed that changing the government system would veer the focus away from “imperial” Manila and allow regions to achieve progress by themselves.

Under a federal form of government, geographical regions will be converted into states. Each state will be given the power to administer their own laws, such as on taxation and infrastructure.

On the other hand, the national government will be left to handle issues on the national scale, like defense and foreign affairs. (READ: Will federalism address PH woes? Pros and cons of making the shift)

Should the new administration pursue the shift to federalism, members of the Constitutional Convention (Con-Con) would have to be elected by early 2017 in order to submit an output by the next national elections on 2019, according to Senator Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III.

Pimentel also raised the issue of abolishing the provincial government unit once under federalism. This proposal, however, may prompt automatic opposition all over the country, he said.

Critics of federalism, however, argue that the pervasiveness of political dynasties in the country will undermine its objectives. During the campaigns, Senator Grace Poe said a federal government would engrain political dynasties and even create confusion with official responsibilities. 

In his presentation, Pimentel countered that the new system could bring dynasties in clash with other dynasties. “Hence, there will be national checks going on.”

The Con-Con will also be a chance for the government to revisit the concept of party-lists, he added.

‘Unique’ party-list system

Experts also discussed how to improve the Philippine party-list system, which they dubbed as unique given its focus towards the marginalized, the absence of a threshold, and the implementation of a 3-seat cap.

The current system limits the number of representatives per party-list to only 3, regardless of the votes they gained. In contrast, other countries distribute house seats based on their vote shares.

Former Bayan Muna Representative Neri Colmenares has proposed to remove the 3-seat cap to ensure that the seats in Congress genuinely represent the votes of the people. (READ: PH party list: Making it more representative)

More than the people’s participation during elections, we have to enhance what the people will do after elections, Colmenares stressed.

Dean Julio Teehankee of the De La Salle University College of Liberal Arts highlighted the issue of party-switching, wherein legislators would immediately transfer to the ruling party after the elections.

“From 1987 to 2010, 60.05% of all party-switchers moved to the ruling party. If you don’t shift to the majority, there will be no working majority in the house to pass bills,” said Teehankee.

To strengthen the party-list, at least in the Senate, Professor Nico Ravanilla of the University of California-San Diego suggested to establish a closed-list proportional representation (PR) system where voters vote for the party-list as a whole.

In a closed-list PR system, candidates can avoid getting voted for mere personalities and instead stand by the beliefs of the party-list they belong to.

Discussions in the forum will be consolidated and released to the public for wider dissemination of the suggested reforms.

“We need to get together and tinker with all proposals and consider new ones, to take stock of the best practices around the world and communicate the same to our stakeholders,” said Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chairman Andres Bautista during his remarks at the start of the forum. – Rappler.com

Arra Francia is a Rappler intern

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