Business World, 9 January 2013


It’s the big elephant in the room. No one wants to talk about it, but the broken political system has been a major constraint to growth in the Philippines. Real political parties don’t exist. Candidates for public office are chosen not by well-established political parties through a rigid process of selection but by polling agencies (the Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia). Winnability becomes the only criterion. Experience, training, and competence of candidates don’t matter.

The party-list system is a big farce. It has complicated the electoral process, while contributing marginally to effective policy making. It has no place in a presidential system of government.

Elected officials are caught in a time-inconsistency syndrome. Once elected, they focus on short-term, high-profile projects that would ensure their reelection. And because of term limits, their time horizon is really short.

This explains the bias for small, highly visible projects (farm-to-market roads, vehicles and ambulances for each towns and barangays) while neglecting investment in power plants, airports and seaports, major highways, and urban transit systems, disaster-mitigating facilities in all regions and major cities, and investment in human capital).

Below is the list of political reforms that I find necessary to move the Philippine economy much faster. How it will be done, I will leave to the present crop of leaders. President Aquino, if he’s really serious of his legacy, is in the best position to implement these reforms. Most require constitutional amendments.

First, remove term limits for all elective positions, except for the presidency and the vice-presidency. The present system of term limit is a joke and wasteful. Experienced and competent leaders are forced to give way to their [often times] inexperienced and less-able spouses, sons or daughters.

So much wisdom, institutional memory, and experience are lost because of the term limit. In the United States, wise, dedicated and experienced legislators may serve for as long as they want, subject to periodic elections. For example, Senator Teddy Kennedy served well for several decades as senator of Massachusetts. There are many other examples.

For local chief executives — governors, city mayors, and town mayors — the absence of term limit may allow them to undertake long-term projects that could change the local economic landscape.

Second, change the tenure of the President to four years, with one reelection. At the same time, electorate should vote for a team: a vote for the President is a vote for the Vice-President. Six years is too long for an incompetent and ineffective president, and too short for a competent and effective one. Having the president and the vice-president come from one political party or alliance will ensure political harmony rather than conflicts during the president’s incumbency. It will also make sure that the vice-president becomes an important member of the President’s team.

Third, elect senators by region, two from each of the 16 administrative regions, for a total of 32 senators. This will democratize representation in the Upper Chamber, as small regions will be well represented. This will be increase significantly the representation for the Visayas and Mindanao. It will reduce the importance of a senator relative to the size of the Senate.

It will also reduce sharply the costs of running for senator. Moreover, it will remove the illusion in the mind of a senator that he is automatically a presidential timber since he’s been elected nationally.

Fourth, the government should provide campaign financing for the top four political parties based on the number of votes garnered by their candidates in the previous election. This will reduce the reliance of candidates on vested interest groups for their campaign funds. The present system where candidates rely on businessmen and other interest groups for their campaign costs has not served society well. It has resulted in tax-giving incentives and favored projects. It has also diminished the President’s power to choose the best-and-the-brightest for his team.

Require a six-month long selection process, through a political convention, to be eligible for public campaign financing. This is to properly choose the men from the boys, the “true” deserving candidates from the pretenders.

Fifth, abolish the “pork barrel” system. Legislators are expected to legislate and investigate, not provide roads, bridges, irrigation canals, cars and ambulances and others for his favored district or province. This will remove the undue advantage of the incumbent, where a senator gets 200 million annually (1.2 billion for a six-year term) and a congressman gets 75 million annually (215 million for a three-year term). Moreover, if one is a favorite of the President or the Secretary of Budget and Management.

Sixth, penalize political turncoatism. An elected official who switch party during his incumbency should vacate the office. He should be replaced by the losing candidate from his party who garnered the highest number of votes in the most recent elections. This is to strengthen the party system and foster party discipline.

Seventh, discontinue the party-list system. It is dysfunctional and has not served the Philippine society well. It has only marginally helped the marginalized members of society. It has become the entry point to public office by rich politicians to public office. It has no place in a presidential system of government. Cause-oriented groups may participate in the electoral process by running in districts where they have a better-than-even chance of winning.

These changes could take place in 2016, when all candidates will be operating under the new rules of political engagement. The president and the vice president will have a four-year term, with the possibility of reelection. Term limits for all other public positions are removed. Senators who will be elected in 2013 will be the exception. They may choose the region they will represent and their term will be extended extend from 2019 to 2020.

Ambitious? Yes. Impossible? No, but only if the President and the leadership of both Houses of Congress would be willing to support these political reforms. Real reforms don’t come easy. They require burden sharing and the highest level of statesmanship.