How not to federalise

Since his election in 2015, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has done little that supporters of liberal democracy should admire. His program of extrajudicial killings and contemptuous attitude to the judicial institutions of the Philippines demonstrates that he is in many ways a dangerous figure for the country. However, it’s true that a stopped clock is right twice a day, and one of Duterte’s more positive ideas for the country has been a consistently expressed willingness to change the country’s political system, from the existing system of unitary presidentialism to a semi-presidential federal system.

In keeping with this principle, a group of Senators have presented a specific proposal for a dramatically revised new federal constitution. Having only given it a cursory examination, I responded positively-however, a more careful examination demonstrates several substantial issues with the draft.

The proposal would divide the Philippines into eleven states, with Manila City becoming a federally administered region. Only half of Duterte’s proposal would be implemented, though, as presidentialism is kept-the most substantial change to the structure of the now federal government would be a change to the Senate, which would go from being a twenty-four member body elected using MNTV in one nationwide district for six-year terms (with staggered elections to half of the chamber every three years) to a seventy-five member body elected with states acting as districts, nine senators per state, and three senators elected per state every two years.

In general, the Philippines has not been a positive example of presidentialism. Presidents have regularly been elected in fragmented races (Fidel Ramos was elected in 1992 with 24% of the vote), and the party system for the legislature is if anything more weak and fragmented, with fluid allegiances (best demonstrated by the numbers of President Duterte’s PDP-LABAN party going from two at the election to a comfortable majority afterwards).

The federal aspect of the constitution also leaves something to be desired. Governors are elected directly, with first-past-the-post for four-year terms. Initially, and somewhat unusually, state legislators are elected by local councils. Three are elected for each province, a truly astonishing degree of malapportionment. For example, in Central Visayas State, the province of Siquijor (pop. 96,000) will have the same three seats as Cebu (pop. 4.6 million). Three further members are elected: one for farming, one for fisheries, and one for senior citizens.

Indirect election by local councils becomes variable by state legislatures after the first election. It is left unclear as to whether states are able to amend the composition of their legislatures, or whether local councils are still able to recall members of state legislatures.

Weirdly enough, states can create ‘autonomous regions’ within their own territories, the powers of which are only vaguely defined. States also have exclusive power, strangely enough, over “trade…tourism…weights and measures” as well as “pilgrimages to places outside the Republic”, which, as JD pointed out to me, could allow corrupt state officials to be spirited away from federal police on fairly spurious grounds.

None of this is to say, of course, that the principles of federalism don’t make sense for the Philippines. As a large country with clear political diversity, it makes sense to devolve power from a potentially unrepresentative core. Nonetheless, the proposal put forward by the Senators risks creating equally unrepresentative state-level governments with a somewhat esoteric mix of powers. More work is needed, and presumably the plan will be looked at more carefully through the later process of the reform process.

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Philippines optical-scan ballots

The recent elections in the Philippines were the first to use precinct-level optical-scan ballots. You can watch an interesting video guide for voters (a bit over 2 minutes long).

One thing that jumped out at me is that each voter is allowed only one try; if you spoil a ballot, tough luck. This is unconscionable, especially for the first use of a new ballot format. A voter must be allowed to catch a mistake, destroy the ballot, and obtain a new one (at least once!).

This appears to be exactly the system used now in San Diego County and various other US jurisdictions (except that we’re allowed to spoil a ballot and get a fresh one). Like these jurisdictions, the Philippine ballot also has several offices being elected at once, and some offices require a vote for no more than one candidate and others allow several (up to 12 for Senate!). These multiple offices and different numbers of votes only increase the risk of voter error. All the more reason to allow voters a second chance if they catch a mistake (or if the scanning machine reports an “overvote”); in fact, at least in the US, the machine’s feedback on overvotes has been claimed as one the main advantages of precinct-level scanning.

I also wonder why the Philippines chose this system instead of the electronic machines of the sort that have recently been adopted in Brazil and India.

It would be interesting to compare invalid-ballot rates before and after the change. COMELEC reported for the 2010 Senate a number of “valid ballots counted” that was exactly identical to the number of “voters actually voted.” So 100% of ballots were error-free. (I hope readers can detect the hint of skepticism here.)


Thanks to Eduardo, one of my students, for the tip.

Party-list urgency

The Philippines really needs a more workable arrangement for the party-list component of its House electoral system, which is anything but straightforward.

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) is rushing the resolution of cases pertaining to winning partylist groups in time for the opening of the 15th Congress on Monday next week.

“We see the urgency (of proclaiming all winning party-list groups)… (Manila Bulletin)

The election was on 10 May.

Philippines midterm elections and MNTV ( “bloc vote”)

Midterm congressional and local elections are held today in the Philippines. Opposition candidates are expected to do well–as is often the case with midterm elections in presidential systems.

You have to love the first paragraph of this morning’s LA Times story:

Lured by ladies’ underwear, herring, free insurance and other gifts, millions of voters cast ballots today in a midterm election the opposition hopes will strengthen efforts to impeach President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

I don’t know about you, but I’d vote for the candidate offering the herring.

Most of the seats in the lower house of congress are elected by FPTP. The Senate is elected nationwide by multiple nontransferable vote (MNTV, sometimes miseladingly known as bloc vote). The Philippines is notorious for its weak parties and personalized campaigns. The article refers to one candidate, Manny Pacquiao, a former World Boxing Council super featherweight. He is running on the Peoples Champ Movement, which is offering free insurance policies.

The House Speaker, Jose de Valencia is under investigation for vote-buying, which his lawyer defended as follows in a letter to the National Election Commission:

There is nothing illegal, much less an act of vote-buying, in the distribution of the cards [for insurance] because they are given to party members who are already captive voters.

Despite polls showing opposition strength, don’t count out President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Lakas Christian Muslim Democrats Party, or her allies in Team Unity, just yet.

In addition to most of the legislators being elected on strictly nominal (candidate) votes, a small share of lower house seats is elected by party list, in one of the weirdest list systems ever devised.

Party lists in the Philippines: Segmented representation

Does knowing the names of candidates on the lists jeopardize the very concept of party-list representation? In an argument I have seen nowhere else, Alioden Dalaig, director of the law department of the Philippine Commission on Elections (Comelec) says so. Further, he says:

It is the “policy” of the poll body to keep under wraps names of party-list nominees before the elections.

The Philippines Party-List Law is certainly unusual. Some sources call the Philippines lower-house electoral system “parallel,” but it is not–at least in the usually understood sense of two tiers, one elected by plurality voting and the other employing the principle of proportional representation (with no linkage between the two tiers). A feature of Cory Aquino’s rather hastily assembled 1987 constitution, the electoral law for the lower house of Congress remains mostly plurality in single-seat districts. The party-list component that was added–shall I say grafted?–on to the existing FPTP system is, for reasons noted below, not PR, even for the small number of seats elected from party lists (twenty percent of all the seats in the lower house).

The Law is claimed to be a means of allowing “marginalized and underrepresented sectors, organizations and parties, and who lack well-defined political constituencies” to gain seats if they clear 2% of the national vote. However, it sets a cap of a mere three seats that any of these parties may win (regardless of vote percentage).

Not exactly a mechanism for encouraging party-building or even approximating proportional representation. Rather, it would best be described as segmented representation–on both dimensions. On the interparty dimension, major parties (whether national or regionally concentrated) win seats in the nominal/plurality tier, while very small “parties” win (limited) representation in the party-list tier. On the intraparty dimension, given the weak organization of most Philippine parties, candidates are all important in the single-seat districts. But candidates in the party list tier are to be kept hidden from public view!

The party-list component in the Philippines is indeed an “anomaly in the Charter.”

Early elections in Thailand, state of emergency in the Philippines

Under pressure over the sale of shares in a giant telecoms company, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has dissolved parliament. Early elections will take place on 2 April.

Meanwhile, the people of the Philippines will be under a state of emergency as they mark the twentieth anniversary of the ‘People Power’ revolution that restored democracy. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued the declaration because of an alleged coup plot. Arroyo, accused of irregularities in her reelection in 2004, survived an impeachment attempt last year and an army mutiny in 2003.

The Philippine state of emergency is obviously bad news for democracy, but the Thai dissolution is potentially good news. Thaksin won a masive majority in 2005, with his Thai Rak Thai party holding 75% of the seats (on around 56% of the vote). Elections would have been held again only in 2009. Parliamentary systems, such as Thailand, usually have mechanisms for early elections, but it is rare for them to be invoked so early in the term of a single-party government with such a large majority. But as the Bangkok Post discusses in good detail, the political crisis is deep, with some of the opposition undertaking actions outside the constitutional framework (in part because the large victory by TRT, exaggerated even further by the electoral system1, makes the parliamentary opposition so weak). Resorting to an early election is a good safety valve for seeking a resolution of the crisis within a constitutional framework.2

Whatever the outcome of the election, the dissolution of parliament in Thailand offers a possibility for electoral resolution of the political crisis that is lacking in the Philippines, where Arroyo’s term is constitutionally fixed (unless an impeachment process were to succeed in removing her, and even then there would not be an early election3). Continue reading