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.

Spain: not a federation, but not strictly unitary – video

VanDeGraph of youtube recently put up an excellent video explaining Spain’s autonomous regions.

He does a very good job of explaining the crucial distinctions between between federal and unitary states[1], and why Spain, despite its very high degree of decentralization, is not (strictly speaking) federal – and, by implication, why some countries which do not actually call themselves federal probably are (e.g. South Africa).


[1] I do, however, disagree with VanDeGraph’s distinction between federations and confederations as hinging on the right to secede, or that federalism necessarily excludes this right.

Common flop party

What happened to the Aam Adadmi (Common Man) Party, which was such a media sensation following its electoral breakthrough in Delhi last year?

It won 4 seats in the Lok Sabha polls; that’s 0.74%. It did win almost a third of the vote in Dehli, and came in second in every constituency. In a plurality system that doesn’t cut it.*

All of its seats came in Punjab, where it tied for the lead in seats with 4 of the state’s 13. It was third there in votes (24.4%), behind Congress (33.1%, and yes, Congress is still the plurality party in a few states!) and the Shiromani Akali Dal (26.3%). The SAD is the incumbent government at the state level, and is the other party that won 4 seats; it is part of the BJP-led NDA.**

The AAP and its leader Arvind Kejriwal made a massive miscalculation that it would be rewarded for resigning after failing to secure assembly support on its central campaign plank (an anti-corruption body), rather than attempt to build a record of governance on what it could accomplish as a minority administration in Delhi. It decided to go for “national party” status, and ran over 400 candidates (more, I believe, than any other party). The outsider stuff will carry one only so far.

Despite my “flop” remark above, the party did win a higher share of the vote in Delhi than it had in the assembly poll (29.5%, which put it second to the BJP’s 33.1%). New elections in Delhi are likely some time later this year. The AAP is not seeking my advice, but if it was, I’d say focus on the 8 districts won by Congress last December and a few of their own strongest constituencies, because likely they will be playing for minimizing a BJP win, rather than an immediate new shot at the power they had and gave up rather too easily.

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* The BJP won all 7 Lok Sabha seats with 46.4% of the vote. The Congress managed 15.1%, which is quite a collapse even from its bad result in the assembly poll in December, when it was a close third place, on 24.5%.

** The BJP won 2 seats on just 8.7% of the statewide vote, but this is again a case of stand-down arrangements between the BJP and a stronger local ally.

Bihar and Indian electoral alliances

Continuing the theme of why I do not think the big BJP win means a fundamental change in how India is governed, let’s look to the case of Nitish Kumar, leader of the Janata Dal (United) party of the state of Bihar. He has now resigned as Chief Minister of the state, and there is speculation about whether the BJP will attempt to form a government there. It would probably fail, but then that would set up early elections in the state that the BJP would be well positioned to win.

Kumar’s party is in disarray–thereby not living at all up to its (name)–following its disastrous result in the polling for the state’s Lok Sabha delegation. The JD(U) won only two of the state’s 40 LS seats. The BJP won 22.

In votes, the JD(U) sank to third place, on only 15.8%, although the BJP’s majority in the new Bihar delegation comes on only 29.4% of the votes. Another regional party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) came in second in votes, with 20.1%, yet managed only 4 seats.

What is the significance of this for my thesis of Indian politics not having changed fundamentally? When Kumar became Chief Minister in 2005 and then was returned following the 2010 election, he was suddenly the media darling. Bihar voters supposedly rewarded him for his laser-like focus on development, and various stories suggested not only that he offered a model for a more results-oriented government, but that he was on track to be a serious candidate for Prime Minister of India. This was an idea Kumar himself took seriously even during the run-up to the recent campaign. And now his party will hold 2 seats in the first chamber of the federal parliament.

What changed? Alliances! His victory and reelection as Chief Minister were at the head of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the state. However, reliant as he is on Muslim voters in his state, he broke with the BJP (the central party in the NDA) when it became clear that the BJP would project Narendra Modi as its leader. Competing separately, obviously the JD(U) was no match for the BJP in the current Lok Sabha polls.

Kumar is now “rethinking” his resignation, and one possibility is a new alliance with the RJD and the Indian National Congress.* Had such an alliance been put together before these LS elections, the BJP surely could not have won over half the state’s LS seats, and possibly would not have a majority in the incoming Lok Sabha. For that matter, had Kumar not had the alliance with the BJP in past elections, he probably never would have been Chief Minister, would not have had the 20 seats the JD(U) won in the 2009 Indian general election**, let alone been a alleged PM-in-waiting.

Modi will need to keep this lesson in mind, as some of his alliance partners will not be as keen on some of his projects as are the more Hindi-nationalist and economic-liberalizing elements of his own support base.

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* Based on the 2010 Bihar state assembly results, this combination would have about 48% of the seats (JDU 115, RJD 22, Cong 4). The BJP won 91 (meaning the then-alliance won 206 of the 243 seats, or almost 85% by the two parties’ not competing against one another). Obviously, the potential new JD(U)-led alliance in the assembly would require either the support of parties/independents, or defectors that it may have brought in since the election.

** In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, in addition to the JD(U)’s 20, its pre-poll ally the BJP won 12 seats in the state.

AAP minority government of Delhi resigns

Well, that did not last long. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) tendered his resignation today after his minority government was refused support by both Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party for tabling its signature Jan Lokpal Bill to create an anti-corruption body.

The federal dimension of the Indian system is critical to the story here, as the Congress, which had earlier promised support (at one time even saying it would be “unconditional”) to the AAP, is now claiming that an anti-corruption bill for Dehli can’t be submitted without clearance from the central (Congress-led) government.

The legislators from the Congress and BJP who voted today to prevent him from tabling the Jan Lokpal Bill say they support the proposal, but cannot ignore the fact that it has been vetoed by Delhi’s constitutional head, Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung. The chief minister had firmly rejected the opinion that before it is presented for review in the legislature, the bill must be vetted by the Lieutenant Governor as a representative of the centre.

Of course, the underlying story here is that the BJP expects it might lead the next central government, after elections in April-May this year. The upstart AAP is one of its principal competitors in some parts of the country for voters turning away from the Congress party. If the resignation holds, most likely the assembly would be put in “suspended animation” under rule from the center until new elections would be held. Those elections could be concurrent with the federal election.

For background on December’s Delhi assembly election and formation of the government, see my earlier post.

Canadian Senate being debated in Supreme Court

Via CBC:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has asked the Supreme Court of Canada to advise whether it can proceed unilaterally to impose term limits on senators and create a process for electing them.

The government contends that some such reforms can be imposed by the central government, citing the imposition of a retirement age for senators in 1965. However, the government’s question also considers the question of possible abolition of the senate. Here the question is whether unanimous consent of the provinces would be required, or whether the “750 formula” must be adhered to. The latter means seven provinces, accounting for half the national population.

of favourite sons and distant cousins

Next year South Africa faces a general election.

The absolute certainties are that the ANC will win a (probably reduced) majority in the national assembly and the opposition Democratic Alliance will win a majority in the Western Cape provincial legislature. After that, all bets are off.

Before 1994 South Africa was divided into the four provinces of The Cape, Transvaal, Natal and the Orange Free State. There were also a large number of bantustans. Both the old provinces and the bantustans  were abolished by the 1994 interim constitution and a new system of nine provinces was set up. In the time since the provincial boundaries have become set in stone. The ANC has always controlled all the provincial legislatures except KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. It looks like Gauteng, the province formerly known as Johannesberg, will be in play next year for the first time.

And then the story gets interesting. There is some talk of the DA running their strongest possible candidate, Hellen Zille, their national leader, a former mayor of Cape Town, former World Mayor of the Year,  and the current premier of the Western Cape. If the DA took Gauteng, or even gave the ANC a run for their money there, it would be a political earthquake. The earthquake would be magnified by Zille’s ethnicity. She is a very white former anti-apartheid journo who would be running in a very black province.

Interstate politician transfers are very rare in Australia, although one is being attempted at the next federal election. And Australian and American political observers would become mildly hysterical over the premier of one province running for premier of another province.