Political parties and the electoral system

Posted: April 9, 2010 in Philippine politics, Political institutions

The Philippines has a presidential and multi-party system which the literature claims to be incompatible with each other.  A multi-party system is supposed to be more compatible with parliamentarism while presidential systems are supposed to be more compatible with a two-party system.  In reality, however, the many parties eventually gravitate into two opposing coalitions (the ‘ins’ and the ‘outs’) after presidential elections.

Since 1986, the lines were drawn along opposing presidential family lines, e.g., Marcos vs. Aquino during the late 1980s, Arroyo vs. Estrada from 2001 to 2007; and Arroyo vs. Aquino since 2005.  Since alignment with the President means greater access to patronage resources, the coalition of the ‘ins’ is usually larger than the opposing coalition.

What then would be the incentives or reasons for those in the coalition of the ‘outs’?  For one, personal hostilities would be one cause even if they are not surmountable.  To illustrate, the hostility between the Arroyo family and senatorial candidate Alan Peter Cayetano is reason enough for the latter to stay with the opposition.  Senators with presidential ambitions, such as Senators Mar Roxas and Manuel Villar, may also find it necessary to distance themselves from the President.

Others who cannot be accommodated in the administration’s electoral slate will not hesitate to join the other side.  For example, Senator Loren Legarda was initially aligned with President Arroyo during the 2001-2004 period.  Legarda hoped she will be chosen by Arroyo as the latter’s vice presidential candidate for the 2004 general elections.  When Arroyo chose another politician as her running mate, Legarda joined Arroyo’s rival—Fernando Poe Jr.—as his vice presidential candidate.

The country actually has weak political parties and an undeveloped party system since the main parties are usually built around political personalities rather than around ideologies, political programs and platforms.  Apart from being indistinguishable from each other, the country’s main parties have weak membership bases and come alive only during elections.  Turncoatism or the practice of flitting from one party to the other is not proscribed and is the norm among politicians.

The nature of campaign finance further reflects the limited leverage that party leaders enjoy relative to party members.  Philippine elections are notoriously expensive but the funds that candidates need do not filter through political parties.  Instead, prospective candidates and incumbents alike must secure sufficient funds on their own.  Detailed information about the exact sources of campaign finance is not available because politicians are loath to disclose information despite laws requiring them to do so.

Magno (1989) cited four particularly important sources of campaign finance: large landowners; ethnic Chinese capitalists who use campaign contributions to buy political protection; illegal gambling and smuggling operators; and timber and other natural resource industries that depend on government-issued licenses and permits.

Elite-based political parties are either traditional local notable or clientelistic organizations according to political party typology developed by Gunther and Diamond (2001).  Philippine parties are aptly described as clientelistic parties whose principal function is to coordinate the individual campaigns of party notables for the purpose of securing power at the national and sub-national levels.  New scholarship asserts that clientelistic parties have developed since the martial law period into patrimonialistic parties—instruments of oligarchic elites for preying on the state and its resources through various means—traditional clientelism, non-personalistic forms of patronage, rent-seeking, outright corruption, fraud, coercion, and violence.

In the post-1986 period, the single term limit on presidents had contributed to further weakening of political parties and instability of the party system.  Presidential candidates have been quite casual in forming new parties especially if they fail to obtain the nomination of an existing party (Kasuya 2006; Choi 2001).

Electoral systems are either party-centered or candidate-centered.

When and where politicians’ careers depend on developing personal reputations independent of their party affiliations, the policy process is a means through which one may distinguish oneself from others, particularly when legislating policies that provide divisible goods.  In these jurisdictions, voters chose individual politicians regardless of their party affiliations.  Politicians develop ‘good’ reputations by providing personalized constituency service for home district residents and important political supporters and financiers.  They participate in the policymaking process in order to claim personal credit for divisible policy favors such as tax breaks and preferential credits that could be tailored for particular clients.  Politicians in candidate-centered systems are largely indifferent to the preferences of party leaders and party discipline is very weak if not non-existent.  Thus, political parties are unable to control legislative processes, cannot command members’ loyalties, and cannot prevent the proliferation of party factions.

When and where politicians’ career prospects are tightly controlled by party leaders and assemblies, ordinary politicos will find the policy process an important arena where they can demonstrate party loyalty and collectively claim credit for policies as a party.  In these jurisdictions, voters vote for parties instead of specific politicians since politicians do not have to develop strong individual reputations.  They have less reason to claim credit for divisible policy favors and less reason to oppose reforms that seek to do away with such policies.  Politicians will be more concerned in cultivating good relations with party leaders who decide, among others, the party’s candidates for the next election.

The Philippine electoral system is obviously candidate-centered since politicians do not need the party label to advance their careers or achieve their objectives.  Candidate-centeredness is both the consequence and cause of a mal-developed political party system.  The electoral system is hounded by the failure to modernize (in order to reduce the time gap between the act of voting and the proclamation of winning candidates and consequently reduce the possibility of fraud), and the Commission on Elections’ credibility and capability problems.  There is also a need to enact enabling laws regarding the Constitutional ban on political dynasties[1] and campaign finance regulation.



[1]In my opinion, the Constitutional ban on political dynasties is a half-measure.  Instead of banning dynasties outright, the Constitution enjoins the state to prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.  Leaving the matter to a Congress dominated by members of the same political dynasties ensures that the constitutional provision will remain a dead-letter law.

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