With this piece, I offer a nuanced understanding of the principle and practice of checks and balance in democratic polities. Checks and balances is based on the notion of co-equality of branches of government (three in the case of presidential systems).


President Benigno Aquino III

President Benigno Aquino III

The notion of co-equality of branches of government is more myth than reality. This is most specially true with the Philippine presidential system where the executive branch is, de facto, clearly the most powerful part of government.

The Philippine president is the head of state, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, chief of the public bureaucracy, and the country’s chief architect of foreign policy as well as its premier diplomat.

While the constitution stipulates that the legislature has the power over the public purse, real power is wielded by the branch which actually releases public money for purposes supposedly specified by the approved national budget. And that branch is the executive headed by the president. Often, the release of public money is done through the president’s alter ego–the budget secretary.


Philippine Congress

Philippine Congress


With an edge over the legislature, the executive can leverage the release of money to influence the passage of so-called administration bills, including the budget itself.

In command of the entire public bureaucracy, the executive has a great edge over the legislature in budget preparation. In this sense, legislators can only tinker with the budget bill proposed by the executive. In fact, most if not all legislators are merely interested in the money allocated for their constituencies or their districts as well as what they can pocket.

The judiciary is acknowledged as the weakest, de facto, branch of the government. The Supreme Court is at its apex, a court that is merely reactive rather than pro-active (notwithstanding bouts of judicial activism). The SC cannot do anything, not being a tryer of facts, unless a case is brought to its sala. The judiciary will likewise have to wait for its funds to be released.


Supreme Court (photo from Philstar)

Supreme Court (photo from Philstar)


It is clear that the executive is the most powerful governmental branch.

This runs counter to the thoughts and wishes of the English political philosopher, John Locke, who developed the notion and principles of separation of powers and the corollary checks and balances.

Locke argued that the most powerful governmental branch should be the legislature since the body is most representative of the citizenry. He would not be in favor of unduly empowering the head of state–one person–over all other branches of government as he came from a great struggle of the English people against an absolutist monarch.

Meanwhile, pioneering Filipino political scientist Remigio Agpalo, echoing anthropologists studying Southeast Asia and other pre-modern “big men” societies, argued in the 1960s and early 1970s that the country had a predilection for a so-called “pang-ulo” system akin to an elected monarchy.

Agpalo’s arguments were soon used to buttress the Marcos dictatorship. Among others, they were also used to oppose changes to a parliamentary system for the Philippines.

If we locate the discussion within the Philippine context, one can note that the Philippine president is more powerful than the US president, the latter operating in a federal framework. For instance, the Philippine president is commander in chief of all armed forces. In contrast, state governors are in control of their respective National Guards (Army National Guard and Air National Guard).

The operational challenge, specially in the light of DAP and PDAF controversies, is make co-equality and checks and balance more reality than myth.


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