CHAMPIONS in the Philippines of the parliamentary form of government say it is desirable for its inherent superiority over the presidential system; they insist that democracy thrives better under parliamentary rule.

A contrary view, however, calls attention to flaws in the empirical basis used by pro-parliamentarians to back up their claims. It also scolds those opposing moves to shift to a parliamentary system, for failing to challenge — “head on” — those claims being made by advocates, and focusing instead on arguing about what they perceive to be the ill timing and motives of such proposals.

Prof. Crisline Torres, of the University of the Philippines political science faculty, wrote about the presidential-parliamentary debate in a paper published in 2003. Her study recently caught the attention of analyst, Solita Monsod, who said the young political scientist was putting her older colleagues in the University “to a great deal of embarrassment,” by pointing out their apparent disregard of important literature that affect the pro-parliamentary position in the Philippines.

“The task,” says Torres of her essay, “is crucial in addressing the one-sidedness of the presidential-parliamentary debate in the Philippines.” Torres says the claim of advocates — that the parliamentary system is superior to the presidential system — appears to be based on empirical evidence that is “seriously flawed.”

As charter-change advocates bring their case up to the Supreme Court, and Congress gets on with its own deliberations on the parliamentary shift, a reading of Torres’s paper makes the debate more interesting.

Torres refers to pro-parliamentarians who say that democracies with a presidential system of government are more prone to regime breakdowns than those under a parliamentary regime and, thus, parliamentarism is more desirable for democracy to endure. (Among several advocates, it is Florencio Abad, former education chief, who has offered the “most sophisticated” version of such position in the country, according to Torres. In her essay, she refers largely to Abad’s positions.)

Such claim about the superiority of the parliamentary form, writes Torres, has remained unchallenged because of “the one-sided appropriation of the comparative insights” to the local debate: studies that are critical of the parliamentary form are ignored.

Moreover, Torres notes, those opposing the shift have failed to confront the theoretical superiority of the parliamentary form, choosing to “confine” themselves to arguing that the shift will be divisive.

Executive-legislative gridlock

Abad points to problems in the presidential system — which he says are “inherent” in it — brought about, in turn, by its basic institutional features of separate elections and fixed terms.

For one, observes Abad, the presidential system is prone to problems of executive-legislative gridlock. Because the executive and legislative branches, in a presidential system, are chosen in separate direct elections, both can claim a direct mandate to represent the people. Such “dual democratic legitimacy” may make it difficult for the two branches to “cooperate.” Abad puts forth as evidence, “the endless political squabbling among legislators and between government and Congress on almost any major policy issue that comes for deliberation.”

Abad says this problem of gridlock does not affect parliamentary systems: The legislature is the only institution that is directly elected, and from which the executive emanates; thus there is no dual democratic legitimacy conflict.

‘Rigidity’ of presidentialism in times of crisis

Advocates of the parliamentary system, such as Abad, also score presidential democracies for being “rigid,” and unable to respond to unexpected events. One of these “rigidities” is the allocation of fixed electoral terms.

Thus, when the chief executive is, say, tainted with scandals or is deemed incompetent, the country will have to wait until the term is over for them to be replaced. The term for someone who is performing well can’t be extended either. The latter, though, says Abad, is less of a problem than shortening the term of one who is incompetent. And since there are no mechanisms to resolve an impasse, it will likely lead, Abad says, to what he calls a “paralyzing stalemate.”

In contrast, says Abad, a prime minister who is discredited may be easily removed from office through a vote of no-confidence by parliament. A prime minister who is in conflict with parliament may, alternatively, also dissolve it and call for new elections.

Such institutional mechanism therefore prevents a crisis-of-government, a matter that is more likely to occur in a presidential system.

Using these two points, Abad and other pro-parliamentarians maintain that breakdowns of democratic systems are more likely under the presidential form.

Empirical proof

Torres discusses the empirical basis for the claim by advocates that democracy thrives better under the parliamentary system. Among the literature most often quoted by advocates is the 1993 work of Alfred Stepan and Cindy Skach, which aimed to present evidence that democratic consolidation is more strongly correlated to parliamentarism, than presidentialism.

Stepan and Skach studied 53 countries that were democratic for at least one year between 1973 and 1989. They excluded from the sample countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development or OECD, to ensure, the authors then said, that the variable of economic development will not interfere with the results.

What did Stepan and Skach find?

  • Only five of the 25 presidential democracies (or 20 percent) survived to be democratic for 10 consecutive years in the 1973-89 period. On the other hand, 17 of the 28 parliamentary regimes (61 percent) were democratic for a 10-year-span in the same period. Stepan and Skach’s conclusion: Parliamentary democracies had a survival rate that is three times higher than that of presidential democracies.
  • Of the 28 pure parliamentary democracies, only five experienced a military coup while under democratic rule, while 10 of the 25 presidential democracies did. Stepan and Skach concluded: Presidential democracies were more than twice as likely to experience a military coup.
  • They compared the 93 countries that became independent between 1945 and 1979 — no matter what system they chose upon independence — and checked whether they evolved into democracies or continued to be. Stepan and Skach’s finding: not one of the 52 nonparliamentary evolved into continuous democracies.

Using their findings, Stepan and Skach then concluded that parliamentarism “is a more robust and enduring constitutional framework” than presidentialism.

‘Serious flaws’

Torres writes of the evidence: “Compelling as they may seem, the empirical evidence offered by Stepan and Skach has not remained unchallenged in the comparative literature.”

Torres then describes the contrary evidence that has been found by other scholars. These studies, says Torres, point to several “serious methodological flaws” in Stepan and Skach’s work, which has been picked up by local advocates. Those flaws illustrate that the study may have been, to begin with, biased for the parliamentary system.

1.The selection of successful parliamentary democracies is biased for microstates. Ten of the 15 examples of parliamentary democracies have a population that is less than 1 million, with four of them having less than 100,000. These sample states, the critics quoted by Torres say, represent a “highly dubious comparative significance” since there are no presidential democracies among microstates. Population size, these scholars say, becomes a significant factor in ensuring democracy: Smaller states probably have more homogenous populations, thereby reducing their risk of conflict.

2.The selection of successful parliamentary democracies is biased for former British colonies (14 out of 15). Critics said Stepan and Skach underestimated the impact of British colonial rule as a factor in promoting democracy.

3.The selection is biased towards those with two-party systems. Critics said it may be the two-party system that helped ensure democracy, not the matter of whether it was parliamentary or presidential.

4.The election is biased towards a specific time frame, having focused on the period, 1980 to 1989. By focusing on that period, the critics said, Stepan and Skach were able to highlight the superior performance of parliamentary democracies. But, they said, parliamentary democracies also broke down in other time periods, such as Italy, Portugal, Spain, and three Baltic states in the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, if the study’s time frame is extended to between 1977 and 1995, then there would be found some eight instances of democratic breakdowns among parliamentary democracies.

5.The selection of successful parliamentary democracies was biased against Latin America, and in favor of Africa. Stepan and Skach, note the critics quoted by Torres, have ignored Latin American countries that became independent prior to 1945. Since Latin America was overwhelmingly presidential, Stepan ad Skach were left with African states, which were then used to illustrate the failure of the presidential system. But, say those critics, those African states were “extremely challenged to evolve into or survive as democracies under any constitution.”)

Download Torres’s paper, “Democratic survivability and the parliamentary critique of the presidential form of government.” And this is Florencio Abad’s essay, “Should the Philippines turn parliamentary?”

5 Responses to Readings on democracy and the parliamentary vs. presidential debate



September 4th, 2006 at 9:18 pm

We should also read:

Asian Survey
May/June 2003, Vol. 43, No. 3, Pages 461-484

Constitutional Debates in the Philippines: From Presidentialism to Parliamentarianism?

by Jürgen Rüland


The ouster of President Joseph Estrada initiated a new constitutional debate in the Philippines. In view of the fixed term of office, which allows for removal of a malperforming president only by way of an impeachment, political analysts are demanding a shift from the existing presidential to a parliamentary system of government. This article argues that such a shift does not necessarily solve the problems blamed on the 1987 Constitution, such as the rigidities of the presidential term, executive-legislative gridlock, presidential concentration of power, political instability, a weak party system, populism, and patronage. It proposes incremental reforms by amending the 1987 Constitution where needed, without scrapping the presidential system of government.


Alecks Pabico

September 4th, 2006 at 9:34 pm

Thanks for the suggestion, monk_x. Unfortunately, Rüland’s essay is only available as a pay-per-download pdf file.



September 4th, 2006 at 10:15 pm

Sorry about that Alecks. I just pulled a pdf copy off the net a couple of years ago. Now I can’t find my copy. Still trying.



September 4th, 2006 at 11:01 pm

..or we can read this

Parliament vs President – A Vote that Counts
By Michael O’Shea
August 12, 2006

In September 2006, Maldivians may be given an opportunity to choose between a parliamentary or presidential system of government. The existing presidency is a motley and disreputable regime, and a ballot in favour of a new parliamentary system would be a direct rejection of President Maumoon Gayyoom. Many voters must be relishing the chance to politely dump the old dictator, but a decision for parliamentary government, which includes proper representation for the majority of Maldivians who live outside the capital, will be a very positive and historically significant result.

The decision to put the issue to the people was made by the special constitutional assembly in Male’ in June 2006, though the wording of the question remains undecided and the dictator and his ministers will do all they can to disrupt the process. At every opportunity, and in defiance of the constitution, Gayyoom has interfered with the special constitutional assembly (also known as the Special Majlis) and he will do what he can to control or delay the September vote.

The dictator and his apologists are openly afraid to face a free public vote on this issue. The case for change is strong. The presidency in Maldives has become a military dictatorship by Gayyoom and the National Security Service (NSS), which controls the police and army of Maldives. Most of the present parliament, known as the People’s Majlis, has been selected and bribed by the President and the minority opposition members are hampered by a lack of freedom of speech laws. They are open to threats, arrest and torture by the dictator’s NSS, who also allow gangs to attack opposition members’ family and houses.

An advantage of the parliamentary system, with free discussion in the chamber, is the extra scrutiny of government business and finance. Corruption will be more difficult to hide, and open to police prosecution, when it can be discussed in the majlis chamber without fear of charges of slander. Slander laws should not apply to the majlis meetings – allegations made without evidence can be condemned by the majlis, and members forced to apologise if they cannot provide evidence, or their charges are shown to be false.

A majlis that controls the budget will be able to ensure important government construction work such as harbours are completed on time. This failure of the public works program afflicts many islands in Maldives, and led to a horrific example of criminal misuse of presidential powers on Fares-Maathodaa in January this year when the NSS overran the island, beating and abusing people. In a parliamentary system, majlis members will have to satisfy the expectations of the islanders who elect them, or they will lose office.

Under presidential dictatorship, the vast majority of people in Maldives have no say in how their government is run. Their administrators, island and atoll chiefs, judges, and often their majlis representatives, are appointed by the dictator’s regime in Male’. All government offices are in the capital, and travel between islands and the capital remains difficult and uncomfortable, and Male’ itself is too crowded and expensive. The health and education services in the atolls are suffering from financial corruption and lack of security for staff.

Gayyoom and his cronies don’t have the answers for the economies of the islands. Their policies have led to mass unemployment. Orders from stupid Male’ clan bosses will not solve problems in the atolls. These men and women are blinded by greed, jealousy and bigoted ignorance. Maldivians in the islands need to be able to influence decisions made in the capital, and a parliamentary system can provide this.

Gayyoom’s supporters are saying ‘Maldives needs a strong leader’, and it is part of the country’s tradition to be ruled that way. However, Maldives already has ‘a strong leader’, and his government is a corrupt administrative mess with a record of failed policies in crucial economic areas like decentralization of government departments, fishing industry investment, inter-island communication, and the provision of basic health and further education needs.

Maldivian history shows that the people suffer most when a ruler’s power is absolute. Abdul Majeed, Hassan Fareed, Mohamed Ameen, Ibrahim Nasir and Maumoon Gayyoom have all scarred the population with their violent excesses, and left most Maldivians impoverished. Europe has recent traditions of dictatorship and abusive regimes, but ‘strong leaders’ are no longer in fashion there. The economy and civil life of Europe have never been healthier.

The parliamentary (majlis) system has much to offer Maldives. It has been a source of reform in the country since the early 1930s and the first constitution. In the 1950s, the majlis was a safety net rescuing the country from the anarchy and social disintegration of Mohamed Ameen’s ‘strong man’ rule.

In modern Maldives, a fairly elected majlis should provide the talent needed to oversee the country’s main departments – health, education, construction, transport and security. Gayyoom’s ineptitude, and his habit of selecting gormless and craven ministers, exposes the presidential system at its vulnerable core – the power and importance of the president. When the president fails, the system is crippled, but when a parliamentary prime minister fails, that person can be quickly replaced by the party or cabinet.

The present majlis could be modified quickly into a parliament. The president’s selected members’ seats may be transferred to new Male’ electorates. The capital has about one third of the voting population and at present only elects two members. Within the atolls, areas with larger populations would have more majlis members, low population areas would have less. Total member numbers could remain the same.

In the chamber itself, seating would have to be redesigned to allow the government and opposition members to face each other in debate. The existing hall emphasizes the power of the president, who like Buddha in very early statues and paintings, is represented by an empty chair at the focal point of the room. The president’s aura is personified by the speaker, who sits next to the empty seat, and rules over the deliberations in the interests of the dictator.

Under a parliamentary system, the head of the dominant party in the majlis will be the chief minister and leader of the country. His power rests in the hands of the majority of the elected majlis members. The police and army are under the power of the minister and cabinet. These cabinet ministers may include members of several parties, and they are chosen from among elected majlis members in negotiations by the Prime Minister and the majority of the majlis. The non-elected chiefs of the police and army are expected to be professional, non-political administrators of law enforcement and legal government policy. The NSS chiefs will require the confidence of the majlis if they want to keep their jobs. Under a parliamentary system, the most powerful people in the country will be either elected or directly answerable to those elected by the voters. Non-elected officials in the administration will be under majlis control.

The head of state could be the Queen of the United Kingdom (a cheap but humiliating option), or a ceremonial Maldivian who has the confidence of the Prime Minister and cabinet. Maldivians will save considerable public expense if the president’s office is abolished; the money could be used to finance the necessary expansion of majlis administration, and relieve pressure on health and education budgets.

Maldivians may also consider abandoning the concept of a human head of state altogether and leave the matter in the hands of God, thus requiring no earthly palace, bodyguards, private resorts, yachts, jets, and first-class travel expenses. Ceremonial duties could become the audited realm of the Prime Minister and his/her cabinet.


Manuel L. Quezon III: The Daily Dose » Blog Archive » Abolish councilor positions

September 5th, 2006 at 1:55 pm

[…] See also Inside PCIJ for further readings on presidential vs. parliamentary system debates. […]

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