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Reflections for All Saints’ Day

(Article published in the Nov. 1, 2006 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

Today, 1st of November, when the Roman Catholic world celebrates the Feast of All The Saints by reflecting on the lives of saints, we Filipinos, for some strange reason, instead recall the lives of our dead, though some of whom may not have been sufficiently saintly when alive to merit inclusion in the holy feast.  But still, that brief moment of looking back at the dead, saint or not, nevertheless, provides the living with some directions for the future. 

Today is thus, for us, an appropriate a day as any to try to recall dead history and try to find out why we the living presently have a presidential, instead of a parliamentary, system of government.  Hopefully, such an exercise will tell us which way to take on these trying days that the chief justice calls, in Lambino v. COMELEC, G.R. No. 174153, promulgated on October 25, 2006, “cross-roads of history”. 

Constitutional law expert, Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, S.J., notes in his commentary on the 1987 Constitution, that “during the deliberations of the 1986 Constitutional Commission there was no debate on the choice between a presidential or a parliamentary system.”  It thus seems that the members of the commission, knowing full well that the country was still reeling from the trauma of the Marcos years, simply took it for granted that since the “semi-parliamentary” system of the 1973 constitution, as epitomized in the Batasang Pambansa, was a progeny of the Marcos era, it was per se not good for the country.  Hence, together with the rejection of almost all that was Marcos-tainted, whether in themselves meritorious or not, the reversion to the presidential system under the 1935 constitution seemed the most natural thing to do. 

The members of the constitutional convention of 1934, in contrast, were not that casual in deciding whether the country should go presidential or parliamentary.  However, as in many other instances, the view of the chairman of the committee, swayed the voting in favor of the presidential system.  Delegate Manuel C. Briones, chairman of the Committee on Legislative Power, defending what eventually became Article VI of the 1935 Constitution, said: 

“My theory is not likewise to make one power stronger than another power.  I wish to adhere to the same essence of the presidential system, namely, the theory of the separation of powers –that the powers should be separate, that none of them is superior to the others.  They should work harmoniously and coordinately.  And from the conjunction of coordination, let there come harmonious operation.” 

The first opportunity for the 1934 Convention to make a definitive stand on the issue of presidential versus parliamentary came when it had to vote on the rule that prohibited a member of the legislature from holding any office or employment in the government without forfeiting his seat. Obviously, the parliamentary system of the same persons (i.e. the prime minister and members of the cabinet) both wielding executive power and participating in making laws, would be foreclosed by such a provision. 

         Writes Delegate Jose M. Arguego: 

“…the Convention found itself at the crossroads where it had to decide categorically whether to adhere to the presidential system through the approval of this provision of the first draft of the Constitution, or to make possible the establishment in the country of a parliamentary system of government by approving the Lim-Vinzons amendment to suppress this provision.  The Convention was made to understand that the draft was based on the philosophy of the presidential system, so that by voting to suppress this provision of the Constitution, it would be in effect voting to permit the establishment of a parliamentary system with the consequent union of legislative and executive functions.  The Convention decided to adhere to the presidential system, with its concomitant principles, by voting in favor of the retention of the provision of the draft.” 

That provision eventually became Section 8 of Article VI of the 1935 Constitution and is substantially the same as Section 13 of Article VI of the current constitution. 

So if the 1987 constitution was presidential because the 1935 was presidential because the American constitution is presidential, why did the framers of the American constitution opt for the presidential and not the parliamentary system that was, and still is, in vogue in the place whence the colonies came? 

Based on the study made by an American lawyer-friend of mine, Ned Ord, who kindly did research when I posed the question to him, the answer is, precisely, their disappointing experience with the parliamentary form of government. 

Eleven years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, fifty-five (55) of the most prominent and respected revolutionary and community leaders of the former British Colonies gathered in Philidelphia, Pennsylania.  They met in strict secrecy and over several months debated among themselves the structure and powers of the new national government that was intended to replace the loose structure established under the Articles of Confederation.  This meeting is known as the Constitutional Convention of 1787, or, sometimes the Philadelphia Convention or Federal Convention. 

The thinking that went into those debates is reflected in James Madison’s Notes on the Debates in the Federal Constitution of 1787, which can be found in the web at, and in the series of 85 articles, known as The Federalist Papers,  published in New York City newspapers over the year following the close of the convention in 1787.  These are, in turn, contained in the US Library of Congress at

The primary concern of the delegates was to set up a structure which by its very form would discourage the kinds of corruption and abuse of power which the delegates, and the colonies they represented, witnessed in the British parliamentary system.  One of the delegates, James Wilson, who later became a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, noted that “after the destruction of the King in Great Britain, a more pure and unmixed tyranny sprang up in the parliament than had been exercised by the monarch.”  In fairness, the same evil was seen also in the unicameral congresses of the confederated states in the other side of the Atlantic. (Farber & Sherry, A History of the American Constitution, 2d ed. 2005).

        The response to the concern was a system called “checks and balances” that was supposed to operate among, and even within, the different organs of the state.  The key was to diffuse power, not to concentrate it.  “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” so it is said.

Thus,  Alexander Hamilton warned against concentrating power in the legislature. By doing so, he told his fellow delegates, that if they were to do so, “we shall finally accumulate, in a single body, all the most important prerogatives of sovereignty, and thus entail upon our posterity one of the most execrable forms of government that human infatuation even contrived.” (The Federalist No. 22, Hamilton).

James Madison, too, was wary of a parliament, which by definition is all-powerful.  He claimed:

[I]n a representative republic, where the executive magistracy is carefully limited; both in the extent and the duration of its power; and where the legislative power is exercised by an assembly, which is inspired, by a supposed influence over the people, with an intrepid confidence in its own strength; which is sufficiently numerous to feel all the passions which actuate a multitude, yet not so numerous as to be incapable of pursuing the objects of its passions, by means which reason prescribes; it is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.” (The Federalist, No. 48, Madison).

The need for vigilance in watching the legislature is that, Madison further states, “its constitutional powers being at one more extensive, and less susceptible of precise limits, it can, with the greater facility, mask under complicated and indirect measures, the encroachments which it makes on the co-ordinate departments.  It is not infrequently a question of real nicety in legislative bodies, whether the operation of a particular measure will, or will not, extend beyond the legislative sphere.” (Ibid.)

So, if concentrating governmental power on the legislature, as what a parliamentary system does, is inherently disastrous, why are still President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and future Prime Minister shoo-in Jose De Venecia calling on all the saints in heaven, the dead who signed the interested persons’ initiative petition, and the not-so saintly among the living, to support their call for a parliamentary government? 

Obviously, in this Feast of All The Saints, it is appropriate for all of us, Filipinos, to pray for their heavenly intercession to save us from all political evil. Oremus.