by Esther Elizabeth Suson
This 2016, both the Philippines and the United States will be holding presidential elections. Although both nations have a democratic system of government, which is one of the American legacies in the Philippines, there are interesting differences between them.
It is fascinating to see how the Philippine election style has moved away from the American one, and how the styles are similar.
American Administration Over the Philippines
The relationship of the Philippines with the United States is complex, to say the least. They were a way to get out from under the Spanish Administration, at least for the writers of the Philippine Proclamation of Independence.
Not only was the “protection of the mighty and humanitarian nation, North America” claimed as the writers declared the Philippine Islands free from Spanish rule, but the Philippine flag reflects our relationship: “the colors blue, red and white, commemorate those of the flag of the United States of North America.”
Several scholars downplay the influence of the Americans in the Philippines – indeed, that juicy detail about the flag-colors rarely makes it to the history books. But the American legacy is quite evident.
The public-school system was first spread by them, as was the use of the English language, by the Thomasites, who do make it into the history books. This is the root of the reason that since the 1987 Constitution, the Philippines has had both Filipino and English as its official languages.
Most obviously, however, might be that the Philippine system of government is very close to the American one. Starting with the 1935 Commonwealth Constitution, the Philippines has mainly followed a democratic system.
This naturally excludes the First Republic (European-based government system), nine years (1972-1982) under martial law and eight years (1978-1986) with a presidential-parliamentary system. At present, the Philippines is quite safely a presidential democratic system.
How We Are the Same
At the most basic level, the Philippines reflects the United States’ system of government in that it has a presidential system of government, not a presidential-parliamentary one like South Korea, for example. Additionally, the Philippines has three branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary branches.
Elections and voter rights tend to be considered the backbone of any democracy. The Philippine and American democracies are similar in that elections form a large part of the system of government. After the Marcos Administration, however, it was deemed better to have one six-year term than two four-year terms, which we had before that. Maybe it was so that no one would get the taste of sitting in Malacañang Palace and want to extend.
But then, that already falls into how the elections are different.
System of Government
First, the United States has a federal system of government, while the Philippines’ is national. The Local Government Code of 1991 has spread the power out somewhat, but the general sense is still that the Philippines is governed nationally.
Although the federal system would make more sense, given that the Philippines is an archipelago, for the United States government it was easier, from an administrative viewpoint, to treat the Philippines as a single entity.
What does this mean for Philippine elections? Well, firstly, the United States has what they call “primary” and “caucus” elections. In every state, a certain number of voters choose who they want to represent their party (the two main parties are Republican and Democrat), and that person becomes the presidential candidate.
In the Philippines, although it does have a party-system, it doesn’t seem to be a guiding factor for voters (which is the understatement of the century). “Political turncoatism” is the norm. For the Philippines, the party officials choose the candidates.
Manner of Elections
The most obvious difference, however, is in the manner of elections. The United States has an “electoral college” in every state, each assigned a number of votes based on the population of that state. Out of 538 electoral votes, a presidential candidate must reach 270 to win. This ensures that each state has the voting power that fits its population.
Since the Philippines is national, on the other hand, the presidents win by popular vote. If a candidate has the most number of votes in his favor, he or she wins. There are less worries about voter turnout per party per state, and so forth.
This state of affairs makes the presidential campaigning styles very different as well. Presidential hopefuls in the United States target what they call “swing states,” or states that are neither majority Republican, nor majority Democrat. They need the electoral votes in those swing states to win the elections.
On the other hand, the Philippine campaigning style is to reach the greatest number (not the greatest good) of the greatest number. Since winning is by popular vote, the need to win through popularity marks the campaigning style.
Philippine presidential candidates campaign through nicknames, hand-signs, catchy theme songs and multiple campaign commercials. The best part is that they can each pick their own color. Never mind just being Red or Blue (the main party colors of the Republicans and Democrats), Philippine candidates can be Yellow or Green or anything else as long as no one else has grabbed it yet. For example, the current president of the Philippines won on a yellow ribbon.
Why It Matters
Democracy is a word and an ideological concept, not a recipe for national success. We haven’t even gone near the debates on which system of government is best for the Philippines – and there are debates galore on that one subject.
What this article hopefully presents is the features of the Philippine democracy, compared and contrasted with the “original version.” Studying the distinct characteristics of how the Philippine democracy works doesn’t have to be a starting-point for arguments on why we need to shift system.
After all, various articles by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson show that the Philippines’ political practices won’t necessarily be removed just by system-shifting. However, it may give a background on what features of the “original version” worked for the Philippines, and which ones didn’t.