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Independence Day here in the Philippines, observed on June 12, has in recent years come and gone without exciting much patriotic fervor. This year's event, however, is more noteworthy than usual, as it is now 25 years since the Philippine Republic was reestablished following the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the "People Power" Revolution. Anniversaries like this are a good time to look back and engage with the past, and I suppose this is what this diary tries to do.

The old Senate session hall, currently under renovation

Arguably, the single biggest change in the Philippine political landscape that came with the reestablishment of the Philippine Republic was the return of the Senate. Founded in 1916, the Philippine Senate quickly eclipsed the lower house of Congress in prestige, and the postwar period from the end of World War II until the Marcos dictatorship (when it was closed, and later abolished) can justifiably be considered as its Golden Age. Many of the postwar era's political grandees strode the Senate halls, and 5 out of the 7 who served as President had at one point been officially addressed as Senator. While none of them was ever as great as Manuel Quezon, the Senate's first President and the supreme Filipino politician during the American colonial period (his posterity is, in my opinion, most appropriately memorialized by his bust gazing down on the old Senate session hall), neither was anyone able to exercise as much control over the Senate as a body as Quezon did. After the Presidency, the Senate was the most prominent nexus of power and intelligence, popularity and money in Philippine politics, and its reestablishment in 1987 marked a reversion to the familiar features of the political landscape.

The current Senate, as it was during the postwar era, is composed of 24 members elected through plurality at-large voting for a term of 6 years. One significant difference, however, is that half of the chamber is now up for election every 3 years, whereas before a third was up for election every 2 years. This complemented the extension of the presidential term of office from 4 to 6 years; the tradition of senatorial elections becoming significant as a virtual referendum on the incumbent administration thus still remains. But from a legal point of view, the change is dramatic: whereas the postwar Senate was a continuing body, with at least 16 senators capable of declaring a quorum at all times, the current body will not be able to as the 12 remaining senators at the end of every Congress would not constitute a majority.

Another difference is that senators are now barred from running for reelection right after their second consecutive term; should they be reelected to the Senate in a subsequent election, this rule takes into effect once again. A two-term senator would thus have to wait for a minimum of 3 years before he or she is once again eligible to run for the Senate, as Senate vacancies (if ever they arise) are left unfilled until the next regular election.

The Senate is also no longer housed within the same building as the lower House. While the House of Representatives occupies the building complex built for the Marcos dictatorship's unicameral parliament, the Senate reoccupied the old Congress building until it transferred to the headquarters of the public employees' insurance system in 1997 (with which it shares the building). The old Congress building now houses the National Museum, and the old Senate session hall is currently undergoing renovation.

With this comparison as our starting point, one may then ask: how different is it from the prewar Senate when it was founded almost a century ago? To my knowledge, there are three others, in order of least to greatest significance: (1) the prewar Senate was housed in the Ayuntamiento, the former city hall of Manila (the building was destroyed in the liberation of Manila from the Japanese in 1945, but is now currently being reconstructed to house the national Treasury), (2) voters can no longer cast a block vote for Senator, as they were able to until 1951, and (3) until the establishment of the Commonwealth government in 1935, senators were elected by plurality by-district voting.

Norms Established

The bust of Manuel Quezon in the old Senate session hall

Manuel Quezon and the Senate he became the first President of had a long and varied history together. As a non-voting delegate in the U.S. Congress representing the Philippines from 1909 to 1917, Quezon helped draft the Jones Act legislation that established an autonomous government for the colony, with a Senate as the upper house of the colonial legislature. The publicity following its passage catapulted him into public prominence, and cemented his standing as a heavyweight contender in the political arena. With his perch as Senate President, Quezon's standing in politics was now secured and from this base he launched his successful pursuit of political supremacy. He would leave his perch and the Senate only upon his election in 1935 as President of the Commonwealth government that was the penultimate step in the Philippines' progression into independence.

The Commonwealth era was a momentous period in the Senate's history, as it was during this time that the Senate and its workings were cemented as features of the Philippine political scene. In the years to come, the public would refer to the norms established in this period as the starting point for deliberation whenever proposals to change the Senate were introduced in the political arena. And just as before, Manuel Quezon, now the undisputed master of Philippine politics, would play a significant role in shaping these norms.

The transition into the Commonwealth was a dramatic event in the Senate's history, as the new government initially did not have a bicameral legislature. After 19 years of existence, the Senate was subsumed into the new National Assembly, the legislative body set up by the 1935 constitution. How did this come about? Political commentator Manuel Quezon III (an adopted grandson of Quezon the president) points out that in the constitutional convention held the year before, those who wanted a Senate to go with a House of Representatives were split on the question on whether to elect senators by district or at large -- hence the proposal to have a unicameral legislature won out.

But what is also true is that Quezon (the president) had firm control of the constitutional convention: at least half of the delegates were Quezon loyalists, he picked the convention's officers, and he attended all the sessions of the oversight committee (one of the convention delegates remarked that Quezon behaved as though he was the chairman during the committee's deliberations). Moreover, Quezon supported the proposal to have a unicameral legislature. I don't know how much of Quezon's reasoning behind this has been disclosed, but I certainly find it fascinating that the man who played a significant role in establishing the Senate, the man who was catapulted into public prominence in the circumstances of its founding, the man who dominated the public sphere as Senate President would support the proposal. I can only speculate, but surely Quezon would have understood that a unicameral legislature would be more pliant to the executive branch's (i.e. his) will than a bicameral one would, and with his autocratic leanings this must have appealed to him.

What is equally fascinating in my opinion is that Quezon seems to have reversed his position not many years later. I don't know why this happened (though I would guess that we have even less evidence on record regarding this matter), and I can only speculate on how much did this reflect a genuine change of mind and how much did this reflect the opinion of the political establishment. And whatever may have been his position on this matter, when the proposal to reestablish the Senate was presented to the public the electorate heartily voted in favor of reestablishing the Senate by a whopping 79-21 margin. 24 senators were elected a year later in 1941, to be up for reelection on a staggered basis, but the outbreak of the Pacific War prevented them from convening.

A Transformed Relationship

Frieze in the old Senate session hall

One thing I would like to highlight before I (finally!) bring this prologue to a close is the change in how senators were elected, from a by-district basis to an at-large basis. That senators were initially elected by district most probably reflects the influence of the U.S. political system as an example; and while I can appreciate the idea that senators elected by the nation instead of by a particular district can be more sensitive to the concerns of the nation, I don't believe it really makes a significant difference in tilting their outlook to the national end of the parochial-national spectrum. I would think that the opportunity the Senate presents as a traditional stage for showcasing your calibre as a national leader is a sufficient enough incentive for senators to be nationally-minded.

It does make a significant difference, a transformative difference I would even say, on the relationship between voters and the senatorial candidates. My preferred framework for describing this relationship is that of a market for political power, with voters as sellers and the senatorial candidates as buyers. With the change from by-district to at-large voting, the value of one's vote accrues significantly more value (and voters accrue significantly more influence) as it can now "buy", or elect 11 more senators than before. This is matched by a corresponding decrease in influence on the other side of the market; whereas before voters can only "sell" their votes to the candidates within their district, the voters can now sell to many more "buyers".

Also, inasmuch as voters would naturally feel emotional ties to only some of the senatorial candidates they would vote for, senatorial candidates would have two ways of legitimately securing their vote: (1) building their emotional ties with the voters, such that they can invoke them come election time (i.e. an appeal to emotion), and (2) convincing them that their election would be in the national interest (i.e. an appeal to reason). One can thus say that in the act of voting, the elector "buys" the Senate representation he or she instinctively wants (i.e. to which he or she has emotional ties to), after which he or she can now wield votes that are, in an emotional sense, a surplus. Furthermore, the question of where would senators' outlooks lie in the parochial-national spectrum is now tackled by two different actors on two different levels: first, by the electorate when it casts its vote, and second, by the victorious candidates themselves once they are in the Senate.

How then can the significance of electoral machinery be defined in this context? As an intermediary between the voters and the senatorial candidates, the "boss" of electoral machinery can either influence the electorate's emotional surplus votes, lawfully and/or unlawfully, and can also go so far as to override the electorate's votes partially and/or completely (it should go without saying that this is illegal!). The "boss" can then be the one to "sell" these votes to the senatorial candidates. Philippine elections have never been renowned for their cleanliness, and the senatorial election of 1941 was most likely no different in this.

Coming next: the fantasy redistricting (which you're probably more keen on!). I do hope this diary receives a warm reception, though, as it's my very first.

Originally posted to socialgenius1 on Sun Jun 17, 2012 at 03:59 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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