BEYOND THE BEND: The Principle of Responsible Government

(MindaNews / 22 November) — Section 3, Article I of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) provides, “The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region shall have a parliamentary form of government.” The specifics of this parliamentary structure are found in Article VII of the BOL.

This new governance structure is a huge departure from the previous regional government framework which followed the presidential system. Indeed, one major change worth noting is that the Chief Minister in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or BARMM is not directly elected by the people unlike the Regional Governor of its predecessor the ARMM.

This innovation brings forth a totally alien dynamic because people will not only be voting for a member to the Bangsamoro Parliament, but they will also be indirectly voting for the potential Chief Minister. Hence, BARMM voters must not only consider the candidate’s own suitability but also the credibility of his political party or his affiliation to potential Chief Ministers.

Obviously, Bangsamoro politicians and voters alike must have a clear and firm understanding of their respective roles in a parliamentary system in order to prevent the BARMM from being labelled as another “failed experiment”. Accordingly, learning parliamentary principles and methods, specially getting up to speed with its lexicon, must be top of mind for all concerned. This piece aims to contribute to this undertaking with an overview of the principle of responsible government.

In a parliamentary system, the majority party or a coalition of parties in the parliament elects the head of the cabinet, usually called the Prime Minister and who is “primus inter pares”. Note that the Prime Minister is “first among equals” because he is also member of the parliament. In the BARMM context, the Chief Minister is just one of 80 elected members of the Bangsamoro Parliament.

The executive branch in a parliamentary system is called the cabinet. In the BARMM it is called the government of the day. It is comprised of select members of the parliament who function as the heads of the various ministries and departments responsible for putting into action the laws passed by parliament (the legislative branch of government).

More specifically, it is the cabinet which formulates policies, determines the matters to be included in the agenda of the parliament, coordinates the activities of different departments of the government, prepares the draft budget and takes necessary initiative to get it passed in the parliament.

The principle of responsible government is a fundamental parliamentary mechanism that ensures the cabinet or the government of the day does not abuse its power. Hence, it mandates the cabinet to be directly answerable to the parliament. Accordingly, each cabinet minister can be held to account by the parliament concerning his assigned portfolio.

In the Westminster model, the process of keeping the government of the day or the cabinet accountable is called the Question Hour, where other members of the parliament are given the chance to interrogate the Prime Minister and other ministers on current policies being implemented.

These plenary debates are an opportunity for members of parliament to discuss government policy, proposed new laws and current issues. It also gives them the platform to voice the concerns and interests of their constituents. More importantly, however, the deliberation process must be designed to assist members of parliament to find an acceptable degree of consensus.

A vital corollary to the principle of responsible government is the principle of ministerial responsibility, which means that ministers should be responsible for the actions and decisions of the government departments they lead. This is another fundamental parliamentary mechanism that aims to encourage ministers to keep a close check on their department’s activities. Ministers are also expected to answer questions and be accountable for the actions of their departments during parliamentary committee hearings.

The fundamental parliamentary mechanisms discussed here actually put into effect the prescription in Article XI, Section 1 of the 1987 Constitution that, “Public office is a public trust.” They are, indeed, pillars of good governance in a parliamentary system of government. Hence, it is incumbent upon the Bangsamoro community to internalize these foundational parliamentary principles.

Obviously, building a unique Bangsamoro parliamentary tradition from the ground up is no easy task. The job is made even harder by a resilient presidentialism mindset. But it bodes well that various stakeholders in the region have been doing their fair share towards creating a parliamentary culture that is uniquely Bangsamoro.

For instance, civil society organizations in the region have been deeply focused on forming genuinely principled regional political parties as mandated by the BOL. They have been engaged in political party development workshops and trainings as well as in grassroots constituency-building activities ever since the start of the transition period.

Notably, the Bangsamoro Youth Commission is currently gathering Bangsamoro youths for their Bangsamoro Youth Parliament 2021. This is an activity designed to simulate the parliamentary legislative process while also functioning as a platform for young people in the region to deliberate on the issues that affect them and formulate policy recommendations.

However, a truly effective way of educating the Bangsamoro youths on the intricacies of the parliamentary system of government is by incorporating a mandatory course on parliamentary principles and procedures in senior high schools and universities in the BARMM.  Crucially, this can also facilitate a deeper and more systematic public discussion on the perils and benefits of the new structure of government imposed by the BOL, which will definitely be good for the region as a whole.

The first BARMM parliamentary election is four years away. The political elites in the region have recalibrated their ambitions given this new arena for electoral competition. But the regional electorate still has a lot of catching up to do in terms of navigating through this new election dynamic. Needless to say, both bear the responsibility of making sure that the Bangsamoro Parliament becomes the institutional fulfillment of the self-determination aspirations of the Bangsamoro people.

(Michael Henry Yusingco, LL.M is a Senior Research Fellow of the Ateneo Policy Center for its Access Bangsamoro project.)