BEYOND THE BEND: The Role of the Opposition in the Bangsamoro Parliament

MELBOURNE (MindaNews / 18 December) — The establishment of a parliamentary form of government in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) is by design. Bangsamoro reformists have long viewed the previous regional structure as a “failed experiment” partly because of its similarity to the national government framework.

In a presidential unitary system of government, decision-making tends to be centralized. The fate of an entire population lies in the hands of a mere individual, who may not even have a majority constituency. And worse the legislative process eventually becomes subordinate to the directives of the single executive. The Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) sought to remedy this problem for the BARMM by adopting a parliamentary regional government structure.

The fundamental goal in instituting a ministerial or parliamentary system is to facilitate a more collective approach to regional governance. Which could then steer the Bangsamoro away from the strongman-style mentality pervading in the previous regime.

Notably, Section 5 of Rule I of the Parliamentary Rules, Procedures, and Practices of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (hereafter referred to as the BTA Rules) encapsulates the parliamentary ethos most suitable for the Bangsamoro Parliament:

“It is the purpose of this Rule to ascertain the will of the majority, to preserve the rights of the minority, and to facilitate the orderly conduct of business in the Bangsamoro Transition Authority. Towards this end, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority shall allow debates, discussions, and deliberations upon issues and questions of interest and to decide, take actions, and arrive at the sense and will of its members.”

The BTA recognized here the value of collegiality within the Bangsamoro Parliament, as clearly evidenced by putting the goal of ascertaining the “will of the majority” on equal footing with the obligation “to preserve the rights of the minority.” Furthermore, it adopted the deliberative democracy convention which means the work of the regional government must be performed in the spirit of collective action.

But the dynamics within a parliament will always be about the balancing of power. The majority holds the reins of government, meaning they will dictate the policy and legislative agenda. And yet, the opposition still plays a significant role in the parliament.

Indeed, the existence of a strong opposition party or parties is one of the hallmarks of the parliamentary system. The opposition examines the government about its actions and policies. This is accomplished by debating government bills, asking ministers to explain their decisions during Question Hour and by examining government spending during parliamentary hearings.

By pointing out the errors of the government of the day, the opposition can compel it to make the necessary policy adjustments. Correspondingly, the opposition is also expected to provide alternative proposals. The opposition mindset must never be to simply make the administration look bad or to stand in the way of its initiatives, but to ensure the cabinet perform its mandate without abuse of power or corruption.

Determining who is the opposition in the Bangsamoro Parliament will be very tricky because the BOL is silent with regards to this matter. However, as per Section 4 of Rule VI of the BTA Rules, the “minority” seems to have been designated the role of the opposition in the parliamentary context, to wit:

“All Members of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority who voted in favor of the Speaker shall be considered part of the Majority. All others shall be part of the Minority.

Members of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority who shall be appointed after the election of the Speaker shall have the right to choose membership either in the Majority and the Minority through an oral or written manifestation to the Speaker.

The Majority and the Minority shall elect their respective Majority Leader and the Minority Leader from among their members.”

As previously mentioned, one of the more important responsibilities of the minority or opposition side in the parliament is to hold the cabinet to account for its actions and policies. Hence, the rules of the parliament must provide the minority side the means to perform this function. But the system in place should still allow for efficient decision-making on the part of the government of the day.

For the Bangsamoro Parliament to work effectively and efficiently, the interaction between the majority and the minority must be founded on mutual respect. Pertinently, mutual respect is a foundational principle of deliberative democracy. A deliberative process in the democratic context requires openness to competing perspectives. This means to actively engage with various points of view, rather than just automatically dismissing them.

Furthermore, respecting the person articulating his or her proposition does not merely entail listening intently to the words. Respect in the context of democratic deliberations requires a sincere effort to see the motives of the speaker as the speaker experiences them.

The absence of respect in the context of parliamentary governance would ultimately undermine the quality of deliberation in the policy-making and legislative processes which could eventually lead to substandard policies and laws.

It must be emphasized however that maintaining mutual respect within a deliberative body like a parliament does not connote disagreements can no longer occur. But it does signify that those differences in outlooks do not necessarily become obstacles to cooperation and collaboration. In fact, disagreement can improve the quality of deliberations because exposure to contrasting views can instigate a re-evaluation of preconceived notions. Disagreements, if there is mutual respect, can lead to new and better thinking.

Furthermore, while parliamentarians are expected to be passionate in advocating for their constituencies, they must not lose sight of the fact that their duty is to improve the lives of the whole and not just a few. Therefore, pushing for a legislative agenda should not be done via “buncombe speeches” or discourse intended only to rile up base supporters in total disregard of the common good.

The parliamentarian’s humility is indeed crucial in making the Bangsamoro Parliament a real forum for democratic deliberations. Whereas the hubris of members can institutionalize an adversarial culture in direct opposition to the intent of the BOL and the BTA Rules. A combative mindset hinders the resolution of differences and undermines the ability of the parliament to work together.

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