Can electoral reform curb patronage politics?

| Written by Andre DP Encarnacion

Dr. Paul Hutchcroft (center, in blue) poses with members of the UP Department of Political Science’s UP sa Halalan Team. Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO


Students and scholars of political science gathered at the University of the Philippines Diliman’s Palma Hall in the morning of February 8, 2019 to listen to a lecture by Australia National University (ANU) Professor and Southeast Asia politics expert Paul Hutchcroft. The lecture, Strong Patronage, Weak Parties: The Case for Electoral System Redesign in the Philippines, drew upon years of Hutchcroft’s  scholarship on the Philippines, as well as insights from a recently released book with the same title that he edited, published by Anvil with funding from the Asia Foundation.

The event was organized as part of the UP Diliman Department of Political Science’s UP sa Halalan Project. Taking the reins of the initiative launched by the UP Office of the Vice President for Public Affairs in 2013, the department will be organizing lectures, fora and other similar events in cooperation with different organizations. Last December, the department co-sponsored the first Senatorial Forum with CNN Philippines, featuring seven candidates for the Philippine Senate in the 2019 General Elections.

Hutchcroft contended that electoral system reform, which he distinguished from shifts in systems of government and governance, provided the greatest opportunity to strengthen political institutions, especially political parties, in the country with the least amount of risk. Electoral systems, he explained, are formulas used by states around the world to “turn votes into seats”.


UP Department of Political Science Chair Dr. Maria Ela Atienza previews the lecture and briefs attendees about the UP sa Halalan Project. Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO


The electoral arrangements of the 1987 Constitution, Hutchcroft said, have shaped political parties in the Philippines into “convenient vehicles of patronage”, rather than programmatic entities. Their unchecked proliferation and the lack of political cohesion that ensues are explained, he added, by: 1) the separate elections of president and vice president (who may come from two different parties); 2) the current multi-member plurality electoral system, which encourages intra-party competition; and, 3) the Philippine party list system, whose three-seat cap, he said, violated the principle of proportionality.

The weakness of political parties, according to Hutchcroft, disadvantaged the marginalized in particular, as they disproportionately relied on strong collective action in the political realm. And with more parties in the mix, all things being equal, it was harder for governments to be decisive and to adapt policies to changing development needs and opportunities. In these settings, service delivery becomes skewed by electoral considerations over development objectives, with politicians becoming increasingly creative in their efforts to fill their election war chests.


Dr. Hutchcroft explains the difference of electoral system reforms from other kinds of political reforms. Photo by Bong Arboleda, UP MPRO


Despite the dim outlook, Hutchcroft affirmed his belief that cultural barriers were not necessarily insurmountable obstacles for creating strong, coherent political parties. He mentioned the closed-list proportional representation system, where parties themselves list and rank legislative candidates, as the “gold standard of building party cohesion” across various cultural and national contexts.

In this system, citizens vote for parties rather than candidates, who in turn win a number of seats proportional to the votes they receive. Not only does it provide a more proportional system of incentives for candidates, but it also gives parties the power to manage members who transgress their values and objectives.  “By changing the system of incentives by electoral system design,” Hutchcroft said, “you get to change how politics is done.”