Rethinking Triennial Local Elections

By Michael Henry Yusingco, LL.M

As per the 1987 Constitution, we hold elections for local officials in the Philippines every three years. Moreover, the charter also mandates that no local official can serve for more than three consecutive three-year terms. So theoretically, a governor, mayor and sanggunian member can only stay in office for a maximum of nine straight years.

According to a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission, this triennial system of local elections was intended to be a “safeguard” against the perceived propensity of local elected officials to accumulate political power during their incumbency in office. It was projected to be a mechanism to prevent the creation of a “special caste of professional politicians”.

Well, we all know that these goals have not been achieved at all. After 36 years, the imposition of term limits has not curbed the appetite of politicians to consolidate political power by any means possible. In fact, by some cruel and perverse twist of fate, this purported anti-dynasty constitutional device has actually instigated the proliferation of bigger political dynasties.

Indeed, political clans have not only found a way to beat the three-term limit but have also extended the reach of their political power within government. Right now, we have families with members in the executive branch, in the legislature and in local government. Some of these families even have kin in the judiciary and in media. Without a shadow of a doubt, our politics and governance are completely dominated by fat political dynasties.

And yet there is another negative outcome from this triennial system of local elections that we often take for granted, which is probably why it is even more devasting for the country. It has fostered the shortsighted and myopic development outlook prevalent among our political leaders from both the local and national levels of government.

The quick and frequent changes in political leadership, which usually also means the replacement of administration officers in the bureaucracy, has hindered the advancement of long-term development planning. The constant shuffling of administrative officials and personnel has essentially inhibited institutional continuity. Development stakeholders almost never look beyond the next election.

Consequently, local governments almost exclusively prefer short-term, quick-gestation projects so that elected leaders can immediately reap the political returns. Strategic development undertakings that require an extended time frame almost always never see the light of day, even if it will produce more socio-economic benefits for the community.

In sum, the system of triennial local elections has bred dynastic local officials who only have a shortsighted development outlook and therefore can only be bothered by projects that have an immediate and perceptible impact and most likely simply as a knee-jerk response to the clamor of the day from their constituents.

While this type of development perspective also addresses some needs of the community, it has disincentivized local officials from adopting a broader view of socio-economic progress for their constituencies. Indeed, this benefits-now paradigm has severely constricted the trajectory of economic growth and social mobility of many Filipinos.

Of course, the only way to change this problematic election regime is to amend the 1987 Constitution, specifically Article X, Section 8 which states, “The term of office of elective local officials, except barangay officials, which shall be determined by law, shall be three years and no such official shall serve for more than three consecutive terms.”

One suggestion is to match the term of office of local officials to the president’s term of six years, but allowing for a single re-election. So, this provision can be amended such that the last part can read as follows, “…, shall be six years and no such official shall serve for more than two consecutive terms.”

With this change, our political leaders will fall within the same development timeframe. Potentially, this can make it easier for the central government and local governments to align in terms of development planning and execution. And with this new framework, the formulation of policies and programs need not be compromised by the short electoral cycle.

However, an indispensable requirement to expanding the term of office of local officials is a rational recall mechanism. This time voters must be given the constitutional right to remove their elected local officials, when warranted of course, via the process of recall. And it is crucial that the process must not be as difficult and cumbersome as the one we currently have.

Obviously, the proposal offered here presumes only a surgical amendment of our constitution. The recommended change pertains only to the term of office for local officials and nothing else. Although the new regime can also be applied to members of the House of Representatives.

To conclude, it is not entirely correct to say that the 1987 Constitution is not the problem. And that amending it is not an answer to our political and economic woes. Well, we have just demonstrated here that in certain instances, it is the problem and amending it is the only solution.

But the constitutional reform process must not be overwhelmed by textbook debates between unitary-vs-federal or presidential-vs-parliamentary. It should not be dictated by arguments of “what is good for the country” which are solely based on academic literature. These matters play a part in the whole exercise, but they should not be the main feature as we often see in congressional hearings these days.

The decision to amend or change the 1987 Constitution must be anchored on the confluence of two briefs. First, a determination of defective provisions, which must necessarily also include a discussion on their adverse impact on politics and governance

in the country. Second, a coherent explanation of the proposed amendment or change and how they can lead to an improvement from the untenable status quo.

Of course, the active participation of Filipinos in these undertakings is the most important requirement of all. The constitutional reform process simply cannot be confined within the halls of congress.