A Backgrounder to Professor Allen Hicken’s Policy Paper, "Designing Institutions for the BARMM: Electoral Systems, Political Parties and Parliamentarism"

By Professor Paul D. Hutchcroft
Professor, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University
29 July 2021


The Electoral Code for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) will be a critical piece of legislation, laying essential foundations not only for future elections to the parliament of BARMM but also for the effective functioning of the parliament itself.

This analysis, by Professor Allen Hicken of the University of Michigan, has been written with the goal of supporting those in the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) who are in the process of crafting the Electoral Code. As a leading international expert on the topic of electoral system design, Professor Hicken is exceptionally well placed to present a range of options and issues that can very usefully be considered by the drafters of the code. Aside from his extensive writings on Philippine politics, Hicken has examined the impact of electoral system choices in countries throughout the world (see an overview here). Of particular interest to Philippine readers might be his lead editorship of a 2019 volume on Electoral Dynamics in the Philippines: Money Politics, Patronage, and Clientelism at the Grassroots, as well as his contributions to another 2019 volume entitled Strong Patronage, Weak Parties: The Case for Electoral System Redesign in the Philippines (the introductory chapter of which can be found here).

The Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) of 2018 sets forth two major innovations that cannot be found anywhere else in the Philippines. The first is the institution of a parliamentary system, in contrast to the presidential system found at the national level. This means that the chief executive is elected not directly by the voters but rather by members of the parliament. In such a system, it is critical that political parties are strong and coherent, and that there not be an excessive number of parties. “Given the dependence of the executive on maintaining the support of the legislature,” Hicken explains, “parliamentarism tends to work best when there are a modest number of parties.”

This leads to the second major innovation set out by the BOL, and that is the system used to elect members of parliament. BARMM voters will choose their legislators in part through a proportional representational (PR) system, again not found anywhere else in the country. The BOL mandates that one-half of the seats of parliament will be elected via PR, and in such a system the number of votes received by a party should translate as closely as possible to the number of seats that the members of that party will obtain in the legislature. For example, if a party receives 45 percent of the vote in the PR portion of the ballot, it should be given roughly 45 percent of the PR seats in the legislature.

As background, it should be noted that the remaining one-half of the seats in the parliament will be chosen via two other types of electoral systems. This puts it in the category of mixed-member electoral systems, common in many parts of the world even as they vary significantly from one country to another in their precise composition. For the BARMM parliament, four-tenths of seats will be elected from single-member districts, a system already familiar to Philippine voters given its use for the election of most members of the national House of Representatives. A further one-tenth of the parliament will be chosen via a system of reserved seats. In a BARMM parliament that is to have 80 members, that means that 40 will be put into office via PR, 32 via district seats, and 8 via reserved seats. All these elements are examined further in the Hicken paper, along with a range of other important factors that will shape the character of political parties: party regulations, party finance, rules on party switching, and more.

PR voting systems can be found throughout the world, sometimes in presidential systems and sometimes in parliamentary systems. In parliamentary systems, however, it is critical to choose an electoral system that can help to foster stronger political parties; this is particularly important in the Philippines, where political parties are historically weak and lacking in coherence. Hicken’s paper lays out many options as it discusses the opportunities and pitfalls of designing the BARMM electoral system, starting with the basic observation that—by virtue of its parliamentary structure—“[t]he efficiency, efficacy, and stability of BARMM governments will hinge, in part, on what kind of party system develops.”

How can the Electoral Code nurture stronger political parties? While Hicken’s goal is much more to lay out options than to provide solutions, he does note that a particular type of PR is commonly used to promote party-centric outcomes, that is, outcomes in which parties rather than individuals are at the center of electoral competition. This refers to closed-list proportional representation, associated worldwide with stronger and more disciplined political parties. The choice of the party-centric variety of PR could, quite obviously, have major advantages as the BARMM parliament is tasked with electing executive leadership: “while parliamentary systems function best with strong parties,” Hicken explains, “such parties don’t automatically arise under parliamentarism (emphasis in original).”

But recall that another critical factor is the number of political parties, and here Hicken draws attention to the relationship between the two major tiers of the electoral system: the one-half elected via PR and the four-tenths elected via district seats. Based on his canvassing of other mixed-member electoral systems throughout the world, Hicken emphasizes “how unusual it [would be] to mandate completely different party systems” for the two major tiers. If parties were restricted to competing in only one of the two tiers, he emphasizes, the guaranteed result would be “to balloon the number of parties in parliament.” For the reasons already noted above, this would have the potential to greatly undermine the stability of BARMM governments into the future.

Such are the dangers, but just as important are the opportunities. In crafting the BARMM Electoral Code, the BTA has the chance to show the rest of the Philippines how electoral system choices can—when well-designed—nurture the growth of stronger and more cohesive political parties. At the national level, the electoral system put in place by the 1987 Constitution essentially guarantees the perpetuation of weak and incoherent political parties. By producing an Electoral Code that encourages the emergence of stronger parties, the BARMM can help to highlight the potential of well-considered measures of electoral design.

Alongside its analysis of the two major innovations noted above, Hicken further examines other aspects of electoral system design, for example, the range of options available for filling the seats that are reserved for particular sectors (warning to readers: it’s much more complicated than one might expect at first glance). Hicken also poses some very basic questions regarding the functioning of the parliamentary system. Because the BOL does not provide guidance on such fundamental matters as to how governments are to be formed and dissolved, it falls upon the crafters of the BARMM Electoral Code to fill in the critical details—absent which there is likely to be a great deal of unnecessary and very problematic contention over who is at the helm. (A special note to the BTA: this chunk of the Hicken analysis, along with its emphasis on the need to design a party-centric electoral system that can provide a sound foundation for parliamentarism, deserves particular attention.)

There’s much more in the options paper that I could highlight, but it’s best for the reader to dive in straightaway and benefit directly from the clarity of Hicken’s very insightful analysis. He has taken what are often quite complex issues, critical to the future of governance in the newly created Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and examined them in a highly accessible manner.

Professor Hicken’s options paper has been supported by a project of The Australian National University that is funded by the Australian Government: “Supporting the Rules-Based Order in Southeast Asia,” or SEARBO, has the goal of assisting those who are working to nurture more inclusive democratic structures with stronger potential to uphold human rights and the rule of law. As explained on the SEARBO website, which provides access to the project’s broad range of outputs, we started our work in 2018 and are moving toward completion later in 2021. A small portion of the total project has examined issues of electoral system redesign, not only in the Philippines but also in Indonesia and Malaysia.

On behalf of the SEARBO project, for which I am overall chief investigator, it is indeed a pleasure to partner with Access Bangsamoro in the publication of Allen Hicken’s analysis. I am confident that this options paper can be an extremely important resource for BTA deliberations on BARMM’s Electoral Code.



Paul D. Hutchcroft is a Professor at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and are not meant to represent those of the ANU, the Australian Government, Access Bangsamoro, its proponents, or affiliates.