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Towards Unity in Diversity: Federalism in the Philippines

Vigan City, Philippines. Almost 130 years ago, whilst the Philippines was on the cusp of independence, Dr. Jose Rizal wrote – “Absence of any great preponderance of one race over the others will free their imagination from all mad ambitions of domination, and as the tendency of countries that have been tyrannized over, when they once shake off the yoke, is to adopt the freest government, like a boy leaving school, like the beat of the pendulum, by a law of reaction the Islands will probably declare themselves a federal republic.”

For more than a century, thereafter, federalism has been an elusive aspiration, despite several attempts to present it as an option for better governance. The election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 once again put federalism in the limelight.The centerpiece of his campaign was the promise to shift to a federal system which he believes is best for the cultural diversity of the country and will help deliver peace to Mindanao.

I aim to revisit the promise of federalism in the Philippines, weigh the benefits against its pitfalls, and offer a recommendation as a member of the academe based away from Manila.

Federal countries:
There are roughly 30 federal countries in the world today, which together represent 40 per cent of the world's population. They include some of the largest and most complex democracies - India, the US, Brazil, Germany and Mexico. Their system of government, while it can be complex, has made many federations amongst the most prosperous countries in the world with high standards of government services. There are also federations among the smallest countries in the world such as the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis. Many federations are also home to the world’s most stable democracies and global economic giants.

Federalism in the Philippines:
It would be oversight to begin the history of the principles of federalism in the Philippines with the thoughts of Dr Rizal or even with the Spanish colonization. As noted by Brilliantes and Moscare, citing the work of President Jose P. Laurel and Juanito Ortiz -
“Local villages (barangay) of the Philippine archipelago have been existent even before Spanish colonizers. They were, for all intents and purposes, autonomous territorial and political units headed by a monarchical chieftain called the datu, panginoo or pangolo. With  the arrival of the Spaniards, these barangays and tribal organizations were adapted by the colonial authorities to become administrative units each headed by the cabeza de barangay  whose main responsibility was collection of taxes. As they expanded and grew, some barangays evolved into pueblos. Pueblos were composed of poblaciones (town centers), Barrios (rural settlements) and visitas (municipal districts.)

Almost a hundred years of Spanish rule strengthened imperial Manila with the straight-laced centralization of powers.

During the Philippine Revolution against Spain, Dr. Rizal had hoped for a federal republic.  After Dr. Rizal’s death, Gen Emilio Aguinaldo wanted to pursue Rizal’s federalist idea -
“During the Revolution, … Aguinaldo directed the Ilongos to set up a federal state for the Visayas and to invite the Muslims of Maguindanao and Sulu to join the Revolution and establish a similar state organization. Aguinaldo was pursuing Rizal’s 1890 idea of a federal republic covering the archipelago, which explains why the flag of the Revolution and the First Republic had the three stars within the triangle, representing Aguinaldo’s image of the major island groups constituting the archipelago as a federation.”

However, the Malolos Constitution adopted a unitary form of government.  Between 1899 to1900, there were two attempts to set up a federal republic - both, however, were rejected by the Americans.

Later, the 1935 Constitution was drafted based hugely on the American Constitution but sans its federal institutions.  No less than the great Claro M. Recto has decried that “[our] Constitution was frankly an imitation of the American charter xxx; therefore, the Philippine presidency became a copy of the American presidency, with its vast concentration of powers and only periodical accountability to the people.”

Since after the Philippine Independence in 1946, several proposals for a federal government have been put forward by various entities including PDP Laban, the Mindanao Council of Leaders, Partido Demokratikong Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan,  and the Citizens’ Movement for a Federal Philippines during the administrations of President Corazon Aquino and Fidel V. Ramos. These proposals never gained momentum due to lack of support primarily from the Chief Executive.

It was not until President Macapagal-Arroyo, In her state of the nation address in July 2005, suggested that it was ‘time to start the great debate on charter change.’  She said –
“The economic progress and social stability of the provinces, along with the increasing self-reliance and efficiency of political developments and public services there, make a compelling case for federalism. Perhaps it’s time to take the power from the center to the countryside that feeds it.”

She issued Executive Order 0453 creating a Consultative Commission to propose the revision of the 1987 Constitution in consultative with various sectors of society. The transcripts from the Commission’s hearings are replete with grassroots experience and insight on the viability of federalism in the Philippines. It is unfortunate that it lost traction primarily due to a suspicion that revising the Constitution was merely a ruse to extend her term as president.

With the rekindling of the debate under President Rodrigo Duterte, the great debate is once again afoot. He has issued Executive Order 10 creating a Consultative Committee to review the 1987 Constitution and Congress is actively conducting hearings of its own, the latest of which was on fiscal structure within federalism.

A Case for Federalism:
It is apparent that federalism has been to its proponents like Tantalus was to fresh fruit and water – a promise that is always beyond grasp yet still pursued because of the possibilities it will bring forth.
Montes identified several reasons for federalization – common defense and internal security, common market, conflict management, and better governance and democratization – all of which stem from basic principles that underlie all federal models, viz. division of powers, state participation at federal decision making, accommodation of diversity, fiscal federalism and constitutionalism.

In a similar vein, the CMFP Draft Constitution in 2005 enumerated the following advantages of a federal republic -
“ * First, a Federal Republic will build a just and enduring framework for peace through unity in our ethnic religious, and cultural diversity, especially in relation to Bangsa Moro or Muslim Filipinos.  Responsive Federalism will accommodate their legitimate interests, end the war in Mindanao, and discourage secessionism.
*Second, Federalism will empower our citizens by enabling them to raise their standard of living and enhance their political awareness, participation and efficacy in elections and the making of important government decisions.
*Third, Federalism will improve governance by empowering and challenging State and local leaders and entrepreneurs around the country….the people will be more willing to pay taxes that will finance government programs and services for their direct benefit.
*Fourth, Federalism will hasten the county’s development….There will be inter-State and regional competition in attracting domestic and foreign investments and industries, professionals and skilled workers, good teachers and scholars, artists, and tourists. A renaissance of regional languages and cultures will enrich the national language and culture.
*Fifth, Federalism, together with parliamentary government, will improve governance promoting the development of program-oriented political parties that are responsible and accountable t the people for their conduct and performance in and out of power.
*Sixth, Federalism will broaden and deepen democracy and make its institutions deliver on the constitutional promise of human rights, a better life for all, a just and humane society, and responsible and accountable political leadership and governance.

Below is a brief summary of the arguments advanced by proponents of federalism:

Local Problems, Local Solutions:
Former Vice President Salvador Laurel in 1989 noted that “Federalism rests on the principle that the smallest unit of government knows what is best for its constituent needs. Decisions should, therefore, be made by the local, municipal, provincial, city or regional levels of governments, because they know best who need help and how to help them.”
Federalism would allow regions to create solutions to their own problems as elected officials are closer to their districts and will better represent their interests.  While some autonomy has been afforded LGUs, it is mainly administrative, not economic.

Division of powers:
Federalism would give the national and state governments responsibility for different policy domains.  With most day-to-day governance to be handled by local governments, the national government can concentrate on national issues such as healthcare, taxation, defense, and foreign policy.

Genuine empowerment:
Without the excessive controls present in a unitary system, people and their local governments will be challenged and empowered.  They will be more open to innovation and accountability of government leaders and employees will be clearly delimited.  Moreover, the capacity of local governments to address lingering problems of poverty, injustice, social services, and infrastructure will be increased as local governments will determine ways that applies to their local situation and resources.

Equitable Development:
It is without a doubt that infrastructure outside of Metro Manila is sorely lacking. In a unitary system, the approval of projects will have a bias for achieving a higher national GDP growth. This will favour the large cities like Metro Manila and other cities that have huge populations. For instance, the current unitary government will be less interested in creating a rail link from Cagayan Valley to Cabanatuan City, Nueva Ecija as its calculation of economic returns will pale in comparison to the creation of railways in Metro Manila.
In a federal system, state governments will be overseeing the needs of a collection of provinces. As it is a smaller unit (compared to the whole country) there will be a greater focus and clarity.  A state government for the Cagayan region will be more inclined to create railways between its large towns and piers to spur the increase of trade or to address the other general transport needs of its constituents.

Accommodation of diversity:
Federalism will sustain the Philippines’ national unity and identity, and also acknowledge and honor our social pluralism and diverse cultural heritage.  We commenced with the people of the Cordilleras and Muslim Mindanao and it is but fitting that other ethnicities are similarly recognized.

Greater accountability:
At present, elected local officials are not completely responsible to their constituents. They may propose large infrastructure projects but the decision and implementation still rest with the national government. It also reinforces the feudal relationship between the national and local governments. To be able to gain the support from the national government, local officials must demonstrate loyalty to the sitting president. It has been a common sight to see congressmen, governors, and mayors jump to a new president’s party. Voters are then unable to make a direct link between the candidates and their satisfaction with government services.  This will no longer be the case in a federal system as local governments will be directly accountable for infrastructure projects.

There will be no nationwide elected positions where massive campaign spending is required and becomes a hurdle. More candidates coming from the middle class will have the opportunity to run for elections and be on a more equal footing.  In most federal models being proposed, the states will be aligned to consist of several provinces. This will provide economies of scale as well as to make it difficult for any one family to dominate state politics.

Federalism Unnecessary?
Retired Supreme Court Justice Vicente Mendoza noted the following as the “undesirable effects” of federalism -
1.    The division of powers between the national and state governments will weaken the Philippines. For states coming together to form a federal system, federalism means strength. In union there is strength. Such, for example, is the United States of America, whose motto is “E Pluribus Unum,” (“Out of Many, One”). But to a unitary state converted into a federal state, federalism can mean the fragmentation, if not the disintegration, of what was once a nation.
2.    Should the federal system thus formed fail, there will be no turning back and returning to the old system. The breakup will be more devastating in its effect on the component states than on the states in a federal system formed by the coming together of independent states. While the failure of this latter type of federation will simply mean the return of the component states to their former status as separate independent states, in the case of the Philippines, however, each component state will find itself without moorings and become prey to annexation by other states. God forbid, the breakup will not presage the spread of strife throughout the land.
3.    Federalism will magnify or encourage regional differences. The rise of village tyrants and village despots will be more probable than the rise of a national dictator.
4.    States may become so focused on local development and security that they neglect national concerns and issues.
Justice Vicente Mendoza also posited that “[we] don't really have to change to a federal system but need only push hard for decentralization to break up the concentration of power in the national government and redistribute it to local governments

Next steps
As the forms and structures of governments, whether central or federal, presidential or parliamentary, democratic or socialist, are born out of the experience and history of peoples and nations. They are not imported from foreign soils and implanted automatically in the homeland.   Therefore, the aspiration for a federal system in our country should be carved from our unique history as a nation, hence the current debate.

At the moment, two (2) significant proposals have been given to Congress from PDP-Laban and the Centrist Democratic Party (CPD).
PDP-Laban supports a federal system where powers are shared between the federal government and regional governments (states); with a bicameral legislative body, Senate (the upper house) elected by regions and Congress (lower house) elected by legislative districts. The President is head of state and universally elected and the vice president an optional position or, if retained, both will be elected together as one, under the same political party.

The CPD’s proposal is composed of three (3) steps – first, is to put in place essential conditions while in the process of revising the 1987 Constitution; the second step is the immediate transition to parliamentary government after the plebiscite; and the third step is the creation of autonomous territories towards the formation of federal states comprising the Federal Philippine Republic.

Without a doubt, these proposals will be considered by Congress and other input from various resource persons invited by the Committee on Constitutional Amendments both in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

It is still a long road for federalism but as  Abueva  put  it,  “we  should  not  repeat  the  haste  under pressure in making our present (1987) Constitution.”  Previous attempts to put forward federalism have given us a rich resource of studies and commentary from both politicians, the academe, the business community, civil society, and citizenry form various regions – we encourage that these be revisited as we continue to discuss and vigorously debate federalism.

Although I wholeheartedly agree that federalism is an idea whose time has come, I underscore that whether federalism is eventually adopted or not, this debate is a sign of a healthy, thriving democracy and of a citizenry that fervently hopes for a better Philippines.  However seemingly divisive, it has shown that we as a nation have reached a higher political maturity.  We have begun to look beyond the personalities that espouse or oppose federalism and discern the principles behind the various points of contention. We are confident that it will be as Recto had hoped that “the Filipino people may soberly consider (another) system… to harness the power of government to the will of the people.”

Media Contact:
Romeo Enriquez
+63 2 2242062

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