Local government and the national elections

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A shelf full of spools of colorful thread in a garments factory in Taytay, Rizal. Taytay received last year one of the Gawad Galing Pook, an award for excellent local government units, for institutionalizing its local garments industry. Photo from rizalprovince.ph.

For many Filipinos, the only concrete experience of government is local government.

And properly so. The local government units―provinces, cities or municipalities, and barangays―are mandated to be at the forefront of providing basic services to people, from health to agriculture to education to social welfare.

In principle, the idea of local government is simple. A farmer should not have to go to the head office of the Department of Agriculture to apply for subsidized farm inputs. A tuberculosis-afflicted person seeking to enrol in the government’s anti-TB program should be able to do so in the nearest barangay health center, and not somewhere worth a day’s walk. 

There have been big strides towards realizing the potentials of local government in the Philippines, but the reality, at least in the 25 years of the Local Government Code’s existence, is a mixed bag of a few exceptional cases and a lot of disappointing ones.

Local Government in the Philippines

The mechanics under which local government units (LGUs) in the Philippines operate can be found in Republic Act 7160 or the Local Government Code (LGC) of 1991. In summary, it transfers some powers and responsibilities that originally belonged to the government in Manila, so to speak, to the provincial, city/municipal, and barangay governments (a broadly-encompassing process called decentralization).

Decentralization means that while the national government is responsible for broadly introducing policies and programs for development, the LGUs are critical in cascading the benefits of these programs down to the citizens. For example, the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (or 4Ps), a conditional cash transfer anti-poverty program originated from the national government through the Department of Social Welfare and Development. Local government units, however, play indispensable roles in ensuring that intended beneficiaries of the program, most importantly those from the most far-flung places in the country, receive what is due them.

According to the LGC, services such as garbage collection, maintenance and upkeep of infrastructure, development of local tourism, regulation of tricycles and gambling activities such as sabong, among others, have since been expected of the LGUs. They are also expected to formulate their own regulatory policies in areas such as environment and agriculture. This is the reason why there are differences in, say, the use or non-use of plastic bags or in animal ownership laws, between cities or municipalities.

Because of these added responsibilities, LGUs have since been empowered to collect fees and taxes from their citizens. From opening new businesses, to securing a permit to operate a tricycle, to allowing the use of plastic bags in supermarkets (where it is normally banned), LGUs are allowed to collect fees from regulation to fund projects and implement policies.

An important aspect of the LGC is how the relationship between the LGUs and the national government, with regards to revenue allotment, is defined. According to the LGC, local government units are entitled to their fair share of the country’s internal revenue collections based on population, land area, and equal sharing. Additionally, LGUs are also entitled to a share of the income generated from the extraction of national wealth, such as minerals.

According to Professor Maria Ela Atienza of UP Diliman Department of Political Science, the implementation of the Local Government Code, especially with respect to the internal revenue allotment (IRA), has seen some bad turns, but it sure has responded and continues to respond to the many needs of the people at the local level.

“If there are bad local governments, may mga example rin naman ng magagandang practices, na kahit ang issue ay kakaunti ‘yung internal revenue allotment, they were able to raise their own funds, napalago nila ang economies nila, at the same time nakikita mong nag-improve yung services,” she elaborates. (If there are bad local governments, there are also examples of good practices, so that even if the internal revenue allotment is meagre, they were able to raise their own funds, grow their economies, and improve the services.)

Revenue allotment has proved to be a hot-button issue in this election, with candidates Rodrigo Duterte and Mar Roxas having a heated exchange on the IRA during the first PiliPinas debate.

Local Government Issues and the National Candidates’ Platforms

The issue on internal revenue allotment, together with federalism, devolution, and bottom-up budgeting are some of the buzzwords that featured prominently during the first PiliPinas debate last February 21. All these issues have enormous bearing on local governance. A proper understanding of what these are and what the candidates are saying about these issues can help voters identify whose stances and platforms are actually helpful, and whose are not.
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A road constructed through the bottom-up budgeting initiative in Dolores, Abra. Photo from Dolores, Abra’s official Facebook page.

Federalism and Devolution

Among the issues raised by the presidential candidates on local government, federalism seems to raise the most red flags, while also being the most misunderstood.

According to Professor Aries Arugay, also of UP Diliman Department of Political Science, Duterte, the sole, vocal advocate of federalism among the presidential candidates, seems to be motivated by inequality and corruption in Mindanao in pushing for such change.

Inequality and corruption lead to economic backwardness, which in turn breeds the desire for secession or breaking away from the mother country. Federalism for Duterte, would hit all these birds in one stone.

“He thought that by empowering the local governments further through a more federal setup and therefore, [taking] away some powers from the national government, it can help Mindanao develop. And with development, ma-a-address na yung problem of inequality and corruption,” explains Professor Arugay.

Professor Atienza echoes this, adding that Duterte is also motivated by the desire for peace, especially among the varied ethnolinguistic and religious groups in Mindanao: “Many of the countries who decide to establish a federal system, isa sa mga issues nila ay para may peace, to recognize ethnic, religious, and cultural distinctions”. (Many of the countries who decide to establish a federal system [do so because they have] peace issues and to recognize ethnic, religious, and cultural distinctions.)

But what exactly is federalism?

Federalism is concerned with the sharing of sovereignty. Among whom? One national (or federal government) that encompasses all of a country, and several lower “state” or regional governments that make up that country.

This sharing of sovereignty or powers can mean that in a federal setup, the federal government has the final say on matters such as monetary policy, national defence, and foreign relations, whilst the regional or state governments have the last word on areas such as agriculture, education, health, among others. In short, a federal government is so designed so that these two levels of government are self-determining in their constitutionally-determined spheres of influence.

This is unlike the current unitary setup in the Philippines. In a unitary setup, the final say on all government matters emanates from one central government. But although our country is unitary, its central government delegates some powers and functions to legally recognized lower levels of government.

According to Professor Atienza, the central government maintains supervisory powers and an important financial role (i.e., as funder) over these lower levels of government. This is called devolution, a campaign issue that Senator Grace Poe has raised on several occasions.

You can see now where federalism and devolution differ. Although both of them are concerned with somehow making governance easier by distributing responsibilities among different levels of government, federalism gives more autonomy to governments immediately below the central (federal) government, while devolution allows the central government to still have considerable control while freeing itself from the more hands-on responsibilities.

Federalism, with its premise that would-be regional governments could take greater, even absolute, control of their affairs, promises two things that are especially relevant to Mindanao: peace and development. Peace, because armed secessionism would be tempered by unprecedented self-determination as dictated by its constituents’ distinct ethnoreligious identity; development, because the regions would finally be able to steer their own economic courses without the intervention of a central government that in a unitary setup is perceived to prioritize some regions above others.

Not so fast, though. Both Professor Atienza and Professor Arugay agree that Duterte falls short of making a good case for federalism by failing to explain the specifics. “The problem is Duterte has not given us the details beyond just saying that nothing short of federalism will bring peace to Mindanao… He has not really made any particular details on how it will be implemented,” says Professor Arugay.

Professor Atienza, in particular, also wants a clearer picture of what kind of federalism Duterte wants to establish in the country. “Kung Mindanao lang ang problema, kailangan bang magshift tayo sa full federalism?” the professor asks. (If Duterte’s only problem is the Mindanao situation, do we really need to shift to a full federal system of government?)

According to Professor Atienza, it might be possible to emulate Spain, who gave more autonomy to regions such as Basque, Catalan, and Andalusia, while maintaining more central or “unitary" hold on the other regions if Duterte seeks to address the Bangsamoro problem in Mindanao. Spain’s model is called an asymmetrical federal setup.

Another concern is how federalism will affect the many political dynasties at the local level.

For Professor Arugay, federalism can aggravate the problem of political dynasties. He is particularly concerned with how local political dynasties can have more consolidated regional power so they can wield national influence. “Local political dynasties might be more empowered, and instead of regions we’ll have fiefdoms, although we see that now… Kung mas maraming tao sa isang region, and if a political dynasty can mobilize it, maybe that’s the way that they can [emerge as] national or federal government-level dynasties,” the professor explains. (…If a region is considerably populated and a political dynasty can mobilize it, maybe that’s the way that they can [emerge as] national or federal government-level dynasties.)

Professor Atienza, on the other hand, sees federalism as a way of breaking political dynasties, especially on the regional level.

While acknowledging that federalism can open up the system to more dynastic influences, she sees the creation of regional governments in a federal setup as a way of “widening the playing field.” Dynasties are extremely predatory within provinces but should fully functioning regional governments be created, the provincial dynasties who would aspire to hold the regional power would find the contest to be more competitive.

“May chance na ang mag-e-emerge ay ang best performing dynasties,” she adds, with the competition also coming on the heels of a bigger electorate. (There’s a chance that the best performing dynasty would emerge.)

These, among other concerns, have cropped up before and have prevented previous attempts at federalism, especially during the administration of former President Gloria Arroyo. It remains to be seen if federalism will remain an issue for discussion after the elections, especially if Duterte does not win.

Bottom-up Budgeting

Another local government buzzword, this time coming from Mar Roxas’ campaign, is bottom-up budgeting (BUB).

According to Professor Atienza, bottom-up budgeting essentially means having consultations with the people at the grassroots level to identify their actual needs that need funding. These needs are drafted into a budget that the people will approve and the local government will act upon.

BUB, according to Professor Atienza, is desirable because it can serve as a test of whether local governments really care for their constituents. But what is needed is consistency and sustainability, “on the part of the people who will push it kahit magpalit ng administration, and on the part of the LGU, kung ikaw yung mayor na pumayag sa ganung sistema, dapat ma-institutionalize mo kahit wala ka na through ordinances.” (…on the part of the people who will push it even when there’s a new administration, and on the part of the LGU especially if you are the mayor who initiated it―you should institutionalize it through city ordinances.)

Whether he actually intends to use BUB for good or not cannot be known for sure, but Mar Roxas has not escaped criticism, particularly from fellow candidate Duterte, with regards to his alleged under the table use of the BUB.

According to Duterte’s camp, Roxas, being the candidate of the administration who already implements BUB in some parts of the country, is using the same as a “bribe” to attract local government officials to support him. This allegation has been vehemently denied by the Liberal Party. If this proves true, however, the potential of BUB to aid in development is tarnished―it might as well go down the list of fiscal instruments (i.e., PDAF, DAP) that the administration uses for patronage.

Room for (Sizeable) Improvement

While at least one candidate aspires to radically change the structure of local governments in the country, the current Local Government Code still has some potential that can be realized and tested for efficacy before moving on to more drastic institutional changes.

Professor Arugay, for one, wants to see the national government study and assess the implementation of the LGC to determine which of its provisions still need to be implemented and institutionalized. One of these is having sectoral representatives in the local councils.

“One thing that the President should do is really identify what still needs to be done in order to further realize the promise of decentralization and the potential of the Local Government Code. (He or she should) somehow try and help undertake political reform at the local level, putting the local sectoral representatives (LSR) on his or her legislative agenda,” he explains.

Professor Atienza, on the other hand, wishes to see a steady improvement in the delivery of devolved services, especially health. She also hopes that the next president would make steps to improve local governments’ bureaucracies, adding that while devolution and federalism mean less work for the national government, it is still not free from the responsibility of monitoring the performance of the local governments.

“Ang issue with devolution and federalism, hindi ibig sabihin non nawawala na ang role ng central government to monitor. Role pa rin ng national agencies ang pagset ng standards, and to monitor and make sure these national standards are followed (by the local governments),” the professor elaborates. (The issue with devolution and federalism is that the role of the central government to monitor still remains. The national agencies should set standards and make sure these standards are followed by the local governments.)

Local government can sound like a concern too parochial for a national election, but effectively delivering public goods and efficiently implementing key policies very much involves the cooperation of local government officials with the national government. Also, understanding what local governments need should be of paramount concern to the next president, especially since local government supervision is under his or her purview according to the Constitution.

If our country of 7,000-plus islands is to progress as one (as one tandem so prominently promises in their stump speeches), tackling local government issues head-on must be a priority of the eventual winners of this year’s elections.