Federalism: A go or a no?

Federalism“It is about time that this issue is put to a serious national debate.”

These were the words that former Senator and now Muntinlupa Representative Rodolfo Biazon signed on Joint Resolution No. 10 in 2008. This resolution sought to adopt federalism as the new form of government, through charter change. The idea ultimately went to naught, but eight years on, new life is being breathed into the idea of changing the government from a unitary form to a federal one.

Among the issues that raised the most red flags in the just-concluded presidential campaign, federalism is now a serious possibility given the apparent victory of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.

According to Professor Aries Arugay of UP Diliman Department of Political Science, Duterte 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. Among the then-presidential candidates, he was its sole, vocal advocate.

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

Professor Maria Ela Atienza, also of UP Diliman Department of Political Science, 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 defense, 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 there 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 emanate 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 be prioritizing some regions above others.

Not so fast though. Both Professor Atienza and Professor Arugay agree that Duterte has fallen short of making a good case for federalism by failing to explain the specifics during the campaign. “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.)

However, Professor Atienza 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.)

Finally, a shift to federalism involves amending our Constitution. It remains to be seen how Duterte would push his advocacy for federalism even further―he would have to contend with either calling for a constitutional convention, asking Congress to convene as a constituent assembly, or leading a People’s Initiative to formally start the process of charter change. Even after that he would need to have his proposal ratified by all voters in a referendum.