If federalism is the answer, what is the question?

Amina Rasul

On Dec. 15, the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy and the Institute for Autonomy and Governance organized a forum on Federalism, Autonomy, and Mindanao Peace Process at Club Filipino. We gathered leaders of the Bangsamoro diaspora, a potent sector never consulted by government as a group, regarding the present call of the government to shift to federalism.

The keynote speaker, Former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. stressed the need to break the hold of the central government (Imperial Manila) on powers, despite devolution and the Local Government Code.

The panel included DFA Undersecretary for International Economic Affairs Manuel Teehankee, Atty. Raul Lambino, and Atty. Naguib Sinarimbo. Usec Teehankee focused his discussion on the fiscal and economic benefits of federalism. Atty. Lambino, who has been organizing forums on federalism for the past four months, provided additional insights into the distribution of powers that will benefit the regions under federalism. Atty. Sinarimbo, who has been a part of the MILF negotiating panel for many years, detailed the powers needed for genuine autonomy to be implemented and how autonomy fits into a federalist system.

The panel were in agreement on a major point: under the present unitary system, the control of powers and resources — inspite of the Constitution and devolution — have alienated the Bangsamoro people and other indigenous cultural communities. They acknowledged the neglect and discrimination suffered by indigenous peoples.

Former Senate President Nene Pimentel proposed 12 federal states — five in Luzon (one for the indigenous peoples of the Cordilleras), four in Visayas, and three in Mindanao (including the Bangsamoro State, which could have regions of autonomy).

The proponents also argued that the present ineffective and irresponsive system and the weakness of the rule of law have allowed political warlords, and corrupt politicians and dynasties to exist prosper.

Will federalism result in a more effective, equitable and responsive system? Most of the participants, after discussions with the panel, believed it would. In a quick survey held at the forum, 76% (48 out of 63 Muslim leaders) expressed their support for federalism.

Will federalism end the aspirations for independence of frustrated and angry armed groups in the South? Or, like the grant of autonomy by Congress, will it end up as a piece of legislation that will paper over differences? We need a well-designed home with a strong foundation to hold all our peoples together, not a house of cards. That political architecture can only be designed if our peoples are part of the drafting. As the forum participants opined, we need a Constitutional Convention.

I myself support the core arguments for federalism. However, I do believe that we need to have more engaged discussions — not just mass forums that do little to elicit serious thought about what it takes to move from the present political system to another. I echo the comments of many of the leaders present at the forum: majority of our people, from Tawi-Tawi to the Ilocos, who say they support federalism see it as a miraculous system that will immediately change our situation. We need more engagement. I repeat the query at the federalism forum of the UP School of Economics: if federalism is the answer, what is the question?

Autonomy, Federalism or Independence?


  1. On Federalism and multilevel politics by Anne Lan K. Candelaria, Ph.D.

    Federalism has gained unprecedented traction as soon as President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office middle of last year. As a result, policy makers, think tanks as well as the academic community has engaged in a series of dialogues and debates on the operationalization of such form of government, or how best to proceed. However, there are only few discussions on the substantive aspects of federalism. This commentary attempts to discuss the tacit issues that surround this debate.

    To appreciate federalism’s value to a nation, we must bring into the fore the spatial dimensions of politics. Political rule and policy making over a population becomes meaningful of there is a definitive way of identifying where those people live. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) formalized the importance of territory as an element of the modern state. Here, a state’s ability to rule independently, having control over institutions and groups that live within their territory. This idea of having a fixed demarcation to establish a formal centralized rule and recognition however does not intend to eliminate the importance of those institutions in the periphery.

    Hence, all nation states (whether unitary or federal) are typically divided into two levels of governments exists: (1) the government of the whole country, and (2) the government of the parts. What sets a unitary system from a federal one is its constitutional features, rather than its administrative and other arrangements. This refers to the nature and location of power and ultimately where sovereignty resides. In a unitary system, power is delegated to the local governments by the central government, and therefore can be taken back. In a federal system, however, power is inherent rather than delegated, and therefore sovereignty resides in both central and subnational government.

    Political centralization has helped many nation-states expand its economic and social responsibilities. But this did not prevent the emergence of secessionist groups and ethnic nationalism and assertiveness.

    The intensification of center-periphery tensions in unitary states in the 1970s brought about many changes in the institutional design of several countries. At that time, both local and global political theaters were fragile. Local nationalism was driven by many factors: unequal economic development, historical resentments, an increased demand to preserve distinct languages and cultures, as well as the growing sentiments that political decisions are made by the distant policy makers and bureaucrats.

    To assuage the tension between central and peripheral political institutions, some nation-states opted for devolution rather than federalism. Devolution, a form of decentralization, is the systematic transfer and dispersal of functions, power, authority, and responsibility away from national bodies. In devolution, the intension to expand local autonomy is fulfilled even when government remains to be organized as a unitary system. Britain passed a devolution law that gave Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland more power to manage their own affairs. France gave the regions certain economic-planning powers. Indonesia carried out decentralization as a way to prevent the establishment of another authoritarian rule as well as to make revenue and expenditure sharing more equitable.

    The balance between center and periphery is shaped by historical, economic, political, cultural, and geographical factors. In most cases, federalism was a “coming together” project of several already strong and independent political communities who wish to preserve their identities and autonomy, but nonetheless see the value of having an equally strong central government that can represent their collective agenda in the broader political community, and protect them from external threat.

    There are several reasons why nation states start a federal union. First, it is difficult for small and weak states to defend themselves from bigger more powerful aggressors and so pooling military and diplomatic resources made more sense, as in the case of Germany. Second, a federal system allows small states to collectively compete in the global market and set rules that would favor them. The United States’ dominance in the global economy today would not have been possible have they remained broken into several independent states. Third, it was a way to protect a nation’s identity and culture while joining a larger nation such as the case of India. Lastly, geographically large states such as Brazil, Canada, Argentina, and Mexico found decentralization in a unitary state very limited in scope to accommodate the diverse needs of its society. Thus, federalism proved to be a more effective way to control their vast territories.

    The Philippine experience is rather unique. Pre-colonial barangays functioned as independent city-states but were stripped away of their political autonomy when the Spaniards used centralization as a way to colonize the country. Barangays were reduced to barrios and the datus were demoted to cabezas de barangay. Over the next 500 years, local autonomy played a lesser role in Philippine politics because national identity was more important project for a nation whose history is reflects periods of colonialism, dictatorship, and intense nationalist sentiments in between.

    The 1987 trauma brought about by Martial Law’s over-centralized power brought about the institutionalization of local autonomy as enshrined in the 1987 Constitution and Republic Act 7160 or the 1991 Local Government Code.

    By design, central government devolved the delivery of some basic services and regulatory powers to the local government units. It also provided legal and institutional foundations that expanded the spaces for civil society and other stakeholders to participate in local policy making. Finally, it made financial resources more accessible to LGUs by broadening their tax powers and encouraging them to be more entrepreneurial by partnering with the private sector, among others.

    As to whether decentralization was able to achieve its goals remains a debate. Over the years, there are so many good as there are horror stories on how the expansion of local powers and autonomy have been appreciated on the one hand, and abused on the other hand. There are quite a number of studies that assessed the impact of decentralization, but these are scattered and too often focus on only one aspect of the Code.

    First, a comprehensive review of the outcomes and impact of RA 7160 is long overdue. As in any good policy work, reliable and sound evidence is always a necessary starting point. Tinkering on an existing policy, especially our Constitution, without any systematic collection and review of evidence will most probably lead to a disastrous result. This review should look at both substantive and procedural impact, with results that are verifiable and generalizable. We do not want stories of what works — we already have plenty of those. We want to see the bigger picture, as evidenced from the data and experiences of more typical LGUs, and make intelligent and evidence-based conclusions.

    Second, federalism is not purely a governance question, but a political one. From a functionalist perspective, federalism serves two economic purposes — localized development and redistribution. However, we need to articulate the elephant in the room — that federalism is also shaped by the political needs of those responsible for its design, the policy elites. The fact of the matter is that we are governed by only a few families for most of our democratic life as a nation state. It is common to have uncontested local candidates, or an entire province held by only one family. Whether thin or fat, political dynasties must be kept at bay if we want to maximize federalism’s advantages.

    Lastly, only the presence of strong political parties — in both national and local level — can prevent dynastic rule from flourishing. In a democracy, members of political parties contest in elections with the view of promoting the collective interest rather than personal gains. Many have ideological core that forms the basis of their proposed policies and programs. Thus, people vote for what the party stands for and not because of the personalities and last names of its members.

    Should we decide to transition into a federal system, ours will not be the case of federalism as a “coming together project,” but the opposite. Belgium is one other case where a unitary state switched to federal to give its various languages their own turf. And even then, this change in Belgium was brought about by a robust competition between strong political parties that represented these language communities.

    Federalism is not simply a redefinition of territorial organization, but more importantly a revision of the relationship between the center and periphery.

    In a federal system, both central and state or regional government possess a range of power that either one cannot encroach. This will require, not only a change in our current Constitution but also a change in the manner by which we as citizens seek accountability. As it is, many election-related violence occur during local rather than national elections. Federalism should not only solve economic issues, but it must also address political ones.

    P. S. The unitary-federalism debate is related to, but different from, the presidential-parliamentary debate. A country may be federal-presidential (ex: United States) or unitary-parliamentary (ex: Singapore).

    Anne Lan K. Candelaria, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University. She also served as consultant for various Araling Panlipunan- and Social Sciences-related matters for the K-12 program of the DepEd. Her interest is in education politics and policy making.

  2. FEDERALISM REVISITED By Benjamin R. Punongbayan

    THE advantages of federalism that accrue to federal countries around the world today cannot be denied. To convert unitary Philippines into several states and then federate them, however, will not bring the same results. On the contrary, doing so will set back our political and economic development for decades.

    Federalism and our current state of political development do not fit together.

    For federalism to work, federal states should be able to govern themselves competently from the start. The reality is that the government of the entire Philippines is still far from reaching the desired level of competence as shown by our successful peers.

    The United States and Germany are good examples of a federal system.

    The United States came into being by the federation of the original 13 colonies. These colonies had been governing themselves separately from each other for about a century under the reign of the British King. They had their own respective constitutions and government structures. They decided to bind themselves together for a common cause — to cut their ties with Britain. When they did so, each of them retained their right to govern themselves. In fact, it took several years after proclaiming independence before they accepted and adopted the present US Federal Constitution. All that the 13 former colonies did was to create a higher level of government — the federal government — that served to unite them and protect them from external threats.

    Germany today is composed of many previously self-governing states that had their respective reigning royalty. These states were separately governing themselves for centuries, and had organized themselves under a loose German confederation before and after Napoleon. In 1871, these states formed a much closer federal union under the leadership of Prussia to project German power.

    In both the cases of the United States and Germany, each of the states composing the federal union had long years of experience in governing themselves autonomously before federating. Other federal countries in the world today have also developed in a similar way, because each component part was previously autonomous and wanted to retain its autonomy under the federal union.

    Clearly, the federal political system does not apply to unitary Philippines, as the country started and developed differently.

    The various Philippine regions do not have any experience at all in governing themselves autonomously. It is naive to assume that, by simply dividing the country under its present state of political and economic development into federal units, the parts and the whole will achieve accelerated development. The two systems, federal and unitary, simply follow separate paths of political development. Converting from one structure to the other is inconceivable. In fact, there is still no unitary country in the world that has converted into federalism. One may try, but it does not make sense.

    There are two important reasons converting unitary Philippines into a federal country is insensible. One is the current poor state of the country’s political development. The Philippines is beset by widespread corruption, not only at the national level, but more so at the local level. The governing class is oligarchic; the country continues to be governed by 100 or so families.

    There is widespread inefficiency, as evidenced by long-unsolved traffic problems; long delayed infrastructure project execution; poor-performing bureaucracies, including the police; poor public education system; long-delayed justice system; prevailing selfishness of members of Congress; and many more. All these are strong impediments to sustainable economic growth.

    If the present national government cannot deal effectively with these poor conditions, how is it possible for the governments of the designated inexperienced federal states to deal with them in a better way?

    Would splitting the country into federal states turn government personnel into becoming more skillful and efficient? Would government systems and processes at federal and state levels become more efficient and effective? Would corruption be substantially reduced? Would oligarchy disappear? Would legislators be less selfish? These developments are highly unlikely.

    On the contrary, the likelihood is that the overall government function will become worse — the development of the government organizational structures and systems, especially at the state level, will necessarily take a long time and suffer downturns before they become better; qualified personnel will be hard to find and attract at the state level; there will be expanded opportunities for corruption; and above all, each designated state lacks the experience to govern itself autonomously. Do we want proof? Let us examine the performance of those national services that were devolved to the local governments under the present local government code. The results will be indicative of how effective the government of the designated states will be.

    The other important reason is the widely uneven economic development of the various Philippine regions. NCR, Region III, and Region IVA generate about 63% of the country’s GDP, while having only 39% of the population.

    The fundamental premise of the proposed federalism is for each designated state to drive its own development with the expectation that the poorer regions will achieve accelerated economic growth and be at par with other regions. How can that be achieved under the current widely uneven economic development of the various regions?

    Without substantial money transfers, the economic gap between the rich states and poor states will become much wider and, thus, will drive a massive population shift. On the other hand, if substantial money transfers are made, then the fundamental underlying principle of federalism will become irrelevant. Moreover, such money transfers will only make it clear to the rich states the magnitude of the amount of wealth they are forgoing and may try to hold them back and, thus, create serious disputes.

    A good case in point about the likelihood of substantial money transfers is a provision in the existing Bangsamoro law proposal. This bill provides for an annual block grant from the central government to Bangsamoro equivalent to 4% of the net internal revenue collections of the BIR less LGU allotments (about P40 to 50 billion of grant based on available 2017 budget information) in addition to expanded local taxes and 25% share of national taxes collected locally. Under federalism, we may have to give similar block grants to several poor states. If so, where will the money come from? What then have we accomplished?

    Clearly, maintaining and continuing the present unitary government will provide a much better chance of overcoming the persisting problems that seriously hinder our political and economic development, as opposed to conducting a federalism experiment.

    As an alternative to the proposed federalism, maybe we should allow independence to those regions which would like to acquire it, à la Czechoslovakia. These regions will be strictly on their own. However, we should anticipate that there will be winners and losers among the former parts of the Philippines, and such resulting condition may create a geopolitical risk within the former Philippine geography. Nevertheless, I can support that proposal as opposed to federalism, where everyone become losers.