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With Due Respect

Federalism 101

“Change is coming!” is the battle cry of President-elect Rodrigo Duterte. A cornerstone of that change is his proposed shift to the federal system. He passionately believes that only federalism can finally solve the “Imperial Manila” lament of our Southern brethren, and the centuries-old armed conflict in Mindanao. However, he did not give details of his federalist concept.

Basic concept. Basically, federalism is the decentralization of sovereign powers to make the government truly “of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Sovereign power is currently centralized in Metro Manila. Thus, laws are enacted by our bicameral Congress. It is true that local government units also enact local ordinances, but these must always conform to and cannot contradict or modify congressional edicts.

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Theoretically, Congress—via the House of Representatives—is supposed to address the plight of local communities. But the reality is that the economy’s bounties and benefits take time, if ever, to trickle to the countryside.

So, too, the enforcement of laws is centralized in the Manila-based president. True, he or she is assisted by executive offices, specifically the Department of Interior and Local Government. But, again, the reality is that “Imperial Manila” is too far removed from the daily needs of the rural folks who constitute the vast majority of our people.

This incongruence of a too-powerful central government lording it over local governance, often ignorantly and ineffectively, was addressed by the Local Government Code, which tried to devolve government authority to the cities, provinces and barangays, granting them the power to ensure peace and order and to receive internal revenue allotments (IRAs).

And yet, these do not seem to be enough because our Constitution mandates one national police to which the local police are legally beholden, and the Department of Budget and Management which could withhold IRAs.

Constitutional delineation. To be effective and meaningful, federalists want the Constitution to separate the powers of the federal from the local governments.

This is exactly the system in the United States, where the 50 states are constitutionally guaranteed exclusive powers which the federal government cannot intrude into, much less take away. In fact, much of the lawsuits in the US Supreme Court are about the delineation of authority between the federal and state governments.

The idea of federalism is not really new to us. Salvador Araneta, a delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention (ConCon), proposed it in his “Bayanikasan Constitution.” Jose Abueva, the secretary of the same ConCon, has written several papers detailing his version of federalism.

No serious attempt was made by the 1986 Constitutional Commission to install the federal system in the 1987 Constitution. True, during consultations and public hearings, particularly in Davao, federalism was discussed. But it did not gain traction.

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Strong executive. Instituting the federal system in our country will not be easy because our government, since the Spanish and American colonial periods, has always been centralized and unitary. Our people have always looked up to a father figure, a strong executive who dispenses governmental powers and largesse.

Even Duterte’s election was predicated largely upon his personal charisma, the very quality he may need, ironically, to diffuse and devolve authority. And yet, his promise to eradicate crime, drugs and corruption in three to six months can hardly happen if he does not have that central authority.

Indeed, it may not be possible to institute federalism in the two- to three-year timetable that some proponents want. In fact, Dr. Araneta believed the system could be implemented within 10-20 years, while Dr. Abueva proposed two stages, within a 10-year period. (More on these two proposals in another column.)

Relevantly, it would not be amiss to recall that the party-list system was crafted rather hastily and haphazardly as an “experiment” in the Constitution and in the implementing law, uprooting from the European parliamentary system and planting it in our presidential form. Now, it is difficult to straighten out the confusion it has wrought and to figure out what benefit, if any, it has brought.

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.

For instance, the US federal system grew from the aspirations of the original 13 colonies and was forged from the civil strife between the Northern Union and the Southern Confederation. Likewise, the Federation of Malaysia was born out of the common desire of various sultanates to form a nation independent from British rule.

By the same token, the aspiration for a federal system in our country should be carved from our unique history as a nation. True, there were sultanates in Mindanao which the Spanish conquistadors and the American colonizers could not subdue. But are there parallel communities in the Visayas and Luzon showing the same independent historical streaks?

At bottom, while our new President deserves leeway to implement his dreams for a better Philippines, sufficient study, discussion and time are needed to craft a federal system suited to our needs, aspiration and history as a people.

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Comments to chiefjusticepanganiban@hotmail.com

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