Remember: federal, not feudal!
The anxiety that Filipinos have about charter change is caused by the reality that traditional political families control the political system. Simply looking at the composition of the House of Representatives, with its unprecedented 12 deputy speakers, validates the fear that feudal masters will lord over the constituent states of the planned federal republic.
Sadly, such uneasiness is aggravated by the fact that political dynasties have made local governance a family enterprise. This phenomenon is summed up perfectly by the respected Mindanao civil society activist Guiamel Alim as “clan-inclusive government.”
In fact, political competition at the local level is essentially a farce because traditional political elites in the Philippines are so firmly entrenched in their positions of power. This has led to the enculturation of a myopic and parochial governance mindset, clearly demonstrated by local politicos who can only be bothered by short-term projects that have an immediate and perceptible impact.
Worst of all, political power concentrated in select families has meant that accountability in local government is no longer a standard for public service. Obviously, when this happens, unabated graft and corruption infect local governance itself.
This lack of leadership accountability has in turn led to the current pathology in local politics that we are all suffering now, appropriately described by political commentator Alex Lacson as “small dictatorships.”
Regrettably, as local communities continue to suffer inept and corrupt dynastic leaders, those who can push for reforms but do not have the inherited political advantage are effectively denied the right to run for public office because of the monarchical nature of local government.
This dire circumstance has become the bane of local communities seeking socioeconomic progress. Studies show that lower standards of living, lower human development, and higher levels of deprivation and inequality persist in the districts governed by local leaders who are members of a political dynasty. A more alarming development is that the “fattest” dynasties—those with the biggest number of family members in office—are ensconced in the poorest parts of the country.
Clearly, the chokehold of local dynasties on local governance brings serious doubts to bear on the Philippines’ readiness to shift to a federal form of government. There is a very distinct possibility that enhancing local autonomy can further entrench these modern-day feudal lords.
Note, however, that the presence of political dynasties does not mean forgoing federation. But the continued domination of these families in our political system demands a nuanced approach. Meaning, simply changing the structure of government through charter change without addressing the fundamental distortions identified here will not bring about the development outcomes we all desire.
Therefore, the administration’s Consultative Committee must incorporate mechanisms in its draft charter that will regulate, if not prohibit altogether, local dynasties. At the very least, there should be a provision that explicitly allows only one member of a family to be in local government.
The present-day Consultative Committee simply cannot repeat the mistake of the 1986 Constitutional Commission. Leaving this matter to Congress, which is practically a national assembly of dynastic politicians, will just not work.
Additionally, the draft charter must establish a credible and coherent political party framework. Obviously, not all the problems of the current setup can be addressed here. But there should definitely be a provision that unequivocally prohibits turncoatism. A sensible political finance regulatory regime is imperative as well.
Lastly, the Consultative Committee must consider enhancing sectoral representation in local government. The draft charter must institutionalize the presence of civil society in local governance because this can diminish the influence of traditional elites in local politics.
President Duterte won on the promise of change. And his candor and maverick style of governance definitely demonstrate that he did not intend to make only superficial adjustments in our political system. Indeed, a mere facelift will not be enough!
The people, especially the 16 million who voted for him, expect nothing less than a complete overhaul.
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Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a practicing lawyer, is the author of the book “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.
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