It may come as a surprising realization to some who reflect upon it that President Duterte has been in office for only a little over eight months. Perhaps this may be because so many changes have been introduced and put in operation in this brief span of time as to firmly put the Duterte stamp on the nation’s psyche and discourse as well as its political and societal interrelationships in a manner more pronounced than his predecessors. The unorthodox presidential aura—rolled-up barong sleeves with unbuttoned top slot, maong pants with leather boots or sock-less loafers, frequent expletives and occasional tongue-in-cheek hyperbole (often taken too seriously by unaccustomed members of the media)—seems to add up to a persona and body language that continue to appeal to most Filipinos because of their authenticity. For one thing, only President Duterte has managed to get a head of state, in this case the Japanese prime minister, to come to his unassuming residence in Davao City and dine with him in his dining room dressed relatively informally. Thus, his legend grows even as his popularity remains high.
Even significant segments of the elite and the business community seem to have grudgingly accepted or at least gotten used to his ways however confounding they may be from time to time. They comfort themselves with the thought that while he may appear bullheaded, at least he listens—especially to his excellent economic team, thus encouraging positive thoughts that all will be well if not in fact better in the end.
But there is one major initiative on which he remains bullheaded, and which continues to cause concern in many circles including the business community. This is federalism, in which he is a staunch believer and of which he is the leading advocate. The concern of many arises from the question of what exactly “it” is, and the accompanying unease that the devil is in the details—but those details remain fuzzy. A recent survey showed that 59 percent of the respondents had not read, heard of, or watched anything about this proposed radical change in the Constitution, thus leading to a situation where 61 percent of Filipinos are either against moving to a federal system of government (33 percent) or are ambivalent about it (28 percent).
Meanwhile, the march toward federalism continues. The target is 2019 for the required constitutional change to take place via a still undecided mode (a constituent assembly or a constitutional convention). Last November, Congress appointed 14 deputy speakers to represent the envisioned 12 states under a federal system. Shortly thereafter, the committees on constitutional amendments of the House and the Senate convened to discuss the shift in form of government and the mode to use for amending the Constitution. At this writing, both chambers remain divided on which mode should be used. Last December, the President signed Executive Order No. 10 mandating the creation of a consultative body of 25 members for the amendment of the Constitution and scheduling the completion of its work within six months from the date it is first convened. At this date, its members have yet to be appointed.
Clearly, the pros and cons of so sweeping a constitutional change as federalism represents have to be discussed as thoroughly as possible. Key considerations include efficiency in public governance, clarity in the delineation of authority and power between the federal government and states, and implications on taxation and financial regulation, among others. The stakes are high, with nothing less than the nation’s fate in the balance, and perhaps no other initiative will define the Duterte administration in Philippine history as this one.
We must avoid a situation where increasingly unrealistic timetables create a political juggernaut toward a half-baked outcome driven mainly by the jockeying for key positions in a federal setup by the power structure that the federalism alternative is supposed to radically change, for the good of the country and generations to come.
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Roberto F. de Ocampo, OBE, is a former finance secretary. He was Finance Minister of the Year in 1995, 1996 and 1997.
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