3 fundamental features of a federal framework

12:05 AM June 05, 2017

Apolinario Mabini believed that federalism, “besides being the most perfect among the republican forms, is best suited to the topography of our country.” Clearly, this is an endorsement of federalization that must not to be ignored.

However, a caveat that must not be ignored as well was raised by Raphael N. Montes in “Understanding Federalism”: “Designing a federal system is not a very easy task. Besides its basic principles, federalism is very customizable. The peculiarities of a country would define the different features of its own brand of federalism.”


In sum, a federal structure of government is a good fit for the country, but defining the nitty-gritty of the federal framework will be very difficult. In the words of President Duterte, this endeavor would entail “long, very contentious discussions.”

Whether the federal structure will be presidential, semipresidential or parliamentary, bicameral or unicameral, is indeed up for debate. But there are three fundamental features of a federal framework that are indispensable: 1) a streamlined allocation of responsibilities between the central and state governments; 2) a state government structure that reflects a collective approach to governance; and 3) mechanisms that foster cooperation and collaboration among the state governments in addressing national concerns.


On the first feature: the assignment of responsibilities must be clear and coherent, and the distribution scheme formulated in such a way that the designation of accountability is unequivocal.

This prescription is very critical. The correct allocation of tax powers and other revenue-raising measures between the two levels of government hinge on it. It will also influence how the scope of federal legislative power is delineated.

On the second, the current subnational government apparatus must be replaced because it has entrenched the patronage relationship between the local executive and his constituency. An effective countermeasure against this culture of patronage is to integrate a sense of community at
the state-level. The structure itself must be configured to facilitate a collective governance mindset.

An example of such would be a parliamentary type of configuration like the “leader-and-cabinet model” used by local governments in the United Kingdom. As a corollary to this restructuring, the mechanism of sectoral representation can be further enhanced in the “cabinet” to widen and deepen community participation in policy formulation and implementation.

Other measures to ensure the sustained and significant involvement of the people in local politics (e.g., an antilocal dynasty mechanism, political party prescriptions) are likewise imperative. Keeping in mind, of course, that the engagement of the community in state-level governance is crucial to the success of the federal regime itself.

Third, mechanisms must be established to foster cooperation and collaboration among the constituent state governments in addressing national concerns. One solid truth about federalism is that it does not diminish the integrity of the nation-state. Indeed, a federation is not just about the devolution of political and fiscal powers to the subnational level, it is also about institutionalizing coordinated efforts toward national development.

It must be emphasized: For the government structure to be truly federal, the new charter must depart from the nonself-executory standing of local autonomy in the 1987 Constitution. Meaning, these three fundamental attributes of federalism must be evident in the text of the projected federal constitution itself and should no longer require any enabling legislation for its institutionalization.


A last caveat equally not to be ignored comes from noted federalism expert and constitutional scholar from the Melbourne Law School, Prof. Cheryl Saunders. She warns: Whatever the final federal design is, there should be among the people both a shared understanding of what has been created and a shared commitment to making the new system work. Otherwise, federalization may not produce the outcomes many Filipinos are so excited about right now.

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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