Monday, September 24, 2018
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No Free Lunch

Mulling over the ‘F’ word

/ 05:22 AM September 22, 2017

This is not about the four-letter one, but the much longer “F” word now prominent in current political discussions. As if to highlight the confused state of public discourse on the issue, a recent University of the Philippines forum asked: “If federalism is the answer, what is the question?” Earlier this week, state think tank Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) held the forum “Critical Perspectives on Federalism for Regional Development,” amid many more. The proposed shift from our current unitary state to a federal form of government appears to prominently motivate moves in the legislature toward amending the Constitution. Meanwhile, the longer-standing concern to ease the Charter’s restrictions on foreign investment has taken the back seat.

For such a major change with profound implications for our future, the lack of more essential details from the proponents of federalism is remarkable. I’ve heard cynics claim that its loud proponents in the government are mainly interested in accompanying transitory provisions that will indefinitely extend the term of the sitting president. Whether valid or not, I see it incumbent on proponents to provide more details on the intended changes so that the public could have something to chew on. My fellow Inquirer columnist, Prof. Winnie Monsod, tried to pin down speakers in the PIDS forum with the direct question: “So are you in favor of federalism for the country or not?” Hardly anyone could give a categorical answer, with the rationalization: “How can we answer when we don’t know what it is?”


The broad-strokes definition is perhaps well-understood. An online dictionary defines it as “a system of government in which several states form a unity but remain independent in internal affairs.” Someone noted that the Philippine case is unique and distinct from that of other well-known federalized countries. Existing federal states typically resulted from a decision by previously separate states to come together, a bottom-up process where the felt need was to unify distinct states under a central authority. We, however, are pursuing a top-down process of decentralization starting from an existing centralized system. In other words, most federal nations today federalized because they wanted to centralize; we are pursuing it because we want to decentralize. Someone argued that this makes it less useful for us to look to the experience of federalized countries for guidance on how to pursue ours. That is, the various “models” out there may not necessarily be responsive to our needs, because they had the opposite motivation for it.

Addressing the UP question, political economist Paul Hutchcroft laid down common questions that motivate the advocacy for federalism, pointing out the risk of unintended (and irreversible) consequences from adopting the “F” word. Will it promote peace in Mindanao? Will it curb the widespread patronage practices that undermine the quality of Philippine democracy? Will it help weaken the oligarchy and enhance long-term development that is more widely beneficial? Will it help resolve the longstanding problem of regional inequalities?

There are more focused responses, he argued, that could effectively address each question without risking massive unintended consequences that federalization could yield. On the Mindanao problem, there are feasible autonomy arrangements that can address the distinctive historical injustices experienced by the Bangsamoro, without having to touch the rest of the country. On patronage politics, redesigning the electoral system can both curb patronage and strengthen our political party system. On the oligarchy, what’s needed is for the central state to strengthen ability to enforce competition policy, and regulatory capacity to countervail powerful vested interests. On regional inequalities, Regional Development Councils, as the critical nexus between the national and local governments, just need to be empowered and work to support local autonomy.

The “F” word, then, need not be the answer we are looking for. It could in fact be the wrong answer. Until we all know the details, we cannot know for sure.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, F-word, federalism, four-letter words, No Free Lunch
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