50 shades of Federalism | Inquirer Opinion

50 shades of Federalism

12:30 AM January 12, 2018

I have heard so much talk about federalism, but the greater the volume of talk, the greater the confusion, not understanding. After years of efforts by many political individuals, federalism remains a strange animal, somewhat familiar but defies description. There are the general definitions of federalism but unfortunately no specific one – as specific as the one that President Duterte will probably bless. All other versions will only find value in an intellectual debate – at best.

Different dictionaries offer similar definitions, especially in the fundamental concept. Let me share a few:

One points to the United States government and says it is based on federalism, with governmental power divided between several entities.

Another says federalism is a distribution of power in a federation between the central authority and the constituent units (as states) involving especially the allocation of significant law-making powers to those constituent units.


Still, another describes federalism as a mixed or compound mode of government, combining a general government (the central or federal government) with regional governments (provincial, state, cantonal, territorial or other sub-unit governments) in a single political system.

My last choice of source asserts that federalism is a system of government in which the same territory is controlled by two levels of government. Generally, an overarching national government is responsible for the federal governance, governing the issues that affect the entire country, while the smaller subdivisions, states, and cities govern the issues of local concern.

Above, the four examples I used are similar in the essence. Yet, forming our own federal system will eventually establish a federal type of government that will not be the same, only similar in principle. In fact, our present presidential system can be argued as a legitimate and faithful example of a government that has a distribution of power between several entities, a mixed or compound mode of government combining a general government with regional governments, and a distribution of power between the central state and regional or provincial units, a system of government in which the same territory is controlled by two levels of government. The biggest difference between our presidential system and federalism appears to be not in the principle or the concept but the terminology – as in presidential versus federal.

If we trace the first articulated thoughts and concerted efforts to push federalism, they seem to have come from discontent at the way the disadvantaged experienced governance – more by the particular application of governance concepts and laws rather than the principles of the presidential system. Philippine politics, after all, have hardly ever been about political principles or platforms of government but rather individual views and leadership styles of the highest officials. Because there has been a clamor, not by the populace, but by particular politicians, for a change from our presidential system to a federal type of government, it can actually be traced to partisanship where the winner takes most and losers the crumbs – if at all.


I myself have articulated many personal views and sentiments in the last 16 years of writing weekly opinion pieces. In theory, that makes me ripe for substantial, even radical, change. But I have always been clear that my criticisms have covered mostly errant bureaucratic attitudes and actions, hardly about presidential or federal governance. I always saw that the flaws were rooted in character traits of our political, economic and religious leaders rather than divergence in their views. Advantages and disadvantages occurred along partisan lines and not in contrasting principles. The advantaged want to perpetuate the system good to them, even willing to tweak it so it becomes even more advantageous. The disadvantaged want change, of course.

The danger is changing for the wrong reason or changing forms of governance when the culprits are those who govern. We are trying to fix what is not broken but not changing those who keep breaking whatever is there. In other words, as I look at the principles or definitions of federalism, they give no guarantee that abuses of power can be prevented or stopped. Abusers can use the federal form of government as easily or as much as they can abuse the present presidential system. The federal form of government that favors those in power will be the form of choice, whatever that will be. Any form of government can be abused if its senior officials want to do so and the people allow them to get away with it.


I am not in love with the presidential system as we have it now because I have seen its helplessness to be an effective deterrent against perennial poverty and corruption. Simply from the point of view of change, I am quite open and even welcoming a change of government form. But I have observed quite closely the deviant or criminal behavior of those in power and how they can manipulate the law to suit their agenda. A change of the form of government, however, does not prevent the same politicians and bureaucrats from polluting and exploiting any new form of government. We desperately need a change in values, putting nobility and sacrifice at the top of the totem pole of public service and placing somewhere at the bottom the lust for power and wealth at any cost.

I hope that a clear and concise description of the particular form of federalism that will be promoted will soon be explained to the public. I hope, too, that we seek to strengthen the whole rather than selected parts. That would not be any change at all, just a shifting of opportunities to gain while others lose. Yes, there have been areas that have been disadvantaged, either by bad governance or simple partisanship. Federalism or any other form of government cannot solve that, only good governance and statesmanship.

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We are a nation in the making. Our unity in purpose and action is primordial to success whether material or moral. May that which deliberately nurtures our unity become the future choice of government.

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