A vote for federalism?
Dr. Eduardo Araral Jr., vice dean (research) at the LKY School of Public Policy in Singapore, favors federalism for the Philippines. He does not believe that “tinkering” with the Local Government Code will achieve genuine devolution and decentralization—a belief shared by those who prefer a unitary system. But his commitment to federalism is conditional. In his view, federalism will fail unless reinforced by these reforms:
- Adoption of dual or semipresidential system.
- Shift to proportional representation.
- Constitutional restrictions on political dynasties.
- Ban on “political butterflies.”
- Strengthening of political parties.
- Strengthening of constitutional bodies in the regions, especially the Civil Service Commission and the Commission on Audit.
- Reducing duplication in the work of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
- Judicial reforms, especially strengthening the Sandiganbayan, appellate courts and the Office of the Ombudsman at regional levels.
Rather than a pure presidential or parliamentary system, Dr. Araral proposes a nationally elected president and a prime minister elected by parliament. The president might serve as head of state, responsible for national security and foreign affairs. The prime minister addresses economic and social policies. Collective leadership will give the government greater unity and stability.
The present system empowers voters to elect the representative of their district to the legislature. With the proportional system of representation, they will also cast a vote for a political party. Half of the legislative seats will go, as currently, to representatives elected by district. Political parties will appoint the other half, based on the votes cast nationwide for them.
Proportional representation would compel the parties to differentiate themselves from the competitors, to build a distinctive brand through the policies and programs they advocate. This would also reduce the pull of personalities in the selection of candidates and curb the tendency toward patronage politics and the exaggerated focus on local interests.
The other reform items are familiar and self-explanatory, advocated for decades by progressive political leaders. All these reforms would not require a shift to a federal or parliamentary system. They can be independently implemented under a unitary form of government—and without constitutional change.
Considered by Dr. Araral as essential to the success of federalism, these reforms are desirable in themselves and can gain support from both those for and against federalism. As they improve governance, we can assess what additional reforms are needed and whether we must incur the risks of Charter change. But are these reforms acceptable to the administration?
The 1987 Constitution already carries the prohibition against political dynasties. Congress, dominated by political dynasts, has refused to enact the implementing rules. President Duterte, whose family is favorably poised to build its own, has opposed any restraint on dynasties.
Following Mr. Duterte’s decisive electoral victory, the current Congress is populated by political butterflies. The ruling party appears determined to use its control of the budget to crush any opposition. How likely that it would seek to strengthen political parties, considered crucial to the success of a parliamentary system, and allow the emergence of potential competitors?
Where is the evidence that this administration seeks to strengthen constitutional bodies? Or the judiciary? Or the principle of the division of powers embodied in all our constitutions? What we see is the assault on the Commission on Elections, the Commission on Human Rights, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Chief Justice, the media, the Church.
We see fake news demonizing the opposition and dividing the population, the glacial pace in suppressing impunity, the sustained courtship of the elements that can control or inflict violence. We can debate the details of these items, but hardly mistake the design of the pattern: the centralization of power in one party and the loosening of constraints on the exercise of authoritarian rule.
The panel constituted to review the issues of Charter change must address the questions raised by Dr. Araral’s conditional support for federalism. A rigorous assessment of proposed transitory provisions should identify the immediate beneficiaries of Charter change.
The administration rejects laudable reforms that will promote the success of the change to federalism that it advocates. Can the public be blamed for looking at patterns to discern its real agenda?
Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected] gmail.com) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.
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