How many states?
A proposal was made recently to divide the envisaged federal system of government into 81 states corresponding to our existing provinces, by—not surprisingly—the League of Provinces of the Philippines (LPP). That may yet be the most extreme proposal regarding the number of states the proposed federal system should have. At the opposite end is the idea of having only two, proposed before under the “asymmetric federalism” formula floated to provide autonomy for Muslim Mindanao as a Bangsamoro state. More recent serious proposals put the number of states between 5 and 14.
How the country will be divided into states is a critical feature in the federalism proposal, which must undergo wide and careful public discussion, having profound implications for the nation’s future. As proposed by the ruling political party PDP-Laban, there would be 11 regional governments: (1) Northern Luzon, (2) Central Luzon, (3) Southern Tagalog, (4) Bicol, (5) Minparom (the two Mindoros, Palawan, Romblon and Marinduque), (6) Eastern Visayas, (7) Central Visayas, (8) Western Visayas, (9) Northern Mindanao, (10) Southern Mindanao, and (11) Bangsamoro. Metro Manila would be separately defined as the Federal Administrative Region.
Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, while with PDP-Laban himself, has floated his own proposal for 14 states: seven in Luzon, two in the Visayas and five in Mindanao, including two Moro states and one state comprising indigenous peoples. He would have the nation’s capital located in Negros island, on the argument that it would be accessible to all people from the three island groups of the country. Meanwhile, a subcommittee under the House committee on constitutional amendments proposes only five states: Metro Manila, Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao and Bangsamoro.
What I see lacking so far is a careful elaboration of guiding principles behind how the country should be divided into whatever number of states under a federal system. Such principles are essential if all are to be convinced that the proposed subdivisions will redound to the greater good of the nation, and not just driven by political or personal ends of the proponents (as the LPP proposal appears to be). A persistent issue on this is the pre-existing inequality in natural, physical and human endowments across areas of the country, which inevitably leads to a lopsided distribution of economic opportunities and potentials. Federalism, it is argued, could only worsen such inequalities through time, unless drastic but unpopular redistributive mechanisms are made part
of the system. The finer the subdivision, such as in LPP’s 81 states, the more such
inequities will be an issue. A member of the consultative committee on the Constitution formed by President Duterte felt the need to remind the provincial governors that a fundamental purpose of federalism is to achieve economies of scale via amalgamation. If that is indeed a primary rationale, then the challenge is to have the least number of states while adequately considering the ethnic, political, social and economic bases for the demarcation of administrative units.
For example, a common view among those who better understand the country’s Islamic peoples holds that it will never work to have only one Bangsamoro state that lumps together the mainland Muslim Mindanao provinces (Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur) with the Basulta (Basilan, Sulu and Tawi Tawi) island provinces. This is because the mainland Muslim ethnic groups, including the Maguindanao, Maranaw and Iranun, have historically not seen eye-to-eye with the Tausug, Yakan, Badjao and other island-based ethnic groups. That, after all, was the difference between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (dominated by the mainland groups) and the Moro National Liberation Front (island groups), which appear to have seen each other as rivals through the years. Some even argue that peace will remain elusive in Mindanao if there will only be one Bangsamoro state combining the two.
With this and so many more complex issues to address, not a few believe that the other extreme, that of having only one state, is the way to go—that is, not to federalize at all.