At Large

1973 all over again

I remember it only vaguely. But soon after the declaration of Marcos martial law, the dictator rushed the completion and voting on the 1973 Constitution. In lieu of a formal plebiscite, it was decided to subject the new Charter to voting in barangay or village assemblies, with the people gathered asked merely to vote “yes” or “no” on ratification by a show of hands.

Of course, the “Marcos Constitution” was ratified with little trouble. But hardly anybody I knew took the results seriously. There were stories, apocryphal or not, that the people gathered at the assemblies were being asked whether they wanted free rice or other such goods, and photos of the nearly unanimous “yes” vote were published to “prove” overwhelming support for the Constitution. And with such results, the Marcos machinery had all the legal justification it needed to rule with an iron fist.


The recent passage by the “consultative committee” of a draft Constitution replacing the present unitary system (under a nationally elected President) with a federalist system seems a harbinger for a repeat of the 1973 farce. As news reports say, the “ConCom” will submit the draft to Malacañang which will in turn transmit it to Congress, and once it is passed, it will then be subject to a plebiscite. This is expected to result in ratification and the adoption of a new constitution whose highlight is the shift to a federal system.

So far, there has been no word yet if that plebiscite will be done through a show of hands in barangay assemblies. But the entire process and result won’t seem to be any much different from the martial law mockery of the law.


President Duterte has been saying all along that one of the goals of his term is the shift to federalism, one wholeheartedly supported and championed by his political party, PDP-Laban. And he won’t even have to twist arms. Although passage by the Senate is not a sure thing, given the overwhelming majority that PDP-Laban enjoys in the much bigger House, passage seems a done deal.

We could wake up one morning—soon—and find ourselves living in a different country, with political power scattered among 18 federated regions. In reality, though, the mishmash of regions is little more than a collection of fiefdoms. Studies have shown that, while the “power of the center” now enjoyed by “Imperial Manila” will be dissipated, the existence of dynastic families entrenched in the political structure in many provinces would mean only that even more power will be enjoyed by fewer families.

In this case, shifting to federalism would not redound to greater democracy or autonomy for the regions, but rather result in a less vigorous and dynamic democracy, especially for people in regions dominated by powerful clans. Defenders of the ConCom will say that there is an “antidynasty” provision in the proposed constitution. But we all know how constitutional principles can be so easily subverted, especially in a scenario where the traditional checks and balances have all but been wiped out.

A study on how federalism works around the world “suggests three conclusions,” wrote DJ de Jesus in a piece published in this paper. These are: federalism does not guarantee decentralization; decentralization can be achieved within a unitary state; and “if decentralization efforts in the Philippines are failing to yield the expected benefits, it is not because of its unitary political structure.”

Have there been enough in-depth studies into how a shift to federalism could address the most basic issues of our democracy? Will federalism translate into better economic performance and more equitable distribution around the country? Considering that national wealth is concentrated in only three or four regions, how will the other regions with little resources or manufacturing capability fare once their subsidies from the national treasury are withdrawn?

The biggest question of all: Do we know enough about what this proposed shift would mean for all of us? And have the debates and discussions been open and comprehensive enough? What’s the rush?

[email protected]


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TAGS: Ferdinand Marcos, martial law, Rodrigo Duterte
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