Is the promise of federalism fake news?
President Duterte is the Philippines’ most ardent supporter of the draft federal constitution. Yet, the proposed shift has not received consistent support from the public, even as this is pursued by advocates ostensibly to improve governance. How this objective can be achieved is neither clear nor certain.
Under the current unitary system, the national government promotes efficiency and checks on executive power through the authority of national legislative bodies and line agencies. While placing more power on central bodies can produce sweeping policy changes, it can also embed authoritarian rule, as the country’s history demonstrates.
To correct this, the plan is to establish a federal system that mandates the creation of separate legislative assemblies in 18 federated yet autonomous regional governments, which would be accountable and responsive to the diverse needs of local societies.
However, the proposed system can be the same nest for political dynasties to continue their usual business. Hence, one of the more important and positive features of the draft constitution is the inclusion of an antidynasty provision as a “fundamental predicate” to discouraging monopolies on local power and resources. The constitutional committee has vowed to walk out of the process if this provision is rescinded.
To facilitate wealth-sharing and more representative democracy, the draft constitution dangles the new privileges, powers and resources of the recently signed Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) as a promise of what lies in store for all.
The 1987 Constitution gave special status to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and the Cordillera Administrative Region as a way to recognize the injustices suffered by the people of these regions in the past, and to allow these regions to catch up. In short, any autonomous region that emerges from a federal constitution must recognize the asymmetric relationship between themselves and these regions. To push for equal and equivalent privileges, powers and resources can result in a race to the bottom that, in the end, will mean inadequate privileges, powers and resources for all.
Vertical autonomy is seen as a corrective to the inefficiencies in the Local Government Code, by putting the needs of local government into the hands of regional lawmakers. Of course, this can only happen if fiscal policies ring-fence the financial resources given unconditionally to the regions, versus those with conditions attached.
The BOL experience does not inspire confidence in the willingness of the center to remove its powers over spending decisions. The provision that creates a Federal Intergovernmental Commission that will administer the equalization fund is no different from a similar body created for the Bangsamoro.
For political autonomy to be effective, regional control over local government units should march in step with the ability to generate their own streams of revenue. Article XIII of the draft federal constitution enumerates a variety of taxing powers exclusive to the regional governments, and specifies that the federated regions will be given “not less” than 50 percent of federally collected income, excise and value-added taxes, and customs duties. As with discussions surrounding the BOL, this percentage will prove to be one of the more contested issues leading up to potential passage.
Given such, the central government is more likely to tame the very same independent urges and powers that fiscal autonomy promises, instead of encouraging a medley of policy and spending habits that will result in more responsive policies and programs overall.
As it stands today, the proposed federal system’s realignment of the national government and decentralization of power have yet to provide credible guarantee that these will improve the responsiveness of government to the policy ideas and creativeness of otherwise silenced citizens. Changes that hinder local spending capabilities, or strip away the antidynasty provision, will determine if autonomy and accountable governance will truly have a chance to flourish.
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Jesse Broad-Cavanagh is an intern at International Alert Philippines. He studies government and economics at Wesleyan University in the United States. His research interests include political communication, sociology of crime and constitutional law.
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