Are Filipinos ready for federalism?
The campaign pushing Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to run for president in 2016 rides on the advocacy for the Philippines to shift to a federal form of government. But supporters of the extremely popular mayor seem to think that the shift can happen easily, as if it were as simple as changing outfits.
Unfortunately, this is not the case.
For many countries, such as the United States, Malaysia, Australia and Germany, federalization was actually a state-building effort. Each began as a loose collection of disparate political entities that gradually, and with painful upheavals, transformed themselves into a unified nation-state through the process of federalization.
It would essentially be the reverse in our case. Consequently, we face a much harder, more complicated, and possibly harsher version of federalization. It is thus disconcerting that purported advocates of federalism seem oblivious to the gravity of this sociopolitical reform. They quickly harp on the promise of enhanced local autonomy without even considering the readiness of the local leadership to assume the big responsibility of local governments under federalism, as if the fitness of the current crop for this form of government were already a given.
Note that one of the most important lessons in the discourse on the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law is the recognition of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as a failed experiment. The lesson being: Increasing the autonomy of local governments will ultimately amount to nothing if local leaders are incompetent and incapable of properly utilizing expanded powers and resources.
In fact, the overdependence of local government executives on the Internal Revenue Allotment and the continued existence of central-government largesse, or pork barrel funds, signify the stark reality that the development perspective of local leaders has not reached the level of sophistication necessary to sustain a federal government structure.
Political dynasties constitute the unequivocal proof that the quality of our local leaders is still below par as far as federalism is concerned. According to a groundbreaking study by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center in 2012 titled “An Empirical Analysis of Political Dynasties in the 15th Philippine Congress,” lower standards of living, lower human development, and higher levels of deprivation and inequality persist in the communities governed by political dynasties.
It would thus not be unfounded to conclude that federalizing with political dynasties still firmly entrenched in power would actually condemn the affected communities to perpetual poverty. It would certainly be justified to be concerned that federalizing with the quality of local leadership still at an untenable state would only make socioeconomic development more inequitable than it is. With these trepidations in mind, it is indeed very difficult to conceive of Filipinos as primed and ready for federalism.
Still I maintain that the switch to a federal form of government is a constitutional reform that we can all rally behind. But we have to disabuse ourselves of the idea that the switch will be as effortless as turning on a light switch.
Indeed, the primary task in the pursuit of this goal is to improve the quality of local leadership. Ardent believers of federalism can actively push for the enactment of these pieces of legislation: the Anti-Political Dynasty Law, the Freedom of Information Act and the Political Party Development Act of 2014.
There are other ways of uplifting leadership standards for our governors and mayors.
Nevertheless, these three laws are particularly vital because they impose structural reforms that can instigate drastic improvements to the way local governance is currently conceived and delivered.
However, I must emphasize, too, that the transition to federalism also requires the elevation of the electorate to a higher level of political consciousness. First and foremost, Filipinos must have a clear understanding of what this massive sociopolitical undertaking entails. And the best way to commence with this task is to abandon the populist approach that some supporters of federalism are taking.
The obvious danger here is that rhetoric and sound bytes, while good for catching the media’s attention, could make a caricature of the advocacy and thus diminish its potency.
I suggest a clinical and academic approach that would facilitate a circumspect and level-headed discussion on federalization among all sectors of Philippine society. Accordingly, I envisage a community congregation organized for such a purpose through the barangay-assembly apparatus and moderated by genuine promoters of federalization.
Admittedly, dissecting the intricacies of federalism does not exactly fall within the powers of the barangay assembly under the Local Government Code (LGC). But this mechanism is still the most convenient way to gather ordinary citizens and give them the opportunity to speak out and be heard. After all the LGC itself considers the barangay a “forum wherein the collective views of the people may be expressed, crystallized and considered.”
The desired result is for all Filipinos between Batanes and Tawi-Tawi to see themselves not as passive observers in the sidelines but as continuing stakeholders in the establishment of federalism in the country.
Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a practicing lawyer, is the author of the book “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.
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