Federalism: a deeper look | Inquirer Opinion

Federalism: a deeper look

FEDERALISM IS the current buzzword because President-elect Rodrigo Duterte is a staunch proponent of this form of government. The fact that federation is actually a state-building effort is not always mentioned.

For many countries with the federal form of government, federalization was principally about pulling constituent political entities together in order to establish a singular and united nation-state. The resulting central (federal) apparatus was essentially a platform to allocate power and resources between the two levels of government. But the autonomy of the constituent entities (state) was always jealously preserved in the course of federation.

It does not register often as well but for the Philippines, the federalism pathway would be the reverse. First, a central entity in full control of the entire country already exists. Second, local autonomy is yet to find a firm ground in the overall administration of government.

And worse, any attempt at federalization would have to first overcome a mindset of subservience and dependency on the central government, which was deeply ingrained by centuries of colonial rule and almost two decades of dictatorship. Hence, this undertaking just cannot be about organizing the territorial and political subdivisions of the country into “states.”


It is particularly telling that our incoming President actually accepts how difficult is the path to federation for all Filipinos. In his words, this endeavor will entail “long, very contentious discussions” before coming to fruition. Such a cathartic process is only natural when the task at hand is redefining the internal mechanics of government itself.

In “Understanding Federalism,” the scholar Raphael N. Montes summarized the federalism project thus: “Designing a federal system is not a very easy task. Besides its basic principles, federalism is very customizable. The peculiarities of a country would define the different features of its own brand of federalism. It would be useful to seek out relevant models but these models would only serve as guideposts since a country’s federal system should reflect the unique conditions of its society.”

Nevertheless, there are three fundamental features of federalism that are absolutely indispensable: 1) a streamlined allocation of responsibilities between the central and state governments; 2) a state government structure that reflects a collective approach to governance; and 3) state mechanisms that foster cooperation and collaboration among the state governments in addressing national concerns.

Firstly, the allocation of responsibilities between the federal and state governments must be clear and coherent. This is not exactly a pioneering innovation given the work done in the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law. The only task required here is to come up with a broader national framework that reflects this streamlined division of government labor.


Obviously, there are government functions that cannot be devolved to the state governments. These usually pertain to matters that require uniform and nationwide regulation, such as national defense, currency, and postage.

On the other hand, there are functions that are clearly appropriate for state governments, such as environment protection and solid waste management, to name a few.


But there are public mandates in between these two poles that can be allocated to either of the two levels of government, such as police, health and education. This is the area where deliberation is most crucial. The point to remember is that the devolution of functions has to be formulated in such a way that the assignment of accountability is unequivocal. We do not want a distribution scheme that leaves everyone clueless as to which level of government can be held answerable for our dissatisfaction. Neither do we want overlapping designations that allow government leaders to pass the blame for failure to deliver public services to our satisfaction.

Secondly, the state government structure must reflect a collective approach to governance. The current model must be replaced because political families have ensured the fate of the local governments as highly dependent on the person holding the executive post. This manipulation has further entrenched the patronage relationship between the local executive and his/her constituency, thereby allowing local politicos to enjoy an unhealthy prominence in governance.

An effective countermeasure against this pattern of patronage in local politics is to integrate a sense of community in government at the state level. The structure itself must be configured to facilitate a collective governance mindset.

An example of such is a parliamentary type of configuration similar to the “leader-and-cabinet model” used by local governments in the United Kingdom. As a corollary to this restructuring, the mechanism of sectoral representation can be further enhanced in the “cabinet” to widen and deepen community participation in policy formulation and implementation.

Needless to say, other legislative reform measures, such as antilocal dynasty and political party reform laws, are likewise imperative. What must be kept in mind is that the engagement of the community in state-level governance is crucial to the success of the federal regime itself.

Thirdly, mechanisms must be established to foster cooperation and collaboration among the constituent state governments in addressing national concerns. One solid truth about the federalization process is that it does not diminish the integrity of the nation-state. Indeed, federation is not just about the devolution of political and fiscal powers to the local level; it is also about a shared responsibility of shaping the future of the whole country.

For example, the governing body of the National Economic and Development Authority can be reorganized to comprise representatives appointed by state governors for a fixed term.  However, for this office to effectively function as the national congregation of the various communities in the country, it should not be a mere advisory council. It should be designed to have legitimate policymaking functions as well.

The truth is maintaining a rigid and limited view of federalism seems counterintuitive given that our Constitution does not actually mandate a specific decentralization arrangement and has in fact empowered Congress to determine the structural mechanics of local autonomy. Meaning, if lawmakers wanted to, they can actually work on incorporating these federalist principles in the current local autonomy regime when the new legislative session begins next month.

Indeed, according to a noted federalism expert and constitutional scholar, Prof. Cheryl Saunders of the Melbourne Law School, what is important is that the new design meets the country’s pressing needs. And most crucial of all, that there should be among the people both a shared understanding of what has been created and a shared commitment to make it work.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Subscribe to our daily newsletter

By providing an email address. I agree to the Terms of Use and acknowledge that I have read the Privacy Policy.

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.

TAGS: Commentary, Constitution, Duterte, federalism, Government, opinion, Rodrigo Duterte

© Copyright 1997-2024 INQUIRER.net | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.