Federalist shift is recipe for paralysis

CANBERRA—The first thing President Duterte did after  his inauguration was to fly to Davao City to start dismantling the superstructure dominance of “Imperial  Manila” as the national capital of the unitary Philippine state for more than 400 years.

He did so, believing that his election last month had given him the mandate to undertake the most ambitious overhaul of the Philippine political system since the first Republic was established by Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo in Kawit, Cavite province.


The former mayor of Davao City started his political reengineering by ruling by decree with nothing to back his initiative more solid than  sheer gumption and the election campaign pledge to shift the political system from the highly centralized framework to the federal system, without having to go through a democratic process of constitutional revision.

Within days of his inauguration, Mr. Duterte declared he would govern the country from both Manila and Davao City. According to Mr. Duterte’s family, the President would spend four days in Manila and three days in Davao City.


Weeks before his inauguration, Mr. Duterte said he wanted to commute between Davao and Manila daily. The flight between Manila and Davao City that the President would take would mean spending half of his six-year term on board an aircraft instead of working at his desk tackling the multifarious problems saddling the nation.

Silent on cost

Malacañang is silent about the cost involved in these shuttles, which is not likely to be inconsiderable, in transporting  Cabinet members and their staff and entourages.

In meetings in these two widely separated centers of power and authority from the point of view of costs and benefits, management experts may not find this the most cost-efficient way of deploying resources.

The behemoth called Imperial Manila has been a favorite bashing beast of critics advocating devolution of central powers to local governments to give them autonomy and provide them with revenue to fund their own economic development projects and make them less dependent on the generosity of the central government and internal revenue allocations for financing.

Supporters of devolution are riding the bandwagon of the shift to the federal system—an important plank of Duterte’s economic platform as a seductive panacea for economic growth.

Mission impossible


In confronting the supremacy of the central government based in Metro Manila, the challengers close their eyes to the huge reality that they are ramming their siege engines against the formidable walls of Troy—a mission impossible until the Greeks used guile by sending a wooden horse (filled with warriors) to the Trojans, who towed it into their city.

Metaphorically speaking, the power of Imperial Manila stands on a vast bureaucracy at the heart of a national administration whose networks extend down to the provinces, the chartered cities and the municipalities.

No matter how much commuting

Mr. Duterte makes between Manila and Davao City, he cannot break the administrative control of Manila in the day-to-day running of the government.

He who controls this vast machinery can control the nation politically. He is not in control. He does not understand the dynamics of the bureaucracy.

His experience in this aspect of governance is limited to the provincial and parochial outlook of the Davao City government.

In Mr. Duterte’s simplistic view, the shift to federalism is the key to ending the domination of  Imperial Manila of national life, as well as fighting poverty and ending the Moro separatist insurgency.


Mr. Duterte vowed during the election campaign to revise the Constitution to achieve his bold plan to devolve power from the central government to federal states in this nation with 81 provinces.

No matter how much Mr. Duterte rants against the oligarchy that has dominated national life over several generations, he cannot ignore questions such as the dispersal and fragmentation of the bureaucracy into small units to two rival seats of government established by him.

These questions demand coherent answers.

We have a centralized Cabinet holding regular meetings. Under the dispersal, it is not clear when and where it will meet—in Davao City or in Manila.

The bureaucracy is a massive institution. It cannot be broken up into small units and transplanted in either seat of government. It is extremely expensive and disruptive to relocate the key ministries, for example, the executive offices, foreign affairs, interior, defense, finance, justice, or trade and industry.

Mr. Duterte cannot relocate to Davao City the Armed Forces of the Philippines or the Philippine National Police, all centralized in Imperial Manila in their chain of command, without plunging his government into paralysis.

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