Promises and perils of federalism | Inquirer Opinion

Promises and perils of federalism

12:01 AM September 04, 2016

federalIN PREVIOUS attempts to change the 1987 Constitution, the public debates were focused on shifting to a parliamentary system though federalism was also proposed.

Now, federalism has become the primary focus because of the priority given to it by the present administration, especially President Duterte who campaigned with this constitutional change agenda.


However, it appears that many Filipinos are not aware of the proposed constitutional change and a large number are not even knowledgeable about the 1987 Constitution.

Pulse Asia’s national survey conducted in July before the State of the Nation Address of the President found that less than half of respondents (41 percent) were aware of the proposal to amend the Constitution. Awareness was more pronounced in Class ABC (57 percent).


Another alarming aspect of the survey results was that most respondents (73 percent) said they had little or no knowledge at all about the Constitution. Higher levels of “sufficient/
great knowledge” were registered in Metro Manila (34 percent) as well as in Class ABC (43 percent).

Sharing of sovereignty
Federalism refers to a government system in which there is constitutionally established sharing of sovereignty between central and state governments.

A third of the world’s population is under certain forms of federalism based on its particular historical, geographic, sociocultural and political contexts. However, federalism, like any other institutional arrangement, has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Below are some points to ponder when discussing federalism for the Philippines.

Diversity, peace, unity
Former Sen. Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr. argues that federalism could address the problems of ethnic- or minority-based armed rebellion in Mindanao and the lack of development in local areas due to the concentration of resources at the center.

Some countries like Canada, India and Switzerland have indeed opted for a federal structure to bridge ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity within a society. Even in Western European countries, the textbook distinction between federal and unitary states has become more blurred as some formal unitary states respond to pressures from minority nationalisms and local democracy to grant autonomy to ethnic groups occupying particular areas.

Belgium has shifted to a full federal system while Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom have resorted to quasi-federal forms or regionalization.


No assurance
However, there is no assurance that armed conflicts and secessionist aspirations will stop due to a shift to a federal system. Federalism cannot simply create unity in diversity or a sense of nationalism that transcends people’s primary identities.

In the Basque region in Spain, the Euzkadi ta Askatasuna retains its armed capability and struggle for independence despite the granting of powers to the area through Spain’s “asymmetrical” federal mechanism. Catalunya in Spain and Scotland in the United Kingdom still retain independence aspirations.

In terms of fostering a national identity, Canada’s federalism has largely failed to construct a political union within which both French-speaking and English-speaking populations can live harmoniously.

The same can be argued for Belgium, which has failed to create a “Belgian” national identity amid the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking populations despite a shift to a federal setup.

Devolution, federalism
The Philippines’ current unitary system allows for devolution. While sovereignty is constitutionally reserved for the national government, some powers and responsibilities are decentralized to local government units (LGUs). This is made possible through the 1991 Local Government Code (LGC). Have all the provisions been exhausted and the supposed benefits of the full implementation of the LGC been maximized so that the next stage is to move to a full federal setup?

Twenty-five years after, did the LGC lead to greater local development, grassroots democratization and more efficient delivery of public services? Have local governments, politicians and citizens adjusted to their responsibilities and are now ready for a federal system?

Indeed, there are a number of trailblazing and innovative local governments in the area of service delivery, people’s participation, economic development and disaster management, etc.

There are also cases of successful local and grassroots partnerships in areas where there are active civil society groups, progressive local officials, and supportive academic, civil society and private institutions.

However, the situation is not the same across all LGUs. There are localities that remain poor. Others have no active civil society groups and power remains in the hands of a few elites. Local corruption, violence and patron-client relations continue.

LGC not maximized
Many of the provisions of the LGC have not yet been maximized. The recall and initiative mechanisms have not been used regularly and properly. There are no sectoral representatives in the local councils as mandated by the LGC. Local development councils and special bodies are not working as envisioned.

Can these provisions still be properly implemented and the LGC amended to make it work better before shifting to or together with the shift to a federal setup?

Asymmetrical federalism
Is asymmetrical federalism already out of the question now that the administration plans to put the entire country under a federal setup? Is it still possible to address the autonomy issues in Muslim Mindanao without federalizing the entire Philippines?

Temario Rivera, Ph.D., a professional lecturer at the Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines Diliman, argued for asymmetrical federalism instead of a wholesale shift to federalism in the context of Muslim Mindanao and building on the lessons gained from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) experience and the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL).

There are examples of this setup. Spain is an example of a “differentiated” or asymmetrical federalism in which most parts of the country still seem to operate as a unitary state with some devolution but there are areas that operate as if they are part of a federal state.

Under Spain’s 1978 Constitution, the autonomous communities can enter into negotiations with the central government to produce a law defining the powers to be enjoyed provided that they do not conflict with the Constitution.

Not all communities have chosen or been able to assert their autonomy compared with the historical regions of the Basque region and Catalunya. Some constitutionalists are labeling the United Kingdom as an example of a “quasi-federal” system due to varying levels of autonomy given to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Resources, dependence
Autonomy and greater responsibilities at the local level will not work without fiscal decentralization in the form of greater fiscal grants and/or shares of federal states and LGUs. Supporters of federalism argue that greater resources and increased revenue shares will go to federal states and LGUs.

Pimentel proposed allocating 80 percent of resources to the federal states and increasing LGUs’ revenue share from what is currently provided for by the LGC (40 percent) so that vital needs of all sectors of society are provided for. Pimentel is also realistic in acknowledging that not all of the proposed federal states are equal in terms of resources and opportunities.

Equalization fund
Thus, he is proposing an Equalization Fund to be administered by the federal government to assist states badly needing development funds. This is currently the practice in some federations like Canada and Germany.

But what mechanisms can be put in place to avoid possible cases of continued dependence of poorer states on development funds from the central government? What performance-based incentives can be offered so that states and LGUs will focus on increasing local incomes and equitable development?

How can the situation in other countries where wealthier or more developed states or regions resent subsidizing states and regions that continue to remain poor despite development support from the central government be avoided?

After reunification, people from states (Lander) in the former West Germany resented subsidizing through their taxes the Lander in the less economically developed former East Germany. In Italy where powers are devolved to regional governments, the more developed regions in the north resent the development assistance given to the poorer southern regions.

There is even a political party, Lega Nord (Northern League), that is calling for increased autonomy for some of the richest Italian regions, even envisioning a nation called Padania.

Delivery of basic services
One supposed advantage of decentralization and federalism is greater efficiency in the delivery of basic services. However, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, federalism might actually lead to widening disparity of outcomes in terms of the provision and quality of public services.

Citizens in some states may be efficiently receiving services that are of high quality but citizens in other states have to deal with poor services. What mechanisms can be put in place to achieve national and state targets regarding delivery of services?
Health workers
One concrete case is the current situation of public health services. Health services were the biggest and most controversial set of services devolved under the LGC. There were efforts to recentralize health services because health workers feared that health services would not be prioritized by local officials due to low appreciation and lack of knowledge of and resources for health services.

Health workers also feared that with devolution, they would be at the mercy of local politicians who would threaten their tenure and benefits. President Fidel Ramos vetoed the bill recentralizing health services in 1995. But until today, health professionals and academics complain about the poor state of health services in various localities, despite some outstanding LGUs with good health programs.

What will happen with health and other public services that will be the responsibility of federal states in a federal setup? What will happen to health and other government workers who will now be assigned at the state level? How can the civil service and bureaucracies at different levels be strengthened to fulfill their mandates without political interference from local or state elites?

Avoiding gridlock
One documented advantage of federalism is that it creates a system of checks and balances. However, it can also result in frustration and paralysis as implementation of bold reforms from the central authority or emergency intervention of the central authority to deal with an urgent situation like disasters or failure of governance in one or several of the states can be very difficult due to noncooperation of the federal states.

In this current situation in which many key government services are becoming more and more interconnected, governments at all levels have to be more interdependent. There is a need for mechanisms under federalism in which there is coordination and sharing instead of just competition.

In terms of emergency intervention of the federal government, the Philippines can look at India and Brazil wherein federal interventions are possible when issues like human rights, good governance and democracy are threatened in some constituent states.

In disasters, the Philippines’ experience with Supertyphoon “Yolanda” and other disasters, as well as the experiences of federal systems like the United States and Mexico in their successes and failures dealing with disasters, can be looked into.

Double-edged sword
In summary, federalism, like devolution, is a double-edged sword. Federalism alone will not be able to solve problems related to armed conflicts, ethnic and cultural diversity, equitable development, efficient delivery of services and local democracy.

If done haphazardly, it can lead to further problems. The process of changing the Constitution and creating a new layer of government will entail huge costs. Thus, deliberations must be thorough and participatory.

Framers will have to look at various models of federalism and what other institutional arrangements can be combined (presidential, semipresidential, parliamentary, etc.) before deciding which federalism model and institutional combination would be more appropriate for the Philippines given its own history, political culture and socioeconomic conditions.

Public discussions
The public should also be involved in information dissemination and public discussions. A well-informed public, after all, will approve the proposed Charter change.

At the same time, it would be good to focus on a number of other actions that could complement a federal setup or may even be prioritized before the decision to move to a federal system can be made.

These can include electoral and party-system reforms to make elections more competitive and political parties stronger, a freedom of information act, amendments to the LGC such as reformulating the revenue-sharing scheme, a progressive tax system, legislation strengthening participatory democracy, more inclusive antipoverty programs, political dynasty laws, strengthening of institutions and the rule of law, etc.

(Maria Ela L. Atienza, Ph.D., is a professor at the Department of Political Science, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman.)

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