Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Federalizing the Philippines: The Right Track at the Wrong Time

Despite the deafening concerns on food security, and the increasing prices of fuel and electricity, the issue of making the Philippines a Federal Republic would not die down. Since the day Senator Aquilino Pimentel passed Resolution No. 10 otherwise known as the “Joint Resolution to Convene the Congress into a Constituent Assembly for the Purpose of Revising the Constitution to Establish a Federal System of Government”, a number of activities were held advancing the cause of the system. The reason: Federalism is seen as a solution or a tool in addressing most of the country's woes. But, is it?

Federalism is defined as a system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units. It allows both self-rule on the part of the constituent unit, and a shared rule at the federal level between the central authority and state governments (Montes, 2006). This is as opposed to a unitary system wherein all the powers are vested in the central government and almost all policies and decisions emanate from it.

To date, only 26 of the 196 countries in the world are federal while seven are classified as federacy or the form of government in-between federal and unitary system as some sub-states function like states in a federation and others like states in a unitary state. Others, like Spain, are classified as states in transition from unitary to federal system. These, of course, exclude the Philippines as the country is purely unitarian in nature.

The Case of the Unitary System

In theory, there is no problem with unitary governments. As a matter of fact, using Henri Fayol's frame, unitary systems can facilitate the basic managerial functions such as: planning, organizing, commanding, coordinating, and controlling. This could explain why countries with unitary governments like China and Japan became two of the world's economic giants.

But of course, maximization of the system's utility may vary from country to country. Development-wise, for instance, 44 of the 164 countries with unitary system had been classified by the United Nations as least developed countries or LDCs. Only 22 are developed countries while the rest, like the Philippines, are considered as developing.

Culture can best explain why this happened. As unitary systems are highly centralized in structure, they therefore demand credible and responsible leaders. Because the Japanese are known for their sense of responsibility and self-discipline to the point that government officials would tender resignations if something goes wrong with the policy they initiated or implemented, the benefits of the system was therefore maximized. New leaders or officials who are more qualified to handle the posts can easily take over and finish the job. This is as opposed to the Philippines where, despite the obvious facts of mismanagement and maladministration, government officials would still cling to their post until they are ousted or convicted with finality by the Supreme Court.

Another reason is the motivation of officials and the government as a whole. Singaporean officials, for example, utilized the system for the economic advancement of the city while for the generals of Myanmar, it is for their perpetuation in power. Thus, the differences in outcome.

The third and most obvious, of course, is the kind of bureaucracy present in the government. Some unitary governments are very complicated that functions usually overlap. Thus, transactions become slow and the delivery of social services are delayed. In most cases, the overlapping function is due to over-staffing as a result of political accommodation. An example is the Philippine Government wherein based on the study conducted by the Civil Service Commission, sitting president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has hired an excess of 81 undersecretaries and assistant secretaries, 53 presidential advisers and presidential assistants, and an unknown number of consultants. To show off to the appointing authority and prolong their appointments, appointees would take-on whatever task they can find and end up duplicating the efforts of others. Worse, issues of conflicting decisions and pronouncements would arise. This usually happens with the statements of the Press Secretary, the Executive Secretary, the presidential spokesman and the Secretary of Justice who all act as spoke-persons of the president.

Some Drawbacks of Unitary Systems

But while the unitary form can facilitate government administration, its inherent characteristic of centralized authority can lead to a number of problems. First, if government institutions are weak, the tendency for the head of the government is to become dominant. Absent this dominant characteristic, the government will not be able to function effectively and satisfy the demands of its constituents easily and efficiently. This will result to widespread constituency dissatisfaction against the government and its officials. In the case of the Aquino Administration, the effect was rapid turnover of local officials and the presence of military adventurism.

On the other hand, if the head of the government becomes dominant and utilizes the power for his own interests rather than for the benefit of the public, the result would be aggression on the part of the latter. Insurgency and rebellion, along with EDSA I and II, are testaments to this.

Next, if the powers of the central government has become over-concentrated in the hands of a few and thus deteriorating the system of checks and balances, the tendency for unitary governments is to lean towards dictatorship. In this case, the weak institutions are not only usurped but are also transformed to become instruments of domination. Examples of these are the administrations of Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Arroyo. Marcos, apart from utilizing the military, went on to merge the legislative and executive departments to speed-up law-making and policy implementation. This affected much the Filipino political psychology that until now many are still adamant in shifting towards parliamentary system or the system where the holders of legislative and executive powers are almost the same.

As opposed to what Marcos did, Arroyo did not directly use the military nor push the actual merger of the executive and legislative departments. Instead, she appointed key military officials to various posts in the civil service. She also used the government resources to buy the loyalty and support of the local and national government officials including the members of the supposedly holders of the power of the purse, the Congress. As a fact, even the pork barrel which the Congressmen have alloted for themselves cannot be released without her approval. As such, all politicians engaged in pork barrel politics have to give way to the desires of the President otherwise, they will receive nothing.

Of course, absent the checks and balances, the tendency for power-holders is to acquire more and more power both politically and economically. This explains why seven in every ten governments with unitary system scored poor in the 2007 Corruption Perception Index – that is, they obtained a rating below 5 where 10 means “highly clean” and 0 means “highly corrupt”. The Philippines, meanwhile, scored 2.5 ranking next to Indonesia and Cambodia in the most corrupt countries in Southeast Asia.

For leaders who started with weak mandates, the tendency is to accommodate everyone who has a potential to help retain the grip of power. Arroyo, for instance, entered into various compromises just to retain her presidency. The costs, however, are lamentable for these included sacrificing the delivery of social services, rampant graft and corruption, and bastardization of democracy. Free press and free speech crumbled with the issuance of the calibrated preemptive response (later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court) and the promotion of the culture of impunity specially for journalists. Until now, the Philippines is still the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Second, the freedom to information was also curtailed particularly with the issuance of Executive Order 464. Hence, investigations are holed up and the scandals do not find closures because key persons considered vital in clearing the issues are not permitted by the president to attend the hearings based on the executive order. These, therefore, create deadlocks particularly in policy-making and stagnate political and economic development. The lack of safety nets and long term policies to avoid the present rice crisis as well as the rising costs of fuel and electricity are just but some examples.

The Promises of Federalism

According to advocates, the drawbacks of the unitary system will be avoided if the government will shift to federal form. Speaking particularly for the Philippines, Pimentel, on his sponsorship of Resolution No. 10 stated that the system will accomplish two major things:

  1. Cause the speedy development of the entire country by unleashing the forces of competitiveness among the States; and,

  2. Dissipate the causes of rebellion in the country and particularly in Mindanao.

Montes (2006: 159-163) adds that a shift to Federalism will also mean:

  1. The provision of an attractive option to solve inter-ethnic/cultural conflict;

  2. The creation of common defense and internal security systems particularly in those areas plagued by internal unrest;

  3. The creation of common market that would permit a free flow of commerce among diverse political communities; and,

  4. The creation of an avenue for decentralization and autonomy that will lead to better governance and democratization.

These are also embodied in the paper of Mazzone (2001:27,28) which summarizes the benefits as follows:

  • On the economic and public policy: Federalism is expected to (1) produce better policy outcomes as a result of the interplay of the national government and the states; (2) lead to economic efficiency as a result of the competition among the states coupled with the movement of labor and capital; and, (3) pave the way for the enactment of innovative policies and programs resulting from the experimentation at the state level.

  • On democracy: Federalism is expected to enhance of democracy as decision-making will occur at a more local level. The elected representatives will be forced to become more responsive to the needs of individuals while the political environment will open the opportunities for the citizens to participate more meaningfully in self-governance.

  • On liberties: The states may be better than the national government at protecting individual liberties either because state laws may provide greater protection for rights than federal law, or because the states may have greater resources or otherwise be more effective than the national government in enforcing federal rights.

  • On the social aspect: Federalism will lead to the promotion of social relationships that will allow citizens to overcome collective action barriers and to get things done. These, in turn, will promote social capital that can further improve the efficiency of society through coordinated action and effect an environment where greater opportunities for citizen groups to influence politics and for individual citizens to participate in public life are present.

All of these are attainable because inherent in the system are the features of the division of powers, the accommodation of diversity, constitutionalism, and fiscal federalism. In addition, the bicameralist feature will also allow the States to participate at federal decision-making.

Federalism and the Philippines

Despite these promising benefits, why is it that the Philippines has not shifted to federalism?

The idea of federalism is not foreign to the Filipinos. Citing Mojares, Cureg and Matunding (2006: 178,179), argue that federalism is already in the consciousness of the Filipinos as early as 1898 when leaders from the Province of Iloilo initiated the formation of a Federal State of Visayas. However, proposals to make the Philippines a federal country were rejected by the Americans because “deconcentrating powers would make it difficult for them to secure their control over their country.” This is also the observation of Hutchcroft and Rocamorra (2003) in their discussion on the origins and evolution of the democratic deficit in the Philippines.

Even then, the idea of shifting towards federalism persisted. One reason is the ethno-linguistic diversity of the Philippines. According to Cabuang (2008), there are 77 major ethno-linguistic groups in the country 20 of which have population over 700 thousand. In a number of cases, these groupings create inter-cultural conflict and oftentimes, those belonging to the minority are often set aside. Second, the Philippines is an archipelago. The highly centralized government which had been tested for decades was seen to be unresponsive particularly to those in the periphery. Thus, the need for a federal government.

For these reasons, Cureg and Matunding noted that “Filipinos at different critical historical periods have made attempts to do this in various forms: 1) proposals in the constitution/s; 2) political campaign platforms; and 3) advocacy through the formation of an alliance for a federalist movement.” As a transition phase, advocates even pushed for the passage of the Local Government Code of 1991 which provides for the decentralization and more autonomy for the local governments, and the creation of the autonomous regions like the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) and the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The creation of autonomous regions and the decentralization efforts as experiments towards Philippine federalism, however, failed. The reason is that most of the basic powers still remain with the central government and basic of this is the power over the purse. The autonomous regions, for instance, still need to beg for their respective budgetary allocations that as an ARMM official put it: Our autonomy is nothing but a paper autonomy.

Second, existing power holders are afraid to part with their powers. This includes Arroyo who, despite her issuance of Executive Order No. 699 aimed at expediting the shift to federalism, is still focused on the acquisition and consolidation of power. This is because power politics in the Philippines is still strong and for Arroyo, it is a must for her survival. To stress, Arroyo started with a weak mandate and for several times, there were a number of people power-like attempts to remove her from the presidential seat along with failed impeachment cases and military mutinies.

Next, there is a problem with information and dissemination. Others would confuse federalism with plain decentralization and devolution both of which are already contained in the Local Government Code. There are those who would also reason out that ARMM and CAR are already proto-states with their respective governments and officials yet both of them failed. Two failures is already enough, so goes the claim. Lately, the arguments have been further messed-up when Pimentel brought out the idea of secession under a federal government just like what Quebec is doing in the Canada. In a sense, the real concept of federalism is not being explained clearly and some points are being raised even outside the context.

This is also the case with advocates who would offer federalism as a packaged – that is, that the system should be adopted along with the parliamentary form of government. Because of the experience with the Marcos-style parliamentary form of government, the tendency for those traumatized is to opposed the concept automatically. This also boils down to a defective information and dissemination campaigns.

Lastly, the only way to effect federalism is through constitutional amendment. The problem, according to surveys, 56% of the Filipinos do not favor constitutional change especially if this will be done under the Arroyo Administration. As a matter of fact, excluding the current proposal of Pimentel, there are already two occasions when moves to amend the constitution surfaced. The first one was spearheaded by Sigaw ng Bayan (Cry of the People) and the Union of Local Authorities in the Philippines in 2005 and the second was spearheaded by Speaker Jose De Venecia in December 2006. Both, however, failed because the people fear that the sitting-president will just use the opportunity to prolong herself in power.

Moving Forward

With the present woes and the problematic set-up under a unitary system of government, it indeed appears that federalism, in the words of Pimentel, “is the final solution within reason”. The problem, however, is that there are a lot of things to be done to effect the system change. The first of these is arriving at a consensus as to what kind or type of federalism is applicable in the country. This should also clarify whether or not the parliamentary form should be included and if so, how should these be communicated to the public.

After the consensus-building, the next steps are strategizing and implementation of information and dissemination campaigns on federalism. The campaigns should be aimed at providing clarity to the concept as well as the resolution of the issues that are sometimes raised to mess up the process.

Ground working should also continue and this include the preparation of the public in case the moves to amend the constitution push through. This include also getting the support of the Church and other groups opposed to constitutional change. The resolution of Pimentel can already serve as a starting point but then again, this should be subject to reviews.

Next, more studies should be undertaken and this should include the search for answers on how the new system will answer the issues of foreign debt and up to what extent the division of powers will be shared. This will facilitate the transition period from unitary to federal.

Lastly, the existing gains for the efforts should not be set aside. These include the consolidation of movements and organizations advocating the system. These gains, no matter how small, can serve as stepping stones towards the goal of a federal Philippines.###


Cabuang, Fred S. “Accomodating Ethno-Linguistic Diversity”. Paper presentation on “A Round Table Discussion on the Way Forward for Decentralization and Federalism in the Philippines”, Carmona, Cavite: 23-24 April 2008

Cureg, Elyzabeth F. and Jennifer F. Matunding. “Federalism Initiatives in the Philippines.” Federalism and Multi-Culturalism. Eds. Simeon Agustin Ilago and Raphael Montes, Jr. CLRG: Philippines, 2006. 177-201

Hutchcroft, Paul D. and Joel Rocamorra. “Journal of East Asian Studies 3 (2003): 259- 292

Mazzone, Jason. “The Social Capital Argument for Federalism.” Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal. 11 (2001): 27-62

Montes, Raphael Jr. “Understanding Federalism.” Federalism and Multi-Culturalism. Eds. Simeon Agustin Ilago and Raphael Montes, Jr. CLRG: Philippines, 2006. 155-176

Pimentel, Aquilino. “Federalizing the Philippines: The Final Solution within Reason.” Keynote Address on the Seminar on Federalism in Carmona, Cavite. April 23, 2008.

Senate of the Philippines. Joint Resolution No. 10: Joint Resolution to Convene the Congress Into a Constituent Assembly for the Purpose of Revising the Constitution to Establish a Federal System of Government. April 23, 2008

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