Head to Head: Governance: Unitary vs Federal

The ‘System’ is often blamed for the many inefficiencies and problems faced by the nation today.  There have been numerous pleas for changing the way the government is set up, mostly for reasons such as welfare and development.  We pit the Philippines’ current government setup against that of its major political influence, the United States – the federal system.

In the current state of the Philippines under the unitary system, a centralized form of government that roots itself in Metro Manila, a shift to the federal system – probably making Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao states of their own – can yield a lot of changes for the dynamic of the country. Put the two against each other within the context of the country and ask: which one gives a better edge?


The unitary system

The unitary system, which revolves around a central authority, is the system used in most presidential and parliamentary countries today.  Some refer to this type as a top-to-bottom government since the power comes from the top and trickles down to the bottom.

This central government is in fact in charge of policy making and is the ultimate law making body in the land.  In many cases like the Philippines, it delegates these tasks to subsequent provincial and local government units.  These units implement enact laws as mandated by the central agency.

The main advantage of the unitary system is uniformity among the different local and provincial governments.  All major laws and policies are then implemented the same regardless of the level of government.

Local and national disputes are also less frequent.  Since the national government is the ultimate governing body, local government units cannot enact their own laws that could duplicate services or undermine laws in effect.  Much like a father with his family, it is the central government’s house, so its rules must be followed.

The unitary system is not without skeletons in its closet.  One huge problem with this structure is that the central agency cannot tackle local problems head on.  This is a problem since upon being carried out by the local governments, specific needs are easily overlooked in the smaller case analysis.  Like a stressed, overloaded brain of the human body, the higher government is not able to specifically address many local issues as it tries to balance its many other responsibilities.

Local government units up to the provincial government may also be ill-equipped to tackle local concerns.  Since the national government deals with national problems and is responsible for budgeting of sectors, it may allocate funds for bigger projects and programs, leaving the local governments to fend for themselves.


The federal

Running a country is obviously not an easy thing to do.  There is an economy to be managed, international relations to be mended, projects to be implemented, and problems to be solved.  There is only so much a single governing body can handle, and when macromanagement becomes too much for a single body to handle, it’s time to divide and conquer.  This is the essence of a federation.

Unlike a nation under a unitary form of government, a federal state is divided into several smaller, self-governed states or regions.  These states function almost like independent countries, and may even have their own set of state-specific laws – same-sex marriage may be allowed in some but not in others, for example – but are directly concerned with nationwide issues such as national defense or foreign policy.  Those issues are handled by a central government, which acts like a governing body of the smaller, state-governing bodies.  The states and the central government follow a set of rules and policies that define their relationship and what can and cannot be done by both.

The federal type of governance has many advantages. Geoffrey de Q. Walker, Emeritus Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, explains some of these advantages.  One of these is the right of choice and exit by the citizens.  A federation citizen has greater freedom of choosing and moving to a state that he or she considers satisfactory.  In a sense, movement by citizens in-between states is an act of “voting with their feet,” allowing people to “compare different political systems in the same country.”

Another advantage is the possibility of experimentation.  Though experimentation is definitely not a pleasant word to hear for a leadership role where lives and resources are at stake, the fact that states have some degree of autonomy allows the central government to determine which political system, laws, and policies in effect work positively and maximize welfare.

The third advantage according to Walker, and arguably also one of the most important, is the accommodation of regional preferences and diversity.  This advantage holds much more significance in larger countries where culture and lifestyles can differ across regions.  “By these means, overall satisfaction can be maximized and the winner-take-all problem alleviated,” particularly in policies wherein the populace’s opinions are divided.  By not forcing culturally and ethnically different people to make decisions that would go against their beliefs and opinion, solidarity as a whole federation may be achieved.

However, a federation is not without its blemishes.  Because each state government has its own style of governance, citizens all over the federation will be experiencing different levels of welfare.  The competencies and efficiency of each state government will also not be the same, potentially creating further disunity.  A policy exercised across different states may differ in magnitude, like penalties for criminal offenses.  Finally, there is always the possibility of disagreement and conflict between state and central governments over authority and power.

The idea of a “United States of the Philippines” has fascinated several political minds enough for them to fight for a conversion to the federal system.  Back in 2008, the Senate proposed the Senate Joint Resolution 10, which called for a convention for talks about the shifting of the Philippine government from a unitary body to a federal one.

Final verdict

Though the federal system offers many attractive and highly applicable advantages, its benefits are only realizable when properly implemented.  The unitary form of government still prevails because of several reasons.  Everyone is treated equally, and alienation brought on by decentralization is avoided.  Rebellions and insurgency cases may be reduced in a unitary system, as compared to a federal system.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the country’s current level of alleged corruption and the existing inefficiencies in the whole system render a conversion to federal system infeasible.

As appealing as the “United States of the Philippines” would sound, a conversion is not applicable just yet, not until the people – and the government itself – are prepared for the drastic change and the responsibilities brought on by doing so.





By Ronnel Tumangday

By Roy Loyola Jr.

25 replies on “Head to Head: Governance: Unitary vs Federal”

I bend to disagree. Corruption and Rebellion is better addressed in a federal form of government. The long chain of bureaucracy in our unitary government is the frequent source of corruption. The government personnel in every check point of the chain of fund releases and implementation usually do something to grab a share of the budget by whatever guise to pouch it to their pockets. Whereas in the federal system, the chain is so short as to encourage corruption without being caught or apprehended. The corruption watchdog citizens are within the reach of their officials without the necessity of boarding an airplane to fail in guarding the lifestyle, actuation and accumulation of wealth of their trusted in the public office. Rebellion are likewise avoided, in fact the present unitary system is one of the root causes of the moro and communist rebellion.. Further, the country’s name should not be change to United States of the Philippines. Its internal government restructuring like shifting to a federal form of government can be done without changing the identity of the country before the international community.. Republic of the Philippines or Philippines should not be change.

The final verdict is laughable at best. One look at the state of the nation shows a stark contrast to the claim that everyone is treated equally. On the contrary, Metro Manila is favoured above the rest of the country. Rebellions are not reduced, on the contrary, it fuels the rebellions.
This article makes so many unrealistic claims far detached from the reality of the situation and dismissing the data evident all over the world and the nation.

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