Federalism in the Philippine Context

Aside from his war against corruption and illegal drugs, one of the landmark aspects of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential campaign is the shift to a federal government. Touted as the solution to the growing socio-economic divide between the capital and the far-flung regions of the Philippines, federalism aims to provide regions an equal playing field by giving greater autonomy to the local governments and allocating more funding. However, while there is great push from the President to bring about this change, the finer details of the transition have yet to be set in stone.


Federalism in a nutshell

Federalism is a form of government that gives more autonomy and power to local governments. The unitary form of government that the Philippines has today centralizes power only to Luzon, more specifically to the National Capital Region (NCR). The phenomenon, dubbed as “Imperial Manila”, has drastic consequences for both management and economic aspects in regions around the country.

In an interview with The LaSallian, Atty. Andre De Jesus of the Commercial Law Department says that a change in government is necessary for the Philippines. According to him, the current unitary system of government, despite having branches in all regions of the country, still does not grant enough autonomy to local government units (LGUs). For instance, ordinances and initiatives by LGUs are hampered because these remain constrained to the policies set forth by the central government. Federalism, on the other hand, would allow regions to “respond to locus-specific problems with locus-initiated solutions.”

One of the major selling points of federalism is how it is branded as the solution to the inequalities in funding allocations across the regions. Atty. Alberto Wilfredo O. Oxales Jr, co-author of the book The Quest for a Federal Republic – The PDP Laban Model of Philippine Federalism, believes that centralization is to blame for the unequal development and poverty in the provinces farthest from NCR.

The 2015 figures of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) show a correlation between the funding allocation for each region and its poverty incidence rate and productivity. Regions with the highest funding allocation have the highest contribution to the GDP and the lowest poverty incidence rate, while regions which receive low funding experience the reverse.

Oxales believes that the devolution of both the functions and distribution of funds to the regional governments would enable them to better serve their constituents and generate revenue within their region.




PH-style federalism

With these changes, it seems that the country would benefit greatly from federalism—but nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Oxales shares that the transition a federal form of government should be gradual to prepare the regions for the shift. De Jesus points out that constitutional revisions about the declaration of martial law and writ of habeas corpus will not change.

When a region is created, a cultural, social, financial, economic, and political analysis is done in order to identify the areas that would ‘fit’ in the created region. A plebiscite will be held to identify areas that are suitable to be part of a specific region.

The Regional Government acts as the head of the local government. Governors of provinces and mayors from progressive cities are instructed to run the Regional Commission. Executive and legislative powers are granted to the Regional Commission and they are also tasked with working with the Regional Consultative Assembly, which is composed of two members from each of the legislative bodies of the provinces and cities within the region.

De Jesus mentions the advantages that regions could benefit from if the Philippines shifts to a federal form of government. In terms of the policy making process, the regions could implement laws that are better suited to the constituents of that specific region. Meanwhile, in the economic aspect, the regions have greater control over the income they earn and are more capable of producing and marketing their own products and services. He also states that in theory the region owes the national government a portion of its income since the region should be able to generate income on its own.

Oxales gave similar points in the economic and political implication of a federal type of government. He explains that under the new system, the regions will have proper funding and that proper distribution of this funding would help the region develop. In addition, regions could generate revenue for themselves, which could lead to better government services.


Some reservations

Despite the many possible benefits that could be reaped from the new system, it is not without its critics. One of the apprehensions most critics have on the proposed shift in government is that it will further separate regions from one another. Oxales, however, believes this not to be the case.

“Successful federalism is actually a covenant to unite just like in the US, Germany, and other federal countries where there is unity in diversity.  It is based on the principle that the people within a region would be in a better position to know what’s good for the region,” he elaborates. From this point of view, Oxales frames federalism as a way to democratize wealth distribution by allowing each region to spend the funds as they see fit. He also adds the concept of autonomy with interdependence, where regions share resources and make sure that no one is left behind, a value which he views is the key to a successful form of federalism.

Another cause of concern is the possibility that the shift to federalism could be used as a ploy to potentially extend the term of the current administration. De Jesus considers this to be a possibility, but personally does not believe it will happen, assuming instead that Duterte is uninterested in the prospect.

Further, he explains that “there is nothing that prevents the framers of the new Constitution to include transitory provisions that expressly and categorically declare that provisions lifting term limits shall apply only to officials–including the President–elected after the ratification of the new Constitution.”

Whether or not the transition to federalism will be beneficial for the country is still up in the air. However, if officials can come up with a well-defined plan and carry out the transition properly then it just might work.

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