The rocky road to federation in the Philippines

The rocky road to federation in the Philippines

MICHAEL HENRY YUSINGCO questions the readiness of Filipinos to move towards a federal form of government.

Federalism is a buzzword in the Philippines these days.

A former chief justice of the Supreme Court, Reynato Puno, recently launched a highly publicised national renewal movement, Bagong Sistema, Bagong Pag-asa (New System, New Hope), calling for a change in the 1987 Constitution through a constitutional convention. The target is to ratify a new constitution by 2018 and hold elections for a new government in May 2019.

Describing itself as a movement and advocacy for system change, Bagong Sistema, Bagong Pag-asa is calling for an overhaul of the Philippines’ political system ‘to address an impending crisis and put the country on the path of genuine democracy, peace, and inclusive economic growth and prosperity’.

Its centerpiece is the establishment of a federal system of government in which ‘political subdivisions and government units work together for a common national purpose while attending to the needs of respective constituents’. Adherents of federation believe this framework to be the most suitable to accommodate the diversity and divisions in Filipino society.

The proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) now being hotly debated in the Philippine Congress, has invigorated the federalism campaign. While the immediate aim of the Bill is to address the long-running Muslim insurgency on the southern island of Mindanao, moving to a federal form of government has always been seen as the long-term solution to Mindanao’s more deeply rooted problems.

For many countries with a federal form of government, such as Australia, federation was a state-building effort—a platform to allocate power and resources between national and local levels of government, while preserving local-government autonomy. For the Philippines, however, the pathway to federation would effectively be the reverse. There is already a central government in full control of the country, but a strong role for local autonomy within the federal framework has yet to find strong acceptance. Any attempt at federating would first have to overcome a culture of centralised government engrained by centuries of colonial rule and 20 years of dictatorship.

Professor Cheryl Saunders, from the Melbourne Law School, argues that federalism is just one example along a spectrum of arrangements for establishing greater or lesser degrees of local autonomy within a nation–state. In general, she says, four of the principal types of decentralised arrangements may be defined as follows: delegation, devolution, regional autonomy, and federation.

That Saunders would describe these arrangements as units in a spectrum, with delegation being the weakest and federation the strongest, is interesting because it means countries like the Philippines could actually navigate through the different levels of local autonomy on the road to federation. If, as Saunders maintains, these four general types of decentralisation arrangements are not distinct, but shade into one another, Filipinos would not need to envisage the shift to a federal form of government as a single and momentous event—the transition could be made, step by step.

Current arrangements

The Philippines currently has a mechanism for achieving a federal system of government: the Local Government Code (LGC) of 1991. Section 2 of the Code provides for ‘a more responsive and accountable local government structure instituted through a system of decentralization whereby local government units shall be given more powers, authority, responsibilities, and resources’. The process, the Code adds, ‘shall proceed from the national government to the local government units’.

Some commentators and scholars have praised the Philippines as one of the first developing nations to embrace the concept of local autonomy. The reality, however, is that, after being in effect for more than two decades, the LGC has been neither ‘a notable success nor a disappointing failure’ in facilitating a federal system of government—suggesting that the concept of decentralisation has yet to make a decisive political impact on the minds of local leaders, and that there is still confusion and apprehension about how the LGC should be implemented.

A move towards federation in the Philippines would therefore need to begin with a serious look at the decentralisation provisions of the LGC.

Two particular outcomes arising from the current decentralisation arrangements provided for in the LGC highlight the difficulties in achieving a smooth and orderly evolution to a federal system.

Lack of clarity

First, the Philippine Development Plan 2011–2016 found that the LGC’s allocation of responsibilities between the tiers of governments was unclear—to the detriment of local communities. This is particularly highlighted by the state of the public health system. Under the LGC, the national government, through the Department of Health, and local government, through local health boards, have a mandate to provide public health services. The problem arises, however, about who to blame for the lamentable state of public health services when no single institution can be held accountable.

Unequivocal allocation of responsibilities between the central government and local government is critical to the successful operation of a federal structure—and this must be clearly understood by public officials and the community itself. This understanding, however, seems to be absent in the Philippines—and must be a serious cause for doubt about the readiness of Filipinos to embark on the federating process.

Dole-out mentality

The second barrier to moving towards a federal structure is the ‘dole-out mentality’ of local officials, fostered by the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA). Designed to encourage fiscal autonomy for local government, the IRA is mandated under the LGC and is a local government unit’s share of revenues from the national government. However, most, if not all, governors and mayors have become extremely reliant on the IRA as their primary source of development funding.

A solid grasp of the intricacies of fiscal autonomy is crucial to efficient local development planning—and local government having the independence to determine its own socioeconomic policies is the very lynchpin of federalism. The reliance on patronage by local leaders, particularly in relation to fiscal matters, is therefore another impediment to progress towards a federal structure.

For Filipinos, however, the discussion over whether federalism can yield economic gains and integrate a heterogeneous population is still worth pursuing—despite the obstacles. Although the Philippines may still be at the weakest point on Professor Saunders’ decentralisation spectrum, addressing the two identified anomalies in the LGC—the lack of clarity over responsibility for services, and the dole-out mentality of many local officials—will be a first step towards the goal of federation. The journey, however, will demand patience and sacrifice from all Filipinos.

Image from Bagong Sistema, Bagong Pag-asa Facebook page.

Michael Henry Yusingco is a Senior Research Fellow at the Ateneo School of Government in Metro Manila and a Fellow at the Institute for Autonomy and Governance in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

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