Find­ing fed­er­al­ism in the Philip­pines

The Myanmar Times - - News - STEVEN ROOD news­room@mm­times.com

IT’S all hap­pen­ing in the Philip­pines th­ese days – a rag­ing war against drugs, an “in­de­pen­dent” for­eign pol­icy that may frac­ture re­la­tions with the United States, and the prospect of host­ing Miss Uni­verse (and ASEAN) in 2017. But the pro­posed con­sti­tu­tional re­vi­sion to shift from uni­tary to fed­eral gov­ern­ment has re­mained a steady back­ground is­sue.

Hardly a day goes by when there are not “fed­er­al­ism 101” di­a­logues dis­cussing its pros and cons. The Philip­pine Con­gress is cur­rently busy pass­ing the 2017 bud­get but as 2016 comes to a close they will be turn­ing their at­ten­tion to con­sti­tu­tional change.

This is all due to the con­vic­tions of one man: Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte. Ad­vo­cacy for fed­er­al­ism has its cen­tre of grav­ity in the Min­danao re­gion. From the per­spec­tive of a Davao – the re­gion’s largest city – Manila is over­bear­ing. In Min­danao, fed­er­al­ism is seen as a way of sat­is­fy­ing the as­pi­ra­tions of its lo­cal Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion by adding to the pow­ers that have al­ready been de­volved to the Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion in Mus­lim Min­danao.

Fed­er­al­ism was dis­cussed briefly in the Con­sti­tu­tional Com­mis­sion that drafted the 1987 Con­sti­tu­tion, but was re­jected due to fears of frag­men­ta­tion. As part of the post­dic­ta­tor­ship thrust to­ward democ­racy, a de­gree of de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion was in­sti­tuted un­der the 1991 Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment Code, which in­tro­duced lo­cal-level re­spon­si­bil­ity for health, en­vi­ron­ment, so­cial ser­vices and agri­cul­ture. Some have ar­gued that lo­cal gov­ern­ments have not ful­filled th­ese man­dates. Oth­ers have sug­gested that in­suf­fi­cient power and funds were de­volved in 1991. By the end of the decade, ar­gu­ments were be­ing made that fed­er­al­ism was the next step in bring­ing democ­racy to com­mu­ni­ties through­out the coun­try.

In 2005, then-Pres­i­dent Glo­ria Ma­ca­pa­gal-Ar­royo con­vened an­other Con­sti­tu­tional Com­mis­sion and ap­pointed Jose Abueva as chair, a lead­ing fed­er­al­ism ad­vo­cate. But the com­mis­sion’s rec­om­men­da­tions did not in­clude fed­er­al­ism. In­stead it rec­om­mended an in­def­i­nitely long process of in­sti­tut­ing “au­ton­omy” in dif­fer­ent ar­eas. Op­po­si­tion from the com­mis­sion’s mem­bers and elected provin­cial politi­cians stymied the move. Fol­low­ing this the fo­cus of the de­bate shifted to in­sti­tut­ing a par­lia­men­tary sys­tem of gov­er­nance rather than the cur­rent pres­i­den­tial form – this may have been a ma­neu­ver to se­cure an­other term for Ma­ca­pa­gal-Ar­royo.

Ad­vo­cates of a shift to fed­er­al­ism of­ten pair it with a de­sire to change to a par­lia­men­tary form of gov­ern­ment. But this is un­pop­u­lar with the av­er­age cit­i­zen. Sur­veys have re­peat­edly found that Filipinos want to vote for their lead­ers in­stead of hav­ing mem­bers of the leg­is­la­ture de­cide who heads the ex­ec­u­tive branch. Sur­veys also show that while there is lit­tle knowl­edge about fed­er­al­ism among the pop­u­la­tion, peo­ple gen­er­ally favour greater au­ton­omy of re­gions and lo­cal­i­ties.

This vague en­dorse­ment by cit­i­zens is un­sur­pris­ing given that even their elected lead­ers seem un­cer­tain on the topic. In an in­ter­view, Duterte ar­gued for a fed­eral par­lia­men­tary sys­tem, sim­i­lar to that seen in Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia. But he also added that the Philip­pines could look into adopt­ing the model used by the United States. Sin­ga­pore, as an is­land­state, is not fed­eral. The US is fed­eral but also pres­i­den­tial. And while it is true that Malaysia has a par­lia­men­tary gov­ern­ment with fed­er­al­ism, it is de­scribed as cen­tralised. As the na­tional leg­is­la­ture be­gins to con­sider ways to amend the con­sti­tu­tion – pos­si­bly af­ter an­other round of rec­om­men­da­tions – Duterte’s di­rec­tion of change is not at all clear.

This lack of pur­pose can be seen through­out much of Duterte’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. It is per­haps best to de­scribe the pres­i­dent as a pop­ulist, whose “thin-cen­tred ide­ol­ogy” does not pro­vide de­tailed an­swers. His eco­nomic team an­nounced early a stan­dard 10-point pro­gram to ac­celler­ate growth, but also put left­ists in charge of the labour and agrar­ian re­forms. In terms of the en­vi­ron­ment, Duterte was suf­fi­ciently taken by the pas­sion and rea­son­ing of an an­ti­min­ing ac­tivist to name her head of the depart­ment. But he then hired a pro-min­ing col­league as her un­der­sec­re­tary in charge of the Min­ing and Geo­sciences Bureau.

One of the main mo­ti­va­tions for fed­er­al­ism, at least in Min­danao, is the be­lief that it will help meet the le­git­i­mate de­mands of Mus­lims in the Philip­pines. But Duterte has failed to con­vey any clear fu­ture di­rec­tion for the is­sue, some­times say­ing that pass­ing the failed Bangsamoro Ba­sic Law would be a tem­plate for fed­er­al­ism and some­times say­ing that fed­er­al­ism would solve de­mands for a bet­ter rule by Philip­pine Mus­lims of their own af­fairs.

All this ac­tiv­ity begs the ques­tion of whether fed­er­al­ism is a good idea for the Philip­pines. It is a com­plex process with many doubters. A shift to par­lia­men­tary gov­er­nance would leave the Philip­pines in un­charted ter­ri­tory - po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Gene Pi­lapil points out that this has never hap­pened in any coun­try dur­ing peace­time. Pres­i­dent Duterte has re­peat­edly stated that the Philip­pines is at war with crime, so he cer­tainly be­lieves dras­tic mea­sures are nec­es­sary. – East Asia Fo­rum

Steven Rood is the Asia Foun­da­tion’s coun­try rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Philip­pines and re­gional ad­vi­sor for lo­cal gov­er­nance. This ar­ti­cle is a sum­mary of a pre­sen­ta­tion de­liv­ered at this year’s Philip­pines Up­date Con­fer­ence at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity.

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