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OPINION: Why federalism? Why a federalist is now an anti-federalist?

By Edmund Tayao

Posted: May 05 2017, ABS-CBN News, Blog


Interesting how media works or is made to work today, especially in this part of the world. While traditionally the media is a source of information, it has since been transformed to be a veritable source of misinformation as well. For a while it was just a matter of editorializing news, now it can be outright misinformation. We can perhaps just assume, so as not to point a finger, it is due largely to the growing sophistication of technology. Now everyone can speak and write to a big public audience, including this writer.

So with the news that the renowned political scientist, Dr. Jose Abueva, is quoted as saying “I am not for Federalism, I am for a unitary state”, one can’t help but ask the question why? Why the sudden turnaround? After so many years an advocate of a shift from unitary to federal, starting as chair of the Philippine Political Science Association’s 4Cs (Committee on Constitutional Continuity and Change) in the mid 90s and as one of the eminent founders of the “Citizens’ Movement FOR FEDERAL Philippines” or CMFP, Dr. Abueva is now quoted with that pointed categorical pronouncement that he’s not for federalism.

All the more confusing is when this pronouncement is given more details in another news report. Still reported to have expressed opposition to a shift to a federal Philippines but with 8 bullet points, Dr. Abueva is quoted to have recommended to amend the constitution to:

1) Explicitly define political dynasty,
2) Extend term of Local Officials to 5 from 3 years
3) Political Parties to “uphold a solid political ideology”,
4) Shift from Presidential to Parliamentary form,
5) “Change current ‘traditional, highly centralized’ unitary system of government”,
6) Restructure the entire tax system,
7) “Amend provisions on foreign participation in the country’s economy and education”, and
8) Introducing a Bill of Duties apart from a Bill of Rights.

We should ask a constitutionalist to determine whether these recommendations do not amount to a revision of the Constitution. The downside though is we might get stuck with a debate on what constitutes an amendment and what constitutes a revision.

Let’s just say the recommendations were intended to suggest a “surgical” approach, thus avoiding labels, i.e. federalism, as it could mean so much more or less than autonomy, especially the difficult concept of “shared sovereignty”, confused by many as “the only” definition of federalism. Whatever was intended to be taken to mean with these recommendations, it does not in any way contradict the points and recommendation of many groups actively taking part in the federalism discourse. As another renowned political scientist, Dr. Ed Araral says, it is a “grand bargain”.

Political reform as it is very much debated today is couched on federalism, but is not and cannot be limited only to a discussion or purport only to, however in detail, to the relational dynamics between the national and sub-national levels of governments. It should include all the elements many have been taking pains to study and debate, such as:

a.    Electoral and political party reforms,
b.    Enforceable anti-political dynasty provision in the constitution,
c.    Amalgamation of the now fragmented local government units,
d.    Restructuring of the tax system and sharing of revenues between different levels of government,
e.    Reconfiguring of the current presidential system, and even
f.    Restructuring of the current administrative system, also strengthening a a more professional civil service, and
g.    Judicial Reform, including appointments to the judiciary and judicial administration.

It can in fact be a longer list. All these have to be given a serious, specific and detailed study if we are to really have a real working political and governmental system the country long deserves to have and in the process be liberated from the current oligarchical system of clientelistic politics. In the words of Dr. Abueva in a 2002 book he edited with many other reform advocates, “our monumental challenge as a nation is to transform our elitist, ‘electoral or procedural democracy’ into a more egalitarian, functional and ‘substantive democracy.’” He says further in the same book that this can be done “Through good governance in a federal and parliamentary government, our political democracy must redirect our capitalist system or market economy to make it work for the benefit of most of our citizens.” He echoed the same thought during a 22 April 2016 forum on the State of Autonomy and Decentralization, anticipating then Presidential frontrunner Duterte to “open the door for the amendment of the 1987 Constitution” and “allow for the shift from the present unitary, Presidential form of government to a Federal form of government”. He says that “It’s a one big step, it’s a good start.”

What many political scientist have already pointed out, from Edicio Dela Torre to Horacio Boy Morales and Paul Hutchcroft, the Philippines has weak institutions, rightly described by Dr. Abueva as the Philippines being a “soft state”. At this juncture on the other hand, there should be an attempt to go beyond diagnosis and make a serious effort at looking at all possible prescriptions.

The Philippines being a soft state is due largely to non-functioning state institutions and this can only be about systems. The country has not been new to reforms as our leaders have not been remiss in reflecting on needed changes and enacting reform measures left and right, translating the country’s people power to particular provisions in the constitution, from social justice provisions, to party-list representation, decentralization and people’s direct political participation not only thru referendum, but also thru recall of elected leaders.

There were also reforms in the public utilities, in telecommunications and in the electric power industry. In all these on the other hand, which have been successfully and fully implemented? If there is hardly any example of a successful reform in all these, what could be the reasons why, other than limitations in our state institutions and political system?

If we argue that we should proceed only by amending any and all of these reform laws, what assurance do we have that this time, after 30 or so years, it will work and transform our struggling democracy to one that is really working and developmental state? Would there possibly be a way where this time much will depend on processes and institutions instead of political leaders?

Systems are mechanisms and federalism is a mechanism, popularly known to empower territories, states and or local communities in a country. This is because as a mechanism, it is supposed to provide leeway to local communities to decide for themselves, following the principle of subsidiarity, a Christian principle popularized in Pope Pius XI Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which espouses that functions of government, however complex, should be carried out at the local level unless it is more than its competence or that its significance goes beyond its jurisdiction.

This explains why federalism is often identified with decentralization, or autonomy that is given to local authorities, allowing it to undertake measures and or initiatives that address the needs of its people. This feature of autonomy on the other hand, is not only by administrative design but is due more to the provenience and therefore basis of Federalism, which is the recognition of each people or community and or territory that decided to form a “federation”. For the administrative design to work, a concomitant political framework should be in place, which means any reform should be comprehensive and consistent with the context of the country.

With all the work of eminent scholars all over the world, reflecting on the various experiences of third wave democracies, most precisely point to systems and institutions as a way to effect real reforms. We had so many opportunities previously to do this, starting with the Malolos Constitution, the convening of the 1935 and 1971 Constitutional Convention, and even of the 1986 Constitutional Commission.

With all these learnings and this new opportunity to effect real reforms, more than just getting caught in partisan, color-coded politics, perhaps we can seriously contribute in enacting our own real constitution and effect a working system of politics and governance.