Saved You A Google: A simple guide to federalism

Saved You A Google: A simple guide to federalism

What you need to know about the F word.

By Jam Pascual and Vicky Marquez


This article has been edited to include, in its explanation, the House of Representatives approving the federalism charter in its final reading.

At this point in his administration, it’s easy to suspect anything President Rodrigo Duterte pushes for spells bad news. One of those things is his endorsement of shifting the country to a different form of government: federalism.

But what is federalism? How does it affect us? Why should we care? We’ve decided to push down our knee-jerk reactions in favor of presenting a measured, balanced explanation of federalism, a system which, aside from being another F word that makes people gasp, could spell the future of our country.

What is federalism?

Federalism is a system of government which basically gives more power to states and provinces. The Philippines currently follows a unitary system of government, which means that the central government (Malacañang) is the governing body which makes political and economic decisions for various subsidiary governments, provinces, and regions. What a federal system of government is supposed to do is empower these provinces to exercise greater autonomy and make their own decisions.

Historically speaking, federalism is often the result of the consolidation of different ethnic groups divided by culture, or in the case of the U.S., politics. Countries currently using a federal system of government include but aren’t limited to: the U.S., Switzerland, Germany, India, Canada, Brazil, and Malaysia.


What are the good things about federalism?

Federalism — much like any other system of government, to be honest — looks super good on paper. As mentioned, it promises to empower provinces and subsidiary governments to make their political decisions. And given how much the Philippine condition is characterized by Manila imperialism and the marginalization of non-Manila places, a system of government that promotes decentralization sounds like a bangin’ idea. Metro Manila’s population alone accounts for more than one-third (36.5%) of the country’s GDP. Imagine if funds were more evenly and abundantly distributed among less developed or more in-need cities, provinces and communities.

That’s just theory though — we would benefit from looking at real life examples of how well federalism works for other countries.

Switzerland is also a federal state, which means it’s a highly decentralized country. Individual regions, or cantons, are subdivided into communes. Voting is communal or cantonal, and they have the power to vote on a range of things. They can decide, by referendum, on things as minor as garbage disposal, or as major as deciding on a non-native’s residency application. This is why Switzerland is often considered as the state that’s closest to pure democracy. A nation where every person has a direct control when it comes to affairs that matter to them can be considered as the democratic ideal.

Federalism works for nations that are divided by cultural differences, like Switzerland, which has dominant German, French, and Italian cultures. Another example that can be considered successful (or at least functioning) is India, which is a multi-lingual federal state.


What about the bad stuff?

Ohh boy. For one thing, shifting to a new system of government costs a ton of money. It would take billions of pesos to set up various state governments and state services. Another way federalism might backfire is that it might actually intensify the cultural divides and developmental gaps among states.

Federalism doesn’t work for everybody, either. The U.S. might look like it has everything together with its states situation, but even they suffer developmental gaps among states. Consider the purchase of firearms — some states make it easy, some don’t. And there’s definitely a correlation with the ease of purchase vis-a-vis gun violence and shootings.

The federal state formerly known as Yugoslavia is probably the bloodiest example of the failure of the federal structure of government. Yugoslavia was preceded by multiple independent kingdoms and states, brought together by Communist revolutionary leader, Josep Broz Tito. Upon his death, the ethnic tensions erupted the different Balkan states that comprised Yugoslavia. It eventually culminated into a war that resulted in the breakup of the federal state.

On top of all that, according a survey conducted by Pulse Asia shows 67% of Filipinos don’t want the shift to federal governance.


Has federalism always been a Philippine concern?

Kind of, yeah, for quite a few of our historical figures. One issue of La Solidaridad contained an essay entitled “Filipinas dentro de cien años” by none other than National Hero and Daddy Jose Rizal, in which he predicted that the Filipino might adopt a federal government after being liberated from colonizers.

Rizal’s prediction found continuity in Emilio Aguinaldo and Apolonario Mabini who were down for federalism, suggesting that a central Luzon government could be good for a Visayas federal state. This didn’t push through though — the people figured that pushing back American colonizers was a bigger priority.

Former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo also wanted to shift to a federal system of government, attempting charter amendments. But GMA met opposition from dissidents and critics, such as the Catholic Church, and a lack of support from the Senate, kept that from happening.


What does Duterte have to do with federalism?

The Duterte administration has been trying to push for federalism in various ways, like making it a promise in his campaign and constantly bringing it up in speeches (even backpedaling at times).

These efforts are visible in his administration trying to achieve Charter Change — basically making changes to the constitution — by gathering support for congress and the Senate.

Another thing that makes federalism super pertinent to the Philippines and the Duterte administration is the potential it holds in fixing the Mindanao situation. Yes, there’s also the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which Duterte actually signed, but a plebiscite has to be held later this year to see if Muslim-populated regions in Mindanao are cool with it or not.

Not everybody in government agrees with the shift either. For example, Finance Secretary Carlos G. Dominguez III isn’t convinced that a shift to federalism would be good for economy, saying that interest rates would “go to hell.”

In terms of PR, well, have you seen that Mocha Uson pepedede jingle? It’s whack.


What does this all have to do with the new constitution?

The thing is, to change the structure of our government from unitary to federal, we have to touch the 1987 Constitution, a post-Martial Law document that enshrines the values of our country since EDSA.

As mentioned, this isn’t the first time that the executive has pushed for constitutional change. Often, this push for Charter Change comes with baggage — that of the executive’s term extension. The 1987 Constitution only allows the President one term, after which they are ineligible for reelection. This is the constitution’s built-in safeguard against term extensions, Marcos-style.


The thing is, to change the structure of our government from unitary to federal, we have to touch the 1987 Constitution, a post-Martial Law document that enshrines the values of our country since EDSA.


With the current draft of the proposed constitution, Duterte will not be allowed to run for Presidency. However, there are provisions for him to become a transitory President amid the shift from unitary to federal. Six months after the referendum on the new constitution — that is, if the voting population of the Philippines approves of the Charter Change — a Transitory President and Vice-President will be elected.

It is also worth looking at the economic provisions in the constitution. As in the U.S., income-earners will have to pay taxes to the federal government and the local government. That depends on how the local government wishes to tax its people, and can vary from state to state.

States will bear the brunt of socioeconomic development. From income-generation, and cash flow management, the federal regions will have the responsibility to invest this back to cultural development, the protection of the marginalized, and even things like parks and recreation. To manage the potential uneven economic development, there is a provision for an Equalization Fund which will go to regions that need financial assistance.


What should we make of this?

It is a good thing to be generous with one’s attention, especially when it comes to the ways the state can distribute or consolidate power. If you’re pro-federalism, that’s fine. If you’re anti, that’s fine too. It’s one of those issues that people can argue about without ending up unfriending each other on Facebook. It must be emphasised though that we’re not just arguing about federalism on its own, but federalism as pushed for by the Duterte administration, an administration that has consistently broken lofty promises and disrespected due process.


The House of Representatives recently approved, in its final reading, a measure to revise the 1987 Constitution and make a Federal Republic of the Philippines. What now?

Oh boy.

Well, we have to take a deep breath and accept facts. Yes, the House of Representatives, in a vote of 224-22-3, approved the measure. The resolution was authored by current House Speaker and former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who, in her previous administration, also tried to push for federalism.

It’s hard to say which of the theoretically good and bad aspects of federalism will come to apply most to the Philippine context, but such predictions are still premature. This is still the House of Representatives, after all, and this decision needs to be approved by the Senate. And according to Senate President Vicente Sotto III, they’re too busy focusing on the national budget. Stay vigilant.




Where do you stand on this? Let us know in the comments.



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