UNDERSTANDING FEDERALISM 2 : Will Federalism Solve the Basic Problems of the Philippines?

Elpidio V. Peria
31 August 2016


Participants to the Federalism discussion series,21 August 2016 (by :EVPeria)


The Biodiversity, Innovation, Trade & Society (BITS) Policy Center, Inc., with Passionist Center – Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, Inc. (PC-JPIC), with the key leaders of Metro Dadiangas Social Action Center of the Diocese of Marbel, and some veteran faculty of the Mindanao State University-General Santos held last 21 August 2016 its inaugural discussion series on understanding Federalism in the Philippines with a conceptual discussion of the distinctions between federalism and decentralization and a leveling off on what the participants think are the basic problems of the Philippines and whether those problems will be solved by federalism, which is a major policy thrust of the Duterte administration.

The discussion started by an introduction to the concepts of federalism and decentralization. According to Dr. Jan Erk of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, federalism and decentralization are two approaches towards the deconcentration of power from a central authority.

According to Dr. Erk, federalism involves the sharing of power between a central entity and its regional or state entities and an element of self-rule in the state entities, while decentralization is where the power of the central entity is devolved, passed on, or decentralized to a local entity. Usually the power being devolved, passed on, or decentralized, is not the full extent of such powers, but are only a component or part of such power.

Another distinction between federalism and decentralization is the constitutional embeddedness or entrenchment of the powers between the central and the regional or state entities in a federal system. This means the powers shared between the central and the regional or state entities cannot be taken away by the central entity, except only when the constitution, which defined or laid out these powers in the first place, is amended, to put into effect the change. In decentralization, the central entity, can always take back or lessen or stop, the exercise of the devolved powers to the local entity, but only through legislation.

Examining the Philippine context based on these distinctions, the Philippines is a unitary state that exercises decentralization via the Local Government Code. It may sometimes be seen that federalism is a way to decentralize powers of the central government to the local units and in one sense it is, but, in a strict sense, it is not so, because in a decentralized system, the powers of the local units are not constitutionally-embedded. In other words, they are not found in the Constitution, thus they can be easily changed, by a special law passed for the purpose.

Looking at our current situation, given that art. X of the 1987 Constitution grants autonomy to the local government units, such constitutional scheme does not mean we have a federal set-up since the powers of the local government units can be easily modified or refined by a special law for the purpose. Even the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) during the administration of Pnoy is not in essence a federal system since the powers provided to the regional entity is defined by a law passed for the purpose and these powers can be reconfigured by another law. It becomes a federal set-up if the BBL is made part of the package for federalism that may be part of the proposal of the Duterte administration.

While it is important to be clear about these distinctions, it was also necessary to be mindful of the supposed promises of federalism, which are : direct democracy, which brings the government closer to the people being governed; better governance, which means making accountability easier to those who govern the people; and the management of diversity, which means a better way of bringing together various ethnic groups and enabling them to resolve their differences in a peaceful or conflict-free manner. We can always test any proposal on federalism whether it will achieve these promises but we also need to ask whether our current problems as a nation will be better solved by a federal or a decentralized political system.


As an introduction to this discussion, the group cited, for historical purposes, Amado Guerrero’s Philippine Society and Revolution (1970), which identified the following basic Philippine problems :
a) US imperialism (now updated to globalization)
b) Feudalism ( now called the dominance of oligarchy)
c) Bureaucrat-capitalism (also now known as graft and corruption or cronyism)
d) “Kita-mismo” (Filipino term for, “actually, ourselves” – a parody of the 3 –ismos, but actually have validity in the ways things have turned out since the publication of the book in 1970

Citing updates of the same problems made by Akbayan Party-list and its study groups, Dr. Mayong Aguja of the MSU-Gensan enumerated an update of those problems in this way:
a) Elite democracy
b) Jobless growth
c) Lack of participation or persistent passivity or indifference of ordinary citizens to politics, this is due to the culture of poverty and poverty of culture that prevails in a lot of communities, in Philippine society

Looking at these updated set of problems, the problem of elite democracy may be addressed by a set of political/electoral reforms where a system of initiative may put the power of decision-making to the people or a law finally outlawing political dynasties which is identified by many political scientists and experts as one predominating political set-up prevalent in many local government units that have stagnated in addressing its poverty and economic development.

Another set of solutions discussed is a thorough-going economic reform which ensures the distribution of wealth to the various economic and social classes, makes sure that taxes are paid in areas where the corporation conducts its operation (the case of Polomolok municipality was cited, where a major multinational pineapple company holds the bulk of its operations, but pays the bulk of its taxes in Makati City, where it is headquartered), arrests poverty, ensures a path towards industrialization, provides employment to the majority of Filipinos, or the means for their livelihood and forever ending contractualization, empowers local authorities, solves land problems which should also deal with the issue of retroactivity of application of whatever good legal mandates may be in these cases in case a federal or a decentralized system may be set up, addresses ethnic differences between and among various major and minor subgroups, gives clear resolution to the mining issue which also involves environmental and natural resources management and provides for a clear division of powers among various constituent political units and the subsidy among them coming from an identified revenue source.

From these exchanges, the group resolved to continue the study session and to do community organizing among the participants’ various communities and groups.

Summing up the exchanges, the passivity of the people when it comes to political matters was seen as a major problem which, if addressed, would unleash the potential of any system that may be put in place. It also means there is a need for a change in our current political system but whether this may be addressed by either a political solution that involves federalism or decentralization would depend on the level of the detail of any proposal on either political set-up, what is important to clarify is the question of how these changes are going to be implemented and that the supposed reforms to address identified problems should also be very clear.

Next topic in the discussion series will be an examination of our experiences under the Local Government Code and whether the problems that are experiencing under the law would either be better addressed through specific, targeted amendments to the law or a wholesale overhaul of the entire Local Government Code through federalism.


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