FILIPINOS have an infuriating habit of beginning initiatives with great energy and enthusiasm, and then giving up on them quickly when the details begin piling up. So, positive results are achieved only incrementally and with great difficulty. Business people brought up in almost any other cultural setting in the world find it difficult to manage, and most never do quite figure it out.
As maddening as it can be it is ironically often a useful defense mechanism for the Filipino people on a broader scale, and prevents them from becoming entangled in circumstances that are really beyond their grasp.
The concept of federalism, which has become popular again with the election of a provincial mayor to the highest office in the land, is just one of those circumstances.
The source of the aspiration for federalism is easy to understand; the opinion that local governments suffer in direct proportion to their physical and political distance from the center of power is widely shared. There is virtually no disagreement with the assertion that the national system of administration as it is carried out now is inequitable and unresponsive. The former mayor of Davao City probably understands that as well as anyone, and the fact that he is now in a position to do something about it raises some tantalizing prospects, all of which have been bundled into a package representing a new and better sort of political economy, and peddled to the nation under the not entirely accurate label of “federalism.”
As with most large-scale political questions, the objective of this aspiration is actually a fairly basic economic goal—to provide a consistently fair and sustainable opportunity for every Filipino to attain a healthy, productive standard of living. It is a perfectly worthy aspiration; even though it takes the opposite perspective from the prevailing top-down neoliberal economic philosophy that rules the world at present It is also probably a better way to build a strong economy on a macro scale—people with good lives on a household level are able and eager to be good consumers, and it is demand, after all, which drives any economy.
According to President Duterte and many advocates who support him, the way to achieve that basic economic goal is through changing the system of government to a federal system, although to be fair to the President, he seems a lot less strident and more open-minded about the issue than most of his backers.
To ultimately understand why federalism is probably not the solution the country needs, it is helpful to understand what federalism actually is. Federalism is a system in which the central, national government shares power with semi-autonomous subdivisions of the nation, with the authority and responsibilities of each level—the national, or federal level, and the level of the state or province—clearly defined.
At present, there are 25 nations in the world that can be properly described as federal systems, plus two others (Spain and the United Kingdom) that have devolved systems that are for all practical purposes federal, even though they are not defined as such. The formation of federal nations varies, but in most cases, the national government is created by the individual member state-units, and not the other way around. In other words, individual independent states, or individual colonies in a loose collective agree to cooperate to form a national government; this is how 20 of the 25 present-day federal nations were formed, including the United States, which serves as the informal model for the Philippine federalists’ goal. In all other cases, the federal system was formed by subdividing a colony upon independence; examples of this include Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, and Nigeria, and all of those are noted for having comparatively strong central governments.
At no time in the world’s political history has an independent unitary nation subdivided itself into a federal system. That alone should give the Filipino people pause, because trying something that has never been done before as an alternative to making a weak effort to carry out existing methods does not, as a rule, lead to good results.
Right now in this country, political and economic observers—and more to the point, the local and foreign investors who look to them for advice—are watching some very encouraging developments in the overall atmosphere created by the Duterte presidency in its early days, a strong drive to improve discipline and basic performance. Against that backdrop, a call for federalizing the Philippines appears to be an unnecessary, heterodox distraction, one that could create as many problems as it solves, and derail the nation and its new government from the right track it seems to be on at the moment. Indeed, the imbalances created by the present system need to be corrected, but there is at this point absolutely nothing to suggest that what is happening now is clearly moving away from that direction. This country has a history of making up new laws and processes as corrective measures for ones that fail because they simply weren’t followed; perhaps eschewing federalism, at least for the foreseeable future, is the best way to break that particularly self-destructive pattern.