Federalism: A mountain the Philippines doesn’t need to climb (yet)

Ben D. Kritz

Ben D. Kritz

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.



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  1. Federalism will work in Philippines. Unitary never uplifted us for decades. Including 2 oldest insurgency.

  2. Federalism us different from EU and brixet. Eu are composed of different independent states so its harder to govern. Wealthy countries like UK us better to exit eu.

  3. They called it “LINGAS-COGON”. However, I never thought of giving up on this Constitutional Reform. In fact, prior to Duterte’s proclamation and now an elected President, I am already for Constitutional Reform with its Three Main Point Agendas, are as follows: (1) Economic Liberalization; (2) Evolving Federalism; and the shifting to (3) Parliamentary System. I am also well-aware there are no shortcuts as it is a continuous process and gradually until it’ll gain its final momentum.

  4. Bernardo Tensuan on

    Dapat po ay a river to cross lang at hindi naman a mountain to climb? Meron na pong existing regions na bubuuin na lang na mga federal states, na parang tulay na tatawiran mula unitary to federal.

  5. The writer’s argument is: don’t do it because it has not been done that way. He wants to preserve the status quo.He is saying,don’t invent,don’t create anything new,don’t innovate because you will not succeed. If humans think the way he does, we would all still be living in caves, science would still believe that earth is the center of our planetary system; there would be no radio, TV, cellphone,trains,and all other modern inventions. But the deeper question is: for whom is this writer working for? It’s very obvious that his interest is not with the Filipino nation but for investors. He is worried that foreign investors may not like it, not really that it will benefit the Filipinos.

  6. We dont have the political maturity to proceed to federalism. Make a survey as to how many of the 50M voters truly understand what federalism is?

    Federalism is for independent nations or societies, who though having in mind their own local unity, nevertheless thinks that their best option is to form a coalition (federate) with equally independent nation/group keeping most of their independence while surrendering some for their united and common good.

    The problem is for many Filipinos they think otherwise, united at present but urging to be freed from the central government. In federal government their eyes are fixed toward the center, but keeping focus on their local needs, while for the Filipino people eyes are fixed outside centrality, and fixed all the way to their independent interests.

  7. Amnata Pundit on

    What problem does this idea of federalism address? Its the local politicians’ relationship with the central “imperial” government of Manila. It has nothing to do with the social and economic inequities that is pinning down Juan dela Cruz. Federalism will only strengthen the hand of local politicians/dynasties over the serfs they are currently lording over, which will only prolong and intensify the class struggle which is the real problem that we must focus on instead. Any attempt to redefine our system of government must answer this question first: How do we remove control of the power structure from the elite and place it in the hands the people permanently?

  8. Your analysis is right about Pinoy’s beginning initiatives with gusto but then fitters out. It’s called :ningas kugon” or like brush fires. But alas it seems we are not alone in this, the Brits started and voted for Brexit and now the same people who rally their people to their cause are dropping like flies with nobody wanting to complete their separation from EU by triggering Article 50.

  9. Bernardo Tensuan on

    Hindi ko maabot. Masyadong pinahirap ang mga bukabularyong ginamit. Eight grade english lang po para maunawaan ng malinaw.

  10. Maria Farhi on

    Federalism can start as a pilot, not overnight across the board federalism – perhaps 3 provinces in its region, so that problems and kinks can be determined and remedied. Federalism should be added to the Constitution to protect its legality, permanency, and continuity. The processes, procedures, rules, regulations, exclusions, sunset laws, waivers, and so forth, and all its legal nuances in a volume of manuals for universal application, whether you are in the boondocks of Bukidnon or in the organic farm of Negros Occidental, or in the air conditioned office of a mayor of a Metro Manila suburb.

  11. isn’t the Philippines divided from the start? It is rooted through the divide and conquer methodology of the Spanish period wherein we are pitted against each other.