Federalism a panacea?

Ma. Isabel Ongpin

Ma. Isabel Ongpin

The Lower House has constituted itself rapidly, and with hardly any debate that the public has been privy to, into a Constitutional Assembly to push Federalism and effectively overhaul our system of government. They plan to change the Constitution, if not replace it. That is the sum and total of what a move to Ferderalism will mean as it is a drastic change of government for us.

Yet who of us, and maybe of them, really know what Federalism entails by definition, by historic data, and by effectivity? Who is cognizant of the social conditions from which Federalism has arisen? Hardly anyone. We may know the countries that are “federal” but there are gradations of such like development levels, historical data, and distinctive social conditions that are not known or recognized making it an extremely tough subject to understand, much less to craft legislation or charter change to implement. Particularly, if one comes from the presidential/unilateral type of government which is where we will be coming from. So, despite the fact that some are sounding like it is a done deal, we are actually entering very alien territory.

Thus the subject needs research, reflection, discussion, debate in the context of our prevailing circumstances. If not, we might be proceeding from ignorance and rush in where angels fear to tread.

Therefore, the lecture on Federalism that UP Political Science Assistant Professor Gene Lacza Pilapil delivered last October 26 as the Ongpin Annual Memorial Lecture (disclosure: named in memory of my late husband, Jaime V. Ongpin) was just what the present circumstances need.

Professor Pilapil gave an in depth outline of the current political science literature about the subject citing definitions, categories, differences, in the various areas that Federalism affects governance, institutions, fiscal conditions, social circumstances, even arbiters in case of overlapping functions, disputes, impasses and many other vital ramifications. Federalism is a prominent subject in what Professor Pilapil identifies as the “institutional design literature,” a political science commentary involving definitions, processes, divisions, in governance under the Federal system.

From what I heard this literature presents a complicated scenario that has emerged after much study and analysis from the leading political scientists of the age each drawing their own conclusions. I will not attempt to paraphrase Professor Pilapil here because it is a subject that is not open to simplification. Nonetheless, Professor Pilapil delivered a factual, deeply researched, dispassionate lecture presenting a universal commentary on the subject so complete and thought-provoking that his lecture should be for public consumption as Con-Ass gets going.

What I concluded from it was that Federalism would replace our Constitution if not completely, still in such a major way as to be an overhaul of the way we are governed and the way we will relate to governance. A complete overhaul it may be said that will bring us to the strange and unfamiliar and possibly cause an inability to accept or get used to. This is because it will supplant a way of governance that has been in place about 30 years from People Power and before that from the end of WWII to Martial Law which has been accepted and tolerated all along despite the problems and the upheavals along the way. Also, since it will turn the country into federal areas in effect separating each from each other, we will be keeping our regional if not tribal identities in place and desisting from forging a stronger national identity which we badly need to do to reach a better level of nationalism, a stronger motivation to be united good citizens, and provide more openings for emerging national leaders rather than the equivalent of tribal chieftains, feudal lords and dynasties that at present control more than 40% of our regions.

Furthermore, with the poverty level, uneven education and other social problems that we presently still have, Federalism which demands equal resources, education, economic well-being so as to provide for the federal way of institutions and governance by individual states, will exacerbate problems in the have-not regions. For the more well-off states the temptation for elite capture may be too irresistible for those who have the resources.
And even the have-nots will be vulnerable to this as no centralized power will be strong enough to counter it in the new system.

The black legend of Imperial Manila has seemingly taken hold of the outposts of our archipelago. Drastic detachment from a central government seems to be the solution with visions of independence, self-reliance, equality, a better life. Could not such a reality as the present status (if it is not a myth) be reformed, revamped, improved within the same Constitutional tenets and governance parameters rather than embarking on a risky new and difficult creation? We have many good laws with high goals that have not delivered their mission because of the inability to implement them as required due to the existing social conditions that impede them.

Many of our laws do not deliver the goals that prompted them to be made. When discontent and disillusion set in after too high hopes are raised, there can be the rebound to a figure who promises Paradise under authoritarian rule. It could happen if we are not sufficiently studious, thoughtful, and realistic and jump from the frying pan to the fire.

As one member of the audience said at the open forum, in the debate/discussion that we hope will happen on the subject of Federalism, one excellent resource person would be Professor Pilapil who, comparatively speaking, has in-depth knowledge of the subject. Both those who contemplate or do not contemplate Federalism now, particularly Con-Ass members, should educate themselves about it before taking the leap. This is not resistance to change as much as managing change rationally.

Meanwhile, the sudden designation of the Con-Ass sounds like the train wants to get off too quickly without checking the rail conditions.


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  1. Advocates of federalism say it is the best form of govt because each state/province will have the singular authority to spend its own income. But what is there to spend if there is no money/income in the first place? Presently, third class municipalities operate on a p100m annual budget. Most of these LGUs are IRA dependent with local revenues of not more than P5m. If we are to shift to federalism I’m afraid many LGUs will have to close shop.