Benigno Aquino 3rd has demonstrated the biggest reason for adopting a federal system of government. He has shown what the Philippine president can do with his immense powers and resources under our unitary presidential form of government.
He trebled pork barrel and used it in inducing Congress to impeach perceived opponents and pass pet legislation. He has browbeaten the Judiciary, lambasting then Chief Justice Renato Corona after a unanimous Supreme Court decision to distribute his family’s Hacienda Luisita.
Aquino repeated his dressing down of the High Court magistrates when in 2014 they unanimously declared illegal his Disbursement Acceleration Program usurping the budgeting powers of Congress. And he has interfered in cases, including the trial of a prospective Senate ally and the grant of bail to a political figure he wants to keep in jail.
Meanwhile, having replaced the Ombudsman with his handpicked choice, Aquino defends and abets his coterie of ex-classmates, allies and shooting buddies (KKK by their Filipino initials), with no fear of an independent antigraft prosecutor taking his cronies down.
Federalism can curb presidential abuse
Despite or due to these excesses, most legislators and local officials don’t criticize Aquino, for fear of being denied state funds or other reprisals. Indeed, with Palace control of spending, politicians of every stripe invariably jump to its side and join the chorus praising supposed successes, and defending even glaring failings.
Plainly, if the President has cowed two co-equal branches and co-opted a constitutionally independent anti-graft body, there is little to check his abuses, especially if even leading newspapers and broadcasters have falled under his media allies.
Federalism can address excessive presidential clout and abuse by reducing his authority and control over resources. With more national power and purview given to regional goverments, the Chief Executive would then have less clout to abuse. And with fewer prerogatives and decision making, the presidency would be less difficult to watch.
For instance, Metro Manila commuter trains would be under the National Capital Region government rather than the Department of Transportation and Communication. That would give NCR residents more clout to pressure their regional executive to stop graft-ridden contracts destroying the railways.
Moreover, there would be less opportunity for the Interior and Local Government Secretary to pressure a typhoon-ravaged city. Its mayor would probably get more aid from his regional disaster agency than the national one, especially since the regional chief needs the city’s votes far more than the President.
And with regional governments having control of bigger chunks of state spending, the underspending and lack of presidential drive and oversight on massively funded programa and projects would be avoided, as voters pressure their regional leaders to perform and deliver. That same pressure would prod them to make spending outlays more attuned to the needs of their constituents.
In sum, the head of a national administration with far less power and resources would have much less clout to abuse, and would be easier to check and balance. And more money and power in regional govenrments would accelerate state initiatives and better tailor them to people’s needs and aspirations. That spreading out of state authority can be done through federalism.
More powerful and informed federal voters
The fear of federalism’s opponents is that regional leaders and the political patronage system would themselves be abusive, corrupt and inefficient. Indeed, the devolution of national programs to provincial, city and municipal govenrments under the Local Government Code, a quarter-century old this year, has been hit and miss in ensuring effective and honest governance.
The Internal Revenue Allotment giving local government units 40 percent of national taxes collected in their areas, has led to IRA misuse or disuse, due to poor LGU leadership in various constituencies.
Moreover, local political kingpins remain entrenched in many places, with no apparent end in sight for dynastic succession. Will federalism change that or make it worse?
One thing it would do is increase the clout of every voter in choosing leaders with greatest impact on their lives. In current presidential elections, a citizen is just one among more than 50 million Filipinos trudging to the polls every six years. That’s one divided by more than 50 million.
In a federal system, the voter’s choice is divided by just a few millions of regional citizens in choosing officials with the biggest say in many policies, programs and projects impacting on people’s everyday lives.
For NCR, which has the biggest voting population, the total eligibles is 6 million. So even Metro Manilans choosing regional leaders would have a voting clout more than seven times their current clout in choosing the president.
One possible result is that voters will care more about whom they choose, and less likely to sell their votes (though many still would). Leaders too would have more reason to serve constituents better, especially since the current strategy of massive media and grassroots spending by presidential candidates would have less effect in regional polls.
Putting out feel-good ads, which also demands massive amounts of illicit cash, would be less convincing to regional voters who can see for themselves and check with fellow constituents how well or badly candidates have perfotmed. Not so for nationwide campaigns, which can hoodwink millions with media overspending.
With less campaign cash and more tangible results demanded in regional polls, that would also enable bright and upright candidates with less resources to contest the positions that count in people’s lives. That should improve governance and lessen the grip of moneyed vested interests, on which today’s presidentiables hugely depend.
With today’s provincial and city bosses contesting regional posts, there would be wider choice, and voters can elect based on candidates’ performance in their respective LGUs. Imagine, for instance, an NCR election with an Abalos, a Binay, an Estrada, and a Belmonte contesting. The leader of the best-run city, not the candidate spending the most, would likely win.
Of course, regional voters may still elect bad leaders. But with greater electoral clout, the citizenry would then truly deserve the chiefs they choose.