I have long been an advocate of a parliamentary-federal system for the Philippines. This means a shift from the presidential to the parliamentary and from the unitary to the federal systems of government. These structures are well-known to the reader, so I need not define them here. However, recent developments and a deeper insight into the issues have compelled me to rethink some of my earlier conclusions. I have not taken a complete U-turn. But I would like to see a wider discussion.
One broadsheet known for pushing its own political agendas tried to kick off the campaign for federalism last week by running a big banner story on a resolution calling for a constituent assembly (ConAss) to fast-track the proposed change. The resolution was filed in the House of Representatives by Rep. Alfredo Benitez, third district of Negros Occidental, one of the richest men in Congress and head of a bloc of congressmen loyal to his own cause. Since then Senate President Franklin Drilon has proposed electing delegates to a constitutional convention by January 2017.
The first regular session of the 17th Congress opens on the fourth Monday of July yet. But while it is not too early for incoming senators and congressmen to file bills and resolutions before that, it raises eyebrows when a major newspaper runs a banner headline on a story that normally would not land on the front page. Is it because President Duterte promised a shift to federalism?
The global meltdown
That could be one reason, even though, strictly speaking, the President has no formal role to play in proposing constitutional amendments or revisions. That is strictly the business of Congress and the Filipino people. But the global political landscape has changed beyond measure from what it was before DU30 became President to what it is now. The world’s most ambitious experiment in federalism–the European Union–has begun to unravel, with earth-shaking consequences; Brexit–Britain’s decision to exit the EU–has led to speculations that France, Netherlands, Austria, Finland, Hungary and others could follow soon, and Scotland and Northern Ireland pull out of Britain itself.
The DU30 government may not see these developments as disincentives. But if we look at them closely, they are. The EU happened when 28 independent nation-states came together as one community; now Britain has decided to withdraw, and others could follow soon. The movement is in the opposite direction of integration. In our case, we are one solid unitary Republic, trying its best to preserve its territorial integrity by resisting secessionism. Now, the proposal is to subdivide the country into several autonomous or semi-autonomous states or regions and then wrap them up together again into one federal Republic.
Has it ever occurred to us that the successful federal republics happened because several autonomous or semi-autonomous states had decided, in each case, to coalesce into one common republic, and to defend their unity, without having to integrate themselves into a unitary state? Is it possible that the unitary state is, in fact, one step ahead of the federal state? I raise this as a question, not necessarily as a thesis. Instead of rushing things, we could take a little time to examine and answer it.
Don’t rush things
Changing the structure of government is a major step which should be taken with extreme care; it should not be rushed in the same way the 1987 Constitution was rushed under Cory Aquino, or the way the shift to electronic voting was rushed and put in the hands of a technically ill-prepared body in 2010. Revising the Constitution in order to change the existing government structure (unitary) to a new one (federal) is a sovereign act, which is not the same as writing a new Constitution, ex nihilo–from nothing. In writing a new one, the only clear duty and mandate of those writing it in the name of the sovereign people is to write a “new” Constitution, without any pre-conceptions or preconditions. The structure and form of government–whether unitary or federal, parliamentary or presidential–and everything else will emerge in the course of the free deliberations, not laid down ab initio by some powerful leader.
In the case of a proposed revision, those proposing the revision must make sure that they proceed from a clear decision to abandon the existing system in favor of the desired alternative, and that such a change, rather than anything else, prevails. To be abhorred and avoided is the disaster that occurred in 1986 when after working so hard on a constitution for a parliamentary government the appointive constitutional commission ended voting for a presidential government. This resulted in the current mismatch between the Constitution and the present form of government in operation.
Why not a referendum first?
Who will make sure that the same fiasco will not happen again? Only the people can. Since those who would be proposing the revision would be exercising constituent powers, they would be “omnipotent,” as it were–free to propose anything. But since the people are the real authors of the Constitution, the people could avoid being presented with a fait accompli, by declaring beforehand whether or not they favor a shift to the federal system, through a referendum.
Let the people decide.
If the people support the shift, then there’s no other way to go than to formally propose it. The key is the people. What the people say should govern. In 1986 after “people power” ousted Marcos and installed Mrs. Aquino as “revolutionary president,” she picked 50 men and women to draft a new Constitution just because she could not trust those who had made her president to elect their own delegates to write their own Constitution. This should not happen again.
This means a Con-Ass is out of the question. The more workable proposal is the one coming from the incoming Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and Drilon and reportedly favored by the President, even though he has no defined role to play in amending the Constitution, strictly speaking. This means a ConCon.
This needs a vote of two-thirds of all the members of both Houses, voting separately. If it passes, we could have a Concon by middle of next year. Without a referendum to provide the operating instructions, nothing would bind the Concon, a priori, to a federal shift; the best hope of its proponents is that the global political situation would evolve to favor the proposed shift, and their specific proposals on what federal model to adopt would win the debates on the floor.
No fast-tracking please
Whatever happens, I would very strongly caution against “fast-tracking” the proposed shift. We have to learn our lesson from our failure to implement reforms well, just because we gave ourselves no time to gain the necessary knowledge and experience before implementing them. Having failed to make the unitary system well after so many decades, we cannot expect to have become experts on federalism. We should therefore provide for a reasonable transition period so we could acquire sufficient understanding of the system, and a satisfactory level of competence to make it work.
Where federalism has worked, the autonomous or semi-autonomous character of the component states, regions, or provinces is often touted as the strongest glue that has kept the federal union together. This is not exactly correct. These federal unions have prevailed because their component states have decided to remain together despite their autonomous or semi-autonomous individual status. Those who are opposed to federalism on the other hand see the autonomous or semi-autonomous character of the various component units as the real fault-line that could bring about the federal union’s destruction. It is a foot in the door toward “balkanization.”
Dynasties and warlords
Indeed, the proposed shift could end the reign of “imperial Manila,” which appears to have already significantly begun to recede in favor of Davao upon DU30’s election. But it could also create fiefdoms revolving around regional political warlords and dynasties, which the central government may not be equipped with sufficient powers to curtail. Davao could be the first such example. The President is from Davao; many members of his inner circle are from Davao; the mayor of the city is his daughter, and the vice-mayor his son. This was the fear expressed by some with respect to former Vice President Jejomar Binay during the election: had he won as president, he would have run the country with a daughter in the Senate, a son-in-law in the House, and a daughter on top of Makati, the country’s financial district. They did not count on the DU30 phenomenon.
There is something terribly amiss about the constitutional reform. There is indeed an urgent need to redistribute political and economic power and the opportunities for economic and social development, and there is enough space in the Constitution to would allow the necessary adjustments. But the mismatch in the Constitution is not between the fundamental law and the unitary form of government, but rather between the rules proper to a parliamentary system and the current presidential form of government. And yet what is being proposed is a reform of the unitary system rather than of the presidential system.
Not federal but parliamentary
If the intention is to correct the most obvious defects of the Constitution, we should make its provisions conform to the requirements of the presidential system, or replace the presidential with the parliamentary altogether. As I have written a few times before, the presidential system seems to work well in only two places–in the United States and in Rotary Clubs, and not necessarily in that order. But in this election, the US electorate could be having a serious rethink.
The parliamentary system allows a democratic state to more easily elect the best qualified leader, and to get rid of one who has failed, than the presidential. All things considered, it allows you to hold transparent and credible elections. This is because not a single official is elected nationwide, which involves an archipelago where supervising elections remains an obstinate problem. In a parliamentary system, the voters merely elect a Member of Parliament, and the MPs later choose the Prime Minister. Transparency is easier to guarantee, even in the midst of so much cheating.
Winning in a lottery
The last elections have shown that, despite DU30’s election which all his rivals readily conceded, we are not yet prepared to conduct clean, honest, transparent and credible elections in all parts of the country and at all levels. Many parts of Mindanao are not prepared to conduct any kind of elections. How then could we continue holding national presidential elections when we know we do not have the means to ensure that the voting or the counting and transmission of votes would reflect the popular will?
DU30’s election will be invoked as an argument against this proposition. Sometimes, even a presidential system could produce a Lincoln (in our case DU30?). But this would be like winning in a lottery, says Bagehot. And winning in a lottery is no argument in favor of a lottery, where one loses most of the time.