Next stop: Federalism. And now?

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A COUPLE of days ago, I stumbled across a pile of books I bought while I was a student of political science in Germany. The questions those books dealt with (and also the thesis I had to write) could be summarized as: “What is good for development and prosperity in democracies?”

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Growing up in Germany does not necessarily lead you to believe that everything we have is perfect just because we’re one of the richest countries in the world. We have learned to question our institutions, our policies and our politicians, our entire system of government constantly. Having started two World Wars, I believe it is not only legitimate for Germans but also necessary to question such things in a vibrant public discourse permanently. So, what kind of policy and which system is the best to guarantee lasting prosperity? I found it exciting to see how many of the things I read years ago can be applied to the Philippines today. And that is why I keep on asking myself: Why do things not improve in the Philippines? We’ve seen impressive economic growth, but still 25 million Filipinos live in poverty. We’ve seen efforts to bring peace to Mindanao and establish a real autonomous region in the Bangsamoro, but we’re back to square one now. We’ve seen an intense fight against corruption, but are we less corrupt today?

The underlying problem is the system. And that’s why the few (i.e., dynasties and political clans) are still strong. Or is it the other way around? Are the elites the reason why the system won’t change? It’s the chicken-and-egg question, again.

Federalism is a good way to start reforming the system. A population of more than 100 million, more than 7,000 islands and more than 100 languages—it does not need a “rocket scientist” to see that a unitary form of government might not be the most suitable one for the Philippines. A federal set-up is not only a new design on a map; it is also a reflection of regional identities. Also, it is a move toward self-determination and decentralization. There is no doubt: federalism has the potential to make things better in the Philippines.

But creating “federal states,” “provinces” or “regions” does not bring change per se. Whenever change is being promised by a government, people should ask questions: How does this address our most urgent needs? Will this really be better than the old system? Does this guarantee accountability of our government? Does it bring ownership and participation in political decision-making for the common people?

I dare say, in the Philippines, there is hardly any accountability and there is no ownership or ways for participation in politics at all.

Obviously, no one is happy with that. But then again, who is trying to do something about it? Let’s have a look at participation first. Although we have a vibrant civil society in the Philippines, we have no membership-based political parties. Here, parties are the accumulation of elected officials that want to form a group. Here, parties are not for housewives, workers, farmers or Juan dela Cruzes. Here, parties and politics are dirty business no common citizen wants to be associated with. And that is the problem. In a previous column (“Centrist Democracy and Revolution”), Peter Köppinger, PhD, elaborated on the need for programmatic political parties that provide real ownership for their members. But for this to become reality it does not only need a law on political parties; it needs a change of attitude and culture in the country. We need a culture in which citizens embrace politics rather than distancing themselves from it. Only then can we look forward to a democracy that is carried by the people—by the many, not by the few.

Finally, let’s have a look at accountability in our system. In the 21st century it is impossible to argue that a presidential system guarantees the same amount of stability and government accountability than a parliamentary system. Disagree? Just google “list of presidential systems,” which starts with Afghanistan and ends with Zimbabwe. In a parliamentary form of government, representative democracy is the key to good governance. Parliament itself elects the head of government (e.g., a Prime Minister, Chancellor, Chief Minister) and can also remove/replace him through a “vote of no confidence.” Parties and their respective groups in Parliament are strong, programmatic and cohesive. Party-switching, as we see it in the Philippines, is nearly impossible. Even worse, it makes politicians lose all their credibility. Furthermore, governance and governing become a collaboration of the executive and the legislative branch. Public accountability is strengthened through this cooperative method.

In a nutshell, reform and change will not bring any benefit for the Philippines if we only focus on federalism. Let’s think about reform as a train ride. Every step of the entire process is a stop on our route: charter change for federalism, introducing a parliamentary system, passing a law on political parties. Not going further after just one or two stops makes our entire journey useless. So far, I believe, most administrations rather kept the train inside central station.

Benedikt Seemann is currently country director of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS)’s Philippines Office. He oversees KAS’ various projects in the Philippines in the fields of the rule of law, strengthening democracy, and human rights. Prior to joining KAS, Seemann served as chief of staff to a whip at the German Parliament (Christian Democrats’ Parliamentary Group). He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Public Law, having studied at the University of Trier (Germany) and at Hong Kong Baptist University. He is a member of the Board of Advisors of CDPI.

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