The painful shift to a federal system of govt

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

MAKE no mistake. Ideally, and theoretically, a federal system of government is the more appropriate system for our country. Our geography demands it. And our cultural complexities require it. As an archipelago with more than a hundred ethno-linguistic groups, having a federal form of government, where component states are organized along the major ethno-linguistic geo-political subdivisions, is theoretically ideal. A federal form of government can grant full autonomy to the regional levels of governance to craft their own responses to the development challenges which are unique to their localities.

However, shifting to a federal form of government is not a walk in the park. Forcing it as a one-shot deal through constitutional reform on a political and cultural landscape that is not yet structurally ready may just prove disastrous.

At present, the Philippines can be labeled as an “overdeveloped” state, which Hamza Alavi referred to as the nature of many post-colonial states. Our state structures, which were brought by our former colonizers, are inorganic and inauthentic relative to the prevailing structures of society. Our political structures are “overdeveloped” in the sense that they are not supported by our cultural worldviews. For example, Western models of bureaucratic governance which privilege impersonal relationships as its core run contrary to our personalistic and family-oriented nature. We keep on imposing a Western rubric to judge our political ethos, and it is in this context that family ties which we value are now condemned as the very basis for corruption. Political dynasties are deemed to be dysfunctional elements of politics in a country where the family is a strong basic unit of society.

The theory is that the adoption of Western models of governance can trigger a cultural transformation in an evolutionary fashion. However, the forced nature of the colonial imposition of modern forms of democratic governance unto colonized societies like the Philippines ended up as dysfunctional. This is seen in the interaction between a bureaucratized, Western model of political organization that is “overdeveloped” relative to the natural structures and processes inherent in non-Western societies.


Our experience could be likened to hitting the gas pedal of a car to accelerate while on first gear. Doing so can end up with engine overheating, or worse, in total engine damage.

And this is exactly what happened to the Philippines. Our political structures have been so Westernized but our cultural behavior remains an assemblage of disarticulations between what the modern forms of governance require and what we can offer as a people. There is just so much structural dysfunctionalities the roots of which can be traced to the forced imposition of Western models of governance over a society that was not yet ready for them. Political development was never organically supported and ended up flawed, corrupted and effectively in the hands of the predatory oligarchic class, or those who were able to adopt, and adapt to, the Western models.

This is precisely why any further tinkering with our system of governance should not repeat the same mistake of forcing a model which, while ideal, may not be supported by the prevailing political culture.

There is one main challenge to the shift to a federal form of government. And this emanates from the fact that we are unlike most federal countries, where the component states have preceded the federation, in that prior to the establishment of the federal level the component states have had their own autonomous, even sovereign-like, existence. What we have is a strong experience of being under a unitary system of governance, and where geopolitical subdivisions existed only as administrative arms of the central government and, except for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), were not accorded full autonomy. Powers were devolved not to regions, which are proposed to be the basis of the formation of states, but to provinces, cities and municipalities.

The challenge is not only in terms of political capacity, but also in terms of technical and economic readiness of the political subdivisions to be granted full state status under a federal set-up. This is something that cannot be legislated, nor created by mere constitutional imprimatur, be it an outcome of a democratic process, or by a president exercising his emergency powers under a revolutionary set-up after launching a palace coup.

Forcing a political region to become a full state, when the political and economic structures and processes are not in place can only deepen the “overdeveloped” nature of our political system relative to the objective realities on the ground.

Hence, what should be established is the intent to shift to a federal form of government, and a detailed transition process outlining the manner by which political subdivisions can graduate into full statehood under a federal set-up.

Thus, the proposed Constitution must have a transitory mechanism where decision points can be identified when a region can be granted the status of being a state. This entails a participatory process where stakeholders can begin crafting their own charters, developing and implementing their own economic development initiatives, and engaging in confidence-building activities among and between local government units, such as provinces and cities that will end up under the proposed state. Petty things such as where the state capital will be located will be highly debated. In Calabarzon alone, how to transform five provinces led by five governors into one state led by one state executive is a potentially contentious and explosive political issue.

In the end, some regions will become states faster than others. But it cannot be over-emphasized that political reform is not a mechanical task, and it is not an easy one. Forcing regions to become states even if they are not structurally ready can be as dangerous and can lead to more dysfunctional politics. It can create new problems which can weigh down and impair the central government, and potentially undermine not only the development of states, but of the proposed federal Republic.

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