FEDERALISM is being presented as the miracle cure to all the ills and evils of the Republic of the Philippines. Yet, reading former Supreme Court Chief Justice Reynato Puno’s arguments, I thought he was arguing in favor of a stronger central government. Not stronger in the sense that it would expand martial law to cover the rest of the country, introduce an excise tax on more products, or call for another postponement of barangay elections. No, a central government stronger in the sense that it would push harder to make inclusive growth, where no one is left behind, which would be the guiding principle of all programs and policies of government, from the national level to the barangay.
Former CJ Puno was indeed campaigning for federalism, for a “distinctly Filipino” (bayanihan?) model of federalism or “cooperative” federalism as against a competitive federalism.
To Robert Maulana Marohombsar Alonto, a veteran of the peace process between the government and the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), federalism is “still the best option for a country stuck in a cul-de-sac and unable to forge ahead to a more progressive and developed state because it is mired in unitary statism genetically bred in the womb of colonialism” (MindaNews, February 20, 2018). Of course, Mr. Alonto is not concerned with the Philippine Republic per se but with the long-delayed realization of the “Bangsamoro homeland.” If federalism is the way to finally accomplish this, then federalism it must be. Mr. Alonto, however, also points out that while the Muslims may have their identity as a “Moro” nation, the “national identities of the diverse peoples” (who inhabited the islands at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards) have been eroded thanks to “forced homogenization” from above.
Mr. Alonto’s article is thought-provoking and enlightening, but I feel that he overstates the sense of “national identity” that might have been in pre-colonial Philippines just as he underestimates what the shared history and struggles for survival have done to make a majority of Filipinos, regional differences notwithstanding, feel as one nation with a shared destiny. Introducing federalism thus cannot be compared to how the United States of America, for example, became a federal republic where independent states came together and federated.
Obviously, the provinces, cities and towns of the Philippines should be given their fair share of taxes. It is not right that big corporations with large plantations in Mindanao, for instance, pay the bulk of their taxes to Makati City or wherever else they have their headquarters. Also, while LGUs are now getting a bigger share from gambling with the introduction of small town lottery (STL), under a federal government, casinos, lotteries and other types of betting would be the domain of the individual states.
The taxes on income and profits are where the bulk of government revenues are. And while the national government – or Imperial Manila – may be getting the lion’s share of these, it is also clear that LGUs are not maximizing the funds that they receive from the national government. It is convenient to think that impoverished regions such as, for instance, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and Samar Island only get a pittance of taxes and projects. It would also be convenient to think that LGUs have no power to levy taxes and fees, when many LGUs use this power to make it difficult for local business to prosper to the detriment of job creation and democratization of the local economy. Red tape at the local government level is often as bad as or worse than at national government offices.
We like to blame the so-called oligarchs and elites in Manila, but our home-grown provincial politicians have been quite adept at evolving into political dynasties, monopolizing political power and position as if these were their birthright.
Some local government executives have helped the New People’s Army in the latter’s extortion activities, while despotic mayors and governors have put up their owned private armies or have used the local police to neutralize political opponents. Will federalism put a stop to all these transgressions? Will agrarian reform finally be fully implemented and the rights of indigenous peoples respected? Will there be no more homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks, no more malnourished children under federalism?
President Rodrigo Duterte’s “province of the Philippines, Republic of China” comment at the Chinese Filipino Business Club was officially a joke except that the audience applauded. Of course, the comment was inappropriate coming from a head of state. However, I like to see it as a challenge from the president, a challenge directed to all of us: armed conflict, violence, proliferation of drugs, horrendous traffic in our cities, environmental degradation and pollution, poverty, corruption and more – are we capable, as a nation, of solving these problems and making the country livable and safe for every Filipino? Status quo is not a solution.