Why switch to federalism?


First of two parts

THE reported consensus within the National Security Council (NSC) to shift from a constitutional convention to a constituent assembly in amending the Constitution suggests that the federalism project of the administration is a train in a hurry to get moving.

The declaration of the President that he will leave the presidency if the country makes the switch is no argument for federalism. He means merely to tempt political opponents; not even the desperate Liberal Party and yellow cult will take the bait. But the drug lords might consider it.

The loudest drumbeater for federalism today is Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. But he has as yet given no indication that he really understands what this radical constitutional change is all about. Or how far-reaching it is.

The Speaker’s timetable

Alvarez spoke before the Management Association of the Philippines last Wednesday, and disclosed the following:

1. The NSC at its meeting on Wednesday night tackled the subject of constitutional change. Alvarez said the consensus of the assembled group is that Charter Change (Cha-Cha) should be done quickly by Congress through a Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass) instead of a costly Constitutional Convention (Con-Con).

2. President Duterte has himself shifted positions from Con-Con to Con-Ass as the means
for amending the Charter.

The Speaker did not say whether the four ex-Presidents agreed that it is prudent or necessary for the country to adopt a federal system of government. I am not persuaded that the former Chief Executives are conversant on federalism at all, or have given the matter serious study.

The only thing that is apparent is that politicians and bureaucrats from Mindanao favor the system switch because of the advantage that would accrue for the South. There is a core group of some 50 representatives who are pressing for the Con-Ass plan. They see opportunities in steering the Charter-reform effort.

Alvarez is so gung-ho about the project, he unveiled a timetable before the business group. He says his timetable calls for a draft of a new Constitution in one year, after which there will be a public information drive.

“By the 2019 elections, we will have it ratified by the people. In 2022, we will elect leaders based on the new Constitution. Can we do it? The Duterte administration is committed to do it,” Alvarez said.

Before he could savor the headlines on his disclosure, Malacañang quickly declared that the new plan to push for Con-Ass is not yet final, considering the prohibitive costs should Congress begin the process soon.

I am on record as advocating constitutional change since way back. While a Con-Con is the more democratic way to go, I think the Con-Ass route can be just as effective, if properly organized.

As for the switch to fedferalism, which is now being bandied about as the most urgent reason for constitutional change, I have some questions—plenty of questions.

Questions about system change

My most urgent questions are the following:

If federalism is such a great system of government, why is it that only 11 out of 190 countries have opted for federalism? Why are the great majority of nations unitary in form like ours?

If we could not unify and develop the Philippines while attending to only one republic, why will we Filipinos be more successful with some 10 or 13 states constituting the whole?

As things are, working within the unitary system, the Philippines has become one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia and the world today. Since Duterte’s doing great at this point, wouldn’t a switch to federalism snuff the momentum?

The proposal for the Philippines to switch to a federal system needs to be informed by a deeper understanding of how federalism works, and by a broad study of the experiences of nations that have adopted the system.

Apart from self-serving statements in the media and superficial forums on the subject, I still have to see one comprehensive paper on this proposal, which seriously discusses the concept of federalism as a system of government, its advantages and disadvantages, and seriously addresses the challenges it would pose to Philippine governance.

No politician has discussed cogently the case for changing the Philippine political system from its present unitary form to a federal system, and the corollary point of whether (1) a federal-presidential system is suitable or (2) a federal-parliamentary system is better.

Nation-states in the world today have adopted one of three basic systems of government:

1.The Unitary system

2. The Federal System

3.The Confederate System

Only 11 countries are federated today

Federalism is not a common method of governing in the world. Only 11 of the 190 or so nations of the world have federal systems. These are Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Australia, India, the United States, Austria, Malaysia, and Switzerland. They do not have the same federal system. The list includes big countries, as well as small ones.

Most nations in the world today have unitary systems, wherein almost all power resides in the central government.

Determining why these 11 countries adopted a federal system is an interesting study in itself. It is generally believed that cultural diversity (ethnic, linguistic and religious) led them to adopt federalism.

Significantly, all three North American nations—Canada, Mexico and the US—have federal systems.

But the trend does not continue in South America, where only Brazil and Argentina have gone federal.

In Asia, the federal states are India and Malaysia.

In Europe, Austria, Germany and Switzerland are the main federal states.

Australia, in Oceania, is a top-ranked and prosperous federal state.

Most federated countries are democracies, although most democracies do not have federal systems.

Authoritarian regimes generally do not wish to disperse power away from the central government.

Both the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia had federal systems, but with strong central governments.

When democracy swept through these countries in 1989 and the early 1990s, they dissolved into many smaller nations.

India and the US are the biggest federal states in terms of population.

Canada, Brazil and the US are the biggest federal states in terms of land area.

Switzerland, Austria and Malaysia are the smallest federal states in terms of population size and land area.

The US was the first country to adopt federalism as its governing framework.

The debate is just beginning

The debate is just beginning.

There will be plenty of arguments.

If federalists can win the argument, federalism will pass.

Otherwise, it will be back to the drawing board for federalism advocates.

Mindanao’s campaign against imperial Manila will be met by something similar to “the empire strikes back.”

If Alvarez and other politicians think that this debate can be won by just spending DU30’s political capital, they should dismiss the thought.

That capital may be better spent elsewhere.

This debate must be won by persuasion, and by sound argument and intelligent constitutional design.

“Presidential power,” says the foremost authority on modern presidency Richard Neustadt, “is the power to persuade.”



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  1. Leodegardo Pruna on

    If I heard the President right, he said that he would like to copy that of the French government. The Philippines is partly practicing Federalism with its present structure of having powers devolved to regions and local government units. We also had a parliamentary system for sometime. We really have to study what system would best suit the mentality and temperament of the Fillipinos. God bless the Philippines.

  2. My responses:
    1) Because federal system is suited for these 11 countries, and the majority of the rest are smaller countries that are more or less homogeneous. Some of the unitary government are not changing due to inertia, as what is happening in the Philippines.

    2) Because the unitary government is running against the grain of the wood, figuratively.

    3) No, it will actually accelerate the momentum of growth.
    My most urgent questions are the following:

    1) If federalism is such a great system of government, why is it that only 11 out of 190 countries have opted for federalism? Why are the great majority of nations unitary in form like ours?

    2) If we could not unify and develop the Philippines while attending to only one republic, why will we Filipinos be more successful with some 10 or 13 states constituting the whole?

    3) As things are, working within the unitary system, the Philippines has become one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia and the world today. Since Duterte’s doing great at this point, wouldn’t a switch to federalism snuff the momentum?

  3. It is a political conumdrum and worrisome stance to propose the change and switch of the present form of government from Unitary-presidential to Federalism.

    President Duterte and other advocates of Federalism, like Sen. Pimentel and Speaker Alvarez and members of Congress, will tinker the Constitution by amending it to supplant the current form of government (Unitary/Presidential/Republican)to a Federal government ( Presidential or Parliamentary) WITHOUT even knowing, explaining and studying the mechanisms, workings and political ramifications and societal effects of Federalism as a form of government.

    Just because Duterte had promised a shift to Federalism once elected without explaining how it works and how it be more advantageous than the current system, except him saying that Federalism will give more independence to the Mindanao areas without seceding from the Philippine political sovereignty, thus said to solving the intractable Mindanao Muslim conflicts. This assessment is despite the autonomy given to the AARM which literally works as a federal form as an independent political unit of the central Philippine government, yet did not solve the insurgencies and mistrust of central political leaderships by local officials.
    With Federalism in place, each city or province, as may be politically delineated, will just be managed and governed like AARM political unit, except with more political powers like self-government, budget,taxation, building and maintainance of its own infrastructure, own police force, among other things.
    The voting populace, in case of referendum, is also in a quandary as to how the Federalism works and affects them to intelligently evaluate the pros and cons of this new form of government to give them idea whether or not to choose the new system.
    The people are not politically matured, prepared and conversant, either educationally or informatively, to be governed under this new federal system especially as to processes of self-government. It may give more opportunity the intransigent and power greedy local politicians to create a warlord-like unit of government and family dynasty in every political unit- state, since they will be independent of the Federal Central-National government. Although the Federal government powers control the Armed Forces, Immigration, Foreign policy, Customs , Treasury/Central Bank, Agency that coordinates with each State government, enforcement of federal laws (civil and criminal), each State government is independent and virtually autonomous, free from the Federal National/Central government close control. As such, it canot discipline or terminate or dismiss a State official for bad governance.

    Federalism will be more expensive and costly for the populace as it will call for two of a kind ( Federal and State level) or duplicated body of organization or body like for revenue raising agencies, like two taxations, two police forces, reform of judiciary organizations (Federal and State level) two congressional or law-making assemblies, two audit, civil service and electoral tribunals, etc..
    The Federalism proponents must first thoroughly study the system and its advantages and explain, educate and disseminate them to the people before embarking on amending the Constitution changing the current form of government to Federalism.

    For me the switch to Federalism is premature, costly and opensopportunity for family dynasty, private armies, widespread corruption due to territorial segmentation to different political turfs and possible unmanageability of each created State by the Federal government, and inter-state conflicts and dissensions.
    To me, the present unitary/Prsidential/Republican form is still effective for national governance but must only strengthen the LGU by enacting laws to make them independent and free from control by central government in performing their own infrastructure with central gov’t. supervisions and audit by COA.
    Jun adan

  4. Mr Duterte success in Davao is the biggest argument against Federalism. What we need a lot of Duterte in the local government units complemented by effective Congress and Senate. Federalism will FAIL when the same Politicians are in control. What you are going to do is replicate the same FAILED system 13 times with smaller federal entities

  5. Silverio Cabellon Jr on

    Let us know exactly what amendment to the 1987 Constitution is exactly being proposed then we can take a position on whether we agree or disagree.

  6. Jose Samilin on

    Don’t you see the world is soooooo corrupt by humanism and self interest is so apparent. Thus, lesser government wants to be clean and now people of the Philippines want drastic change for we have been, for the longest time, wallowing in a deep poverty situation, lawlessness and illigal drugs, injustice, greed and corruption by powerful government officials and oligarchs who are among the few of our population and who drowned the entire population to the neck and barely breathing grasping for life!! This is very emphatic that now people need change drastically and Duterte’s heart bleed to see this these things happening to our people. Federalism is the answer and the change is now, not later as pronounced by NSC and the way is Con-Ass.