'Unbundled' federalism pushed to save Duterte’s campaign promise

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 14 2019 03:46 PM

President Rodrigo Duterte raises his fist during an Independence Day speech at a military camp in Lanao del Sur on June 12, 2019. Albert Alcain, Presidential Photo

MANILA -- An admission by President Rodrigo Duterte that he may not be able to deliver on his campaign promise of federalism slammed the breaks on moves to restructure the Philippines’ Manila-centric government.

Duterte’s longtime assistant, Senator-elect Christopher "Bong" Go, earlier this week acknowledged the difficulty, citing the need to educate the public further on this new system of government.

Last year’s surveys showed a prevailing lack of knowledge on federalism among Filipinos, majority of whom were not inclined to support the set-up.

But “unbundling” the package of reforms contained in Duterte’s federalism project may still convince a wary public to give it a try, said political science professor Julio Teehankee.

“Try to incrementally achieve different aspects of the federal reform movement,” he told ABS-CBN News.

Teehankee acknowledged his frustration over the president’s admission, which came nearly a year after a team of mainly lawyers and academics drafted Duterte’s version of a federal constitution.

“It’s been disappointing because just like most reform advocates, we took the President’s word that he was for real change,” he said.

“If the President is saying it is impossible at this time, what hope remains for genuine change to really happen in this country if (he), despite his popularity, is saying it cannot be done?”

BIG-BANG FEDERALISM

Teehankee sat in the consultative committee chaired by former Chief Justice Reynato Puno, leading discussions on electoral reforms, including a ban on political dynasties.

Duterte’s presidency and its vast popularity provided a “small window of opportunity to push for big-bang federalism,” the con-com member said.

The committee proposed a Philippine-style “Bayanihan” federalism, reconfiguring the existing unitary system to spread wealth and political power more evenly among 18 federated regions.

It included a self-executing provision regulating political dynasties and other sweeping reforms to strengthen political parties as public institutions.

Duterte’s economic managers cautioned against the enormous price tag of shifting to federalism, including its possible impact on the country’s credit rating.

The federal draft was also largely ignored at the House of Representatives, which dropped the dynasty ban and even lifted term limits for legislators.

The House version further ignited fears that revising the constitution for federalism at this time would only allow self-serving politicians to take advantage.

LOW-HANGING FRUITS

But the federalism project may still be salvaged if focus is shifted to “low-hanging fruits,” said Alex Brillantes Jr., former dean of the University of the Philippines’ public administration school.

The existing regional development councils, he said, could serve as a takeoff point in designing regional governments.

Adopting a proposal to elect senators from every region, he said, would also ensure equal representation in the upper chamber.

“That’s what politics is all about. We have to compromise,” he said, insisting that federalism could still be had by 2022 if seen as further “strengthening local governments.”

Michael Henry Yusingco, a fellow at the Ateneo School of Government, earlier cited an "overhaul of the current local autonomy framework" as an alternative to an outright federal shift.

But instead of amending the 1991 Local Government Code, which had been virtually untouched for nearly 3 decades, he floated the "audacious" option of enacting an entirely new law on local autonomy.

The new legislation, he wrote in May, should include "clear power-sharing" between the national and local governments, including those further down the decentralized structure.

PIECEMEAL REFORMS

At the height of the federalism debate last year, many advocates rejected “incremental” reforms or merely amending the law on local governments.

If the constitution was to be opened to changes, they argued that it would better to restructure government and introduce wide-ranging political and electoral reforms.

But “piecemeal” reforms have emerged as another viable option, with the public still struggling to understand what federalism is. 

“Now, we have a choice between those who would like the big-bang reforms but with the unintended consequences,” Teehankee said, “and those who prefer piecemeal reforms, but are constantly facing a blank wall in terms if realizing these reform objectives.”

The Duterte administration, he said, could gather more public support for federalism if it would produce a “real” anti-political dynasty law.

Puno earlier described such a prohibition as “sine qua non” for a federal shift.

Said Brillantes: “Whether we will have full federalism by the end of the term of the president is not the question. The process has started and it will take time.”