MANILA — Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr.’s passing has left behind an unfinished advocacy to restructure the Philippines’ Manila-centric government under a federal system.
Pimentel, who died Sunday at 85, had embraced the cause for nearly 4 decades, finally finding the best opportunity under President Rodrigo Duterte, a longtime PDP-Laban party-mate and former mayor who also believed in decentralizing governance.
But a general lack of public support and understanding pushed the federal initiative behind more pressing priorities under the Duterte administration.
A government inter-agency task force is now campaigning instead for “surgical amendments,” without necessarily abandoning the proposed “big bang” federalism that would require an overhaul of the 1987 Constitution.
Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya said Pimentel’s death could in fact raise more awareness of federalism as Filipinos looked more closely into his life and legacy.
“It didn’t die with him,” said Malaya, who headed PDP-Laban think tank that drafted the party’s version of a federal constitution.
Much of Pimentel’s federalism advocacy was shaped by his experience as a former mayor of Cagayan de Oro City, who “knew precisely the problems of too much centralism,” said professor Alex Brillantes, his longtime collaborator on the initiative.
In one speech, Pimentel recalled how the idea was born in 1982 as “the basis of a viable alternative to the dictatorship.”
“The proposed solution was for the national government to share power — political and economic — with the regional and local governments throughout the nation, peacefully, by converting the country into a Federal Republic,” he said then.
Even in his advanced age, Pimentel didn’t tire explaining the fine details of this “seminal” idea refined over the years, whether in school forums or media interviews.
Pimentel would field questions patiently, from the most basic (“What is federalism?”) to the more complicated such as taxation, revenues, and specific powers to be exercised by the central and subnational governments.
All the while, he also knew that convincing the public to give federalism a try would be a long process, involving debates not necessarily confined to those who genuinely opposed or supported the idea.
Pimentel, for instance, was well aware of how political clans could take advantage of federalism to make sure they would get to exercise more power and control over resources.
“He and I talked about this many many times -- let us continue the advocacy for federalism but of course, there are those who would hijack it,” Brillantes told ABS-CBN News.
“As a matter of fact, you and I know it had happened. But at the end of the day, let's be focused on the ultimate objective.”
A previous House proposal included a federal feature but scrapped term limits and included no ban on political dynasties, a provision in the Constitution largely ignored for lack of an enabling law.
Pimentel sat in Duterte’s consultative committee that drafted a federal constitution, which included key political and electoral reforms, but came under fire for failing to look more closely into the economic costs of restructuring government.
The president did not endorse his own committee’s draft, later forming an inter-agency task force to conduct further study and consolidate proposals on federalism and constitutional reforms.
“In an arena where the pursuit of political self-interest is the norm, Tatay Nene consistently demonstrated the courage to stand on principles no matter the political costs to himself,” said political science professor Julio Teehankee, who was part of the committee.
“He was a paragon of principled politics.”
Last Sunday, the inter-agency task force began the first leg of a nationwide “Balangayan” caravan to promote specific constitutional reforms (CORE), instead of the bigger and more contentious federalism project.
The campaign pushed for “equality” provisions such as expanding the collection base for the internal revenue allotment for local governments, and liberalizing Philippine economy.
“We are going to dedicate CORE ... in his honor kasi sya naman talaga nagsimula nito,” said Malaya, who cited Pimentel’s advocacy for constitutional reforms.
(We’re going to dedicate it to his honor because he was the one who started it.)
Pimentel’s work laid the foundation for federalism providing the “enabling framework for empowered subnational local governments,” said Brillantes.
“It's really a movement that ‘tatay’ has started,” he said.