Federalism: A lethal experiment?

By Val G. Abelgas

AMID uncertainties raised by President Duterte’s threats to declare a revolutionary government or a nationwide martial law, now comes another debate on a hot issue that would put the country’s future just as uncertain – the proposal to replace the current unitary form of government to that of a federal system of government.

Early last month, the President said he would declare a revolutionary government if opposition to his policies went out of control and chaos ruled the streets. Although he predicated the forming of a revolutionary government to a situation that had at this time has no basis in fact, such as his government weakened and revolutionaries bringing firearms on the street, it still caused enough concern among business leaders.

“A declaration of a revolutionary government will be bad for business, bad for the economy, bad for the country,” the Foundation for Economic Freedom (FEF) said in a statement last week, describing it as something that has no rules and in which uncertainty reigns.

The group, composed of economists, former government officials and businessmen, warned of the negative implications it would bring to the country’s investment climate and overall economic progress.

In fact, the country is losing investors to neighboring Vietnam and other countries because of uncertainties raised by threats of revolutionary government or a nationwide martial law, and now the move to shift to a federal form of government.

Recent moves in the House of Representatives to start discussions on the issue of federalism have again raised concern among political and business leaders because of uncertainties that an entirely new form of government could bring.

Former Supreme Court Chief Justice last week cautioned against the rush to federalism, describing the move as “a lethal experiment, a fatal leap, a plunge to death, a leap to hell.”

“I assert that the shift to federalism or amendments to our Constitution to accomplish the goals and objectives of the proponents of federalism is totally unnecessary,” Davide told business executives at Manila Polo Club in Makati.

Davide said the goals and objectives sought by proponents of federalism “can adequately and sufficiently be accomplished by merely but effectively and efficiently implementing the provisions of the 1987 Constitution for strong local autonomy and decentralization.”

The former chief magistrate cited 18 reasons he opposed federalism, foremost of which is the “bloating” of the bureaucracy with the creation of the regional governments.

Davide also said the introduction of elected executive and legislative positions in the regions could breed new or entrench old political dynasties as there would be “more juicy elective positions which will guarantee more fortune, fame and power to soothe politicians and their families,” he said.

Regions and its subunits might become mired in “feudalism” and end up becoming turfs of a ruling political class, Davide added, warning against the continuing “reign of the few.” There would also be more private armies, more warlords, more expensive elections and wider opportunities for graft and corruption with the creation of new public offices, he said.

He added that the rule of law would also “suffer a lot” under the feudal lords while there would also be “disarray” in the criminal judicial system with the “unavoidable” reclassification of federal and state offenses.

Federalism is an issue that, despite years of discussion, remains strange to millions of Filipinos. It would bring an abrupt change to a system Filipinos have been accustomed to for decades. It wouldn’t hurt to exercise extreme caution in rushing to it.
Proponents of federalism love to point to the United States and Malaysia as examples of highly successful federal countries. But they also forget to mention that these countries did not start as one nation. Federal states such as the US, Malaysia, Australia and Germany all began as “a loose collection of disparate political entities that gradually, and with painful upheavals, transformed themselves into a unified nation-state through the process of federalization.”

Writer Michael Henry Ll. Yusinco correctly pointed out: “It would essentially be the reverse in our case. Consequently, we face a much harder, more complicated, and possibly harsher version of federalization. It is thus disconcerting that purported advocates of federalism seem oblivious to the gravity of this sociopolitical reform. They quickly harp on the promise of enhanced local autonomy without even considering the readiness of the local leadership to assume the big responsibility of local governments under federalism, as if the fitness of the current crop for this form of government were already a given.”

We have had a brief look at having an autonomous state in the failed experiment called the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARRM) that only spawned a stronger, abusive political dynasty in the Ampatuan clan, an even chaotic governance, and an economy that insured the ARRM became the poorest region in the country.

As clearly demonstrated by the Maguindanao example, federalism will further strengthen political dynasties. There is no denying that established political clans have been in control of local politics for generations. With greater powers under a federal set-up, what will stop them from further solidifying their hold on Philippine politics? A regional, instead of national elections for senators, would put more of these political dynasties at the national helm by being elected to the Senate.

As pointed out by Davide and Yusinco, the shift to federal form of government would not succeed with political dynasties still entrenched in our political system. Yusinco, for example, pointed to a groundbreaking study by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center in 2012 titled “An Empirical Analysis of Political Dynasties in the 15th Philippine Congress,” which showed that lower standards of living, lower human development, and higher levels of deprivation and inequality persist in the communities governed by political dynasties.

Former national treasurer Leonor Magtolis-Briones, now Duterte’s education secretary, had voiced the same concern as Davide regarding the added layers of bureaucracy federalism would create: “Students of public finance have been pointing out that the creation of an additional layer of government—namely the state—will inevitably lead to higher levels of expenditures. This is because the machinery of the states has to be maintained, along with that of the federal government and the local government units. Pressure for higher levels of expenditures will inevitably lead to pressure for increased levels of taxes.”

For example, each of the proposed 11 states would have its own supreme court, parliament, Cabinet departments, state police, etc. that would necessarily entail huge budgets.

A federal form of government will create additional layers of bureaucracy that will lead to even more red tape, corruption and confusion. Businessmen and investors will be the most adversely affected as they will have to contend with conflicting and confusing laws from various states/regions. Can you imagine 11 states with their own agencies on commerce and industry, housing, health, transportation, education, etc. and the federal government having its own, too, all with their own sets of rules?

Instead of unifying the country, federalism could further divide the country. Ilocanos have long considered themselves a people distinct from the Tagalogs, and so do the Visayans, the Muslims, the Bicolanos and other regional tribes or groups. Just when these groups are beginning to blend as one, we now say they are groups distinct from one another.

If one state becomes more progressive and more powerful than the others, what will stop it from moving to secede from the union and become a truly independent entity as what is happening to Spain’s Catalan region?

With not much help from the central government, regions with very little natural resources and existing infrastructures are almost certain to lag behind, negating the primary reason proponents are pushing for federalism. Proponents say federalism would enable each state to grow on its own by using its own resources, taxation and leadership.

Under the present form of government, provinces are given proportional revenue allocations under the Internal Revenue Allotments (IRA). Metro Manila gets the biggest share not because the national government is based in Metro Manila, but because the region has the biggest contribution to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), accounting for a more than 36-percent share.

Duterte and the other proponents of federalism may be right that the shift could be the solution to the country’s many problems. But they could also be wrong.

It would be to the best interest of the country that the proposal be discussed more lengthily and more cautiously before we jump into it. It’s an issue that could make or break the country. A little more caution and introspection wouldn’t hurt.