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Major concerns in establishing a federal system


Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a practicing lawyer, is the author of the book “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism. This commentary originally appeared on Rappler.


There is no contention that the fundamental problem of the Philippines is the over-concentration of power and wealth in Imperial Manila. And both sides of the federalism debate agree that the only way to break its domination is to establish a robust decentralized governance framework.


Empowering local or regional government, both in fiscal and administrative terms, is an undeniable requisite to spur regional development. However, designing the specifics of a multi-layer government structure is extremely challenging. And this initiative has become even more complex given that there are now 3 competing groups (Senate, House of Representatives, and the administration’s consultative committee) vying to come up with a draft constitution.


Nevertheless, the people who make up these institutions, at the least, the vast majority of them, advocate establishing a federal system of government in the country. Hopefully, identifying key concerns here can benefit both the general public as well as those tasked to write a new federal charter.


First, the assignment of responsibilities between the central and regional governments must be clear and coherent. The distribution scheme must be formulated in such a way that the designation of accountability is unequivocal. We do not want the political culture of blame-shifting and credit-grabbing to persist in the new federal regime.


Second, this division of duties and functions among the different tiers of government is very critical because the correct allocation of tax powers and other revenue-raising measures depends on it – particularly, how the revenue-raising powers of the region are defined in the federal constitution itself.


Should the regions still have a share in the national taxes or should they simply get block grants? Should regional governments be vested a high degree of taxing powers and at the same time be given a huge share in the national revenue collection?


Furthermore, a fiscal equalization mechanism is absolutely necessary to help currently underperforming regions in the transition to a federal system. But where will the money to support this initiative come from? How will it be sustained? And more importantly, which government institution should be responsible for managing this program?


Needless to say, assigning fiscal responsibility over functions shared by the central and regional governments will be a big challenge in itself. But this will definitely be influenced by how the issues previously raised are addressed in the federal constitution.


These are utterly crucial matters to consider in the proposed shift to a federal set-up. We certainly do not want a repeat of what happened in the implementation of the Local Government Code of 1991 where the devolution of functions was not followed by the devolution of funds.


Third, mechanisms must be established to foster cooperation and collaboration among the regional governments in addressing national concerns. One solid truth about federalism is that it does not diminish the integrity of the nation-state. Indeed, federation is not just about the devolution of political and fiscal powers to the sub-national level, but it is also about institutionalizing coordinated efforts toward national development.


More importantly, these mechanisms should likewise facilitate the settlement of disputes between the different levels of government. This feature in the federal charter will be especially needed as local leaders navigate through the first few years of the federal system.


Fourth, a multi-layer government structure will require a more sophisticated and streamlined anti-corruption institution. Note that every president elected since 1992 has created his or her own anti-corruption office. So instead of just having one agency to tackle this problem, we have multiple agencies. And many anti-corruption experts believe this is precisely the reason why the Philippines has failed in the battle against this heinous problem.


Instituting a coherent and robust anti-corruption mechanism in the new federal constitution is integral to the success of the federal system itself. Indeed, if the current way of fighting graft and corruption is carried over to the federal set-up, then the socio-political ills we all want to eliminate can even multiply significantly.


Fifth, the drawing of territorial boundaries must not result in drastic and immediate disruptions for Filipinos. The people’s deep familiarity with the current geographical organization of the Philippines must be seriously considered in naming the constituent units of the federal state.


But the federal charter must also have clear mechanisms for these sub-national units to reorganize themselves as they see fit. In other words, let the regions themselves decide, when the conditions are suitable, to amalgamate or to separate, as well as to initiate the process to do so.


The power over this course of action must not be vested in the central government (i.e., federal legislature) as in the 1987 Constitution with regard to the Cordilleras and the Bangsamoro.


Finally, the transition to a federal-set need not happen as soon as the federal charter is ratified by the people in the plebiscite. We have to take into account the reality that there will be a huge adjustment to be made in terms of bureaucratic organization and civil service capacity-building.


Filipinos themselves must be reoriented, having been used to an over-centralized governance structure for so long. Hence, the federal constitution can provide for a transitory process. It can specifically prescribe for the step-by-step reorganization towards the federal set-up, keeping in mind the viability of the federal system in the long term.


It must be emphasized that for the government structure to be truly federal, the new charter must depart from the non-self-executory standing of local autonomy in the 1987 Constitution. Meaning, these fundamental attributes of federalism must be evident in the text of the projected federal constitution itself and should no longer require any enabling legislation for its operationalization.


To conclude, Apolinario Mabini believed that federalism, “besides being the most perfect among the republican forms, is best suited to the topography of our country”. Clearly, this is an endorsement of federalization that must be highlighted.


But a caveat that must not be ignored comes from noted federalism expert and constitutional scholar from the Melbourne Law School, Professor Cheryl Saunders.


She warns that whatever the final federal design is, there should be among the people both a shared understanding of what has been created and a shared commitment to making the new system work. Otherwise, federalization may not produce the outcomes many Filipinos are so excited about right now.

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