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Federalism Versus Autonomy: Debate and Practice in the Philippines


This paper by Ronald J. May appeared in Autonomy & Peace Review October-December 2007 issue. Ronald J. May is Emeritus Fellow, State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program and Convenor, Centre for Conflict and Post-conflict Studies, Asia Pacific, The Australian National University.


The Philippines is a unitary state, but one with a high degree of decentralization and a history of experimentation with autonomy arrangements.  In recent years there has been a growing belief that federalism offers a means of dealing with ongoing problems of regional dissidence and promoting popular participation in government. In 2005, in her State of the Nation address, President Macapagal-Arroyo announced her intention to initiate a constitutional review and endorsed the federal option. This paper looks briefly at the history of separatism, autonomy and decentralization in the Philippines, traces the federalist idea in the Philippines, reviews the ongoing debate, and suggests that the case for a federal system in the Philippines has yet to be established.


Decentralization and autonomy in the Philippines: an overview


The colonial experience


When the Spanish colonizers arrived in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, Spain’s civil and religious authorities created an hierarchical administrative structure based on indigenous barangays (communities of around 30-100 families, headed by a  datu), municipalities, and provinces.


In parts of the Philippine islands, particularly in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, the Spanish encountered well-organized Muslim communities within established sultanates.  Products of their European history, the Spaniards promptly termed these people ‘Moros’ and launched a series of military campaigns against them. In Minadanao and Sulu, however, they met strong resistance from the Moros, and were never able to integrate these islands into the Spanish colonial regime.  In other areas, also, indigenous people resisted Spanish rule, either militarily or by withdrawing into the hinterland.  Such groups were referred to by the Spanish as ‘infieles’ or ‘tribus independientes’, and later were identified as ‘tribal minorities’ or ‘cultural communities’.


When, in 1898, the United States took over the Philippines, following the Spanish-American War, they essentially maintained the administrative structure (and the religiously-defined ethnic hierarchy) established by Spain. In 1901 a Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes (subsequently renamed Ethnological Survey of the Philippines) was created, to gather information on the non-Christian people of the Philippines (including the Moros) with a view to ‘determining the most practicable means for bringing about their advancement in civilization and material prosperity’ (quoted in Gowing 1977:67).  The following year a bill passed by the US Congress ‘recognized the distinction between the Moros, Pagans and Christian Filipinos and the consequent necessity for providing different forms of government for the different people’ (ibid.:72).


Under the Americans, a more intensive military campaign against the Moros put an end to hopes of Moro sovereignty.  Initially, administration of the Moro homelands in Mindanao and Sulu was placed in the hands of the US Army, though in 1903 an assistant chief of the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes (a Syrian-born American) was appointed as Agent for Moro Affairs. The same year, a special Moro Province was created, under the supervision of the civil governor of the Philippine Islands and the Philippine Commission (the administrative arm of the colonial regime) but until 1913 headed and predominantly staffed by army officers.  The Moro Province comprised five districts (Sulu, Cotabato, Davao, Lanao and Zamboanga).  It had a legislative Council, with limited powers, was subject to national laws except in civil or criminal actions involving only Moros and Pagans, and was expected to be fiscally self-reliant.


In 1913 the Moro Province was replaced by a Department of Mindanao and Sulu, and control passed from the military to civilian authorities headed by a governor.  The districts were renamed provinces and the two non-Moro Mindanao provinces of Bukidnon and Agusan were added. The Department was however seen as a transitional arrangement, with the seven provinces to assume the same status as provinces elsewhere in the country.  It was abolished in 1920.


Elsewhere, a number of ‘special provinces’ was created, under the secretary of the interior, for the governance of other nonChristian tribes.  In the Cordilleras of northern Luzon, where tribal groups, commonly referred to collectively as ‘the Igorots’, had most strongly resisted Spanish intrusions, the American administration in 1908 established a Mountain Province and the administration of the region was reorganized so that, in the words of a contemporary observer, ‘the wild tribes were safely removed from the field of insular [i.e. national] politics’ (Dean Bartlett, cited in Fry 1983).


Around this time there was some agitation for the administration of non-Christian tribes to be handed over to Filipino provincial and municipal officials.  The American secretary of the interior, Dean Worcester, however argued that despite their ‘common racial origin’, the gap between the Filipino, the Igorot and the Moro was very great, and that to hand over control of the non-Christian tribes to Filipinos ‘would speedily result in disaster’ (Report of the Philippine Commission, 1909-1911, cited in Lopez 1976:113). Nevertheless, from 1914 responsibility for non-Christian tribes, though nominally in the hands of the secretary of the interior, was exercised increasingly by provincial and municipal authorities.


Dissatisfaction with these arrangements resulted three years later in the reconstitution of the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes. The Bureau was given responsibility for both tribal areas and, until its demise in 1920, the Department of Mindanao and Sulu (which as well as the Moros contained many tribal people, now known as , Lumad).  Between 1917 and 1935 the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes retained nominal control over the non-Christian groups, though responsibility progressively shifted to the Philippine Legislature.  Following the establishment of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes was abolished.  The administration of non-Christian tribes passed to the Department of the Interior, though the special circumstances in the south were recognized in the creation of a Commission for Mindanao and Sulu.  [1935 datus’ petition]


The historical arrangements briefly outlined here reflected the perception of the colonial administration that some degree of regionally-based autonomy was needed to safeguard the interests of the Muslim and tribal people of the Philippines.  After 1935 the special arrangements lapsed in the drive for national integration. Four decades later, however, regional autonomy arrangements were revived.


Muslim and Cordillera autonomy


In the late 1960s an Islamic resurgence in the south, coupled with growing tensions associated with massive inmigration to Mindanao from the northern, Christian, provinces and encroachment on traditional Muslim and tribal lands, produced an outbreak of armed conflict, in which the Philippine government, supported by various Christian militias and private armies, confronted Muslim insurgents under the banner of the Moro National Liberation front (MNLF).  The principal demand of the MNLF was for an independent Bangsa Moro in the twenty-six [?] provinces of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan, though under pressure from the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) the demand for independence was eventually scaled down to one of autonomy in the thirteen provinces of traditional Muslim dominance. A major problem was that, by the end of the 1960s, as a result of inmigration, Muslims were a majority in only five of the thirteen provinces.


Following a negotiated ceasefire in 1976, the Philippine government of President Marcos and the MNLF signed an agreement, in Tripoli, which provided for autonomy in the thirteen provinces.  Disagreements over implementation of the Tripoli Agreement (particularly the Marcos government’s insistence that the proposed autonomy be subject to a plebiscite in the provinces covered by the agreement), however, led to the MNLF’s withdrawal from the peace negotiations.  The plebiscite process nevertheless went ahead, without the participation of the MNLF and its supporters, and two autonomous regional governments were set up in administrative regions IX (Western Mindanao) and XII (Central Mindanao) – though they lacked popular support and adequate resources.


The Marcos presidency also saw the growing politicization of tribal Filipinos/cultural communities, particularly in the Cordilleras where an armed insurgency, led by the Cordillera Peoples Alliance and supported by the Communist New Peoples Army, emerged, primarily to resist encroachments on ancestral land.


Following the ‘People Power Revolution’ of 1986 a new constitution made special provision to create areas of autonomy in Muslim Mindanao and Sulu (the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, ARMM) and northern Luzon (the Cordillera Autonomous Region, CAR), and assigned to them a range of legislative powers.[1] Self-exiled MNLF leader Nur Misuari returned to the Philippines in 1986 to take part in talks with President Aquino, but the two failed to reach an agreement on the content of the proposed Muslim autonomy.


The 1987 constitution provided that Congress legislate an organic act for each region, with the assistance of a regional consultative commission created for this purpose.  At least in the case of the ARMM, the implementation of the constitutional provision was a deeply flawed process, but by 1989 an organic act had been drafted and put to a plebiscite in the thirteen provinces and nine cities of central and western Mindanao and Sulu listed in the Tripoli Agreement, on the basis that only those provinces and cities voting to do so would become part of the ARMM.  The MNLF (which by then had split into three factions) boycotted the poll, and in the event only four provinces (Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi) and no cities voted to join the autonomous region. As with the regional governments established earlier under the Marcos government, the ARMM thus lacked popular legitimacy and, with limited authority and funding, proved largely ineffective. In the Cordilleras, an Interim Cordillera Regional Administration was established in 1986, but there too the consultative process proved acrimonious.  An organic law was eventually drafted and submitted to plebiscite in 1990, but of the five provinces and one city in the region only one province (Ifugao) voted for the autonomous region.


In 1992, following the election of President Fidel Ramos, negotiations with the MNLF were reopened, with the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) playing a facilitative role. These initiatives culminated in 1996 in the signing of a Peace Agreement between the Philippine government and the MNLF.  The agreement, which was subtitled ‘The Final Agreement on the Implementation of the 1976 Tripoli Agreement’, provided for the creation of a Special Zone of Peace and Development (SZOPAD) covering the area defined in the Tripoli Agreement, and a Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD) with authority to ‘control and/ or supervise…appropriate agencies of the government that are engaged in peace and development activities in the area [of the SZOPAD]’. Provision was also made for a Consultative Assembly, headed by the chair of the SPCPD and dominated by members of the MNLF, for a Darul Iftah (religious advisory council) appointed by the SPCPD chair, and for the integration of 7500 former MNLF (Bangsa Moro Army) fighters into the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police.


Potential jurisdictional problems between the ARMM and the SPCPD were avoided when Misuari, having returned from them Middle East, was appointed chair of the SPCPD and subsequently elected governor of the ARMM.  However, a crucial provision of the 1996 Peace Agreement was that which required a referendum, to be held within two years of the establishment of the SPCPD, seeking approval to extend the ARMM to cover the area of the SZOPAD.


The 1996 Agreement was greeted by many as a major step towards a final settlement of the conflict. But those familiar with the history of the Moro struggle could foresee a number of looming problems.  For one, the agreement was specifically with the MNLF. Although the MNLF was the faction of the Moro movement recognized by the OIC (which therefore locked the Philippines government into negotiations with the MNLF), by the mid 1990s the other major faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), was almost certainly the more powerful group.  The MILF was not a party to the 1996 agreement and had vowed to continue the armed struggle.  In December 1997, the chairman of the MILF, the late Hashim Salamat, revived the demand for an independent Islamic state.  Secondly, there was considerable popular opposition to the 1996 Agreement among Christian communities within the SZOPAD and among members of Congress.  As a result of this, the executive order (EO 371) intended to give effect to the Peace Agreement was a substantially watered down version of the agreement signed with Misuari, which was a source of frustration to the Moro leadership. Thirdly, there was no reason to believe that the mandated referendum – which was put off until August 2001 – would yield a result any different from that of previous referenda on Muslim autonomy. Added to this, the SPCPD/ARMM leadership complained that it did not receive adequate funding to fulfil its goals, and expected foreign capital inflows did not materialize.  In March 1999 Misuari warned that if conditions did not improve former MNLF fighters would return to the hills. Moreover, the MNLF leadership of the SPCPD was accused of inefficiency, mismanagement and nepotism, and Misuari’s personal leadership came under attack.


In 2001 the required referendum was finally conducted, and predictably only five of the now fifteen provinces and one of the nine cities voted for an expanded ARMM.  Shortly after this Misuari returned to armed insurgency, and is currently serving a prison sentence.  The ARMM continues to function, but with little popular support, while the MILF (with whom the Philippine government is currently negotiating) operates as a virtual autonomous region within the autonomous region.


In 1997, the year after the Moro peace agreement, the Philippine Congress legislated to create the Cordillera Autonomous Region and another plebiscite was held.  The plebiscite again failed to approve the CAR, which continues to operate as one of the country’s seventeen administrative regions.


The long saga of attempts to use autonomy arrangements as a means of dealing with ethnic cleavages and ethno-regional separatism in the Philippines thus provides little ground for optimism.  It is against this background that from around the late 1990s the idea of federalism began to gain support in the Philippines.


Administrative decentralization and the Local Government Code[2]


As noted above, the Spanish colonial regime established an administrative structure based on the barangay, with municipalities and provinces between the barangays and the central government. This structure was broadly maintained by the US, though with the special arrangements described above for the Moros and other nonChristian tribes, and the broad features of this system were inherited by the independent republic in 1946.


After independence, a measure of decentralization was enacted through the Local Autonomy Act, the Decentralisation Act and other legislation, but the local government units (LGUs – the barangays, municipalities and provinces) were supervised through the Office of the President and governance remained strongly centralized. At the municipal and provincial level, however, politics was frequently dominated by prominent local families.  During the Marcos presidency (1966-1986) there were further moves to decentralize:  the ‘martial law constitution’ of 1973 ‘guaranteed and promoted’ the autonomy of LGUs; a system of ‘barangay democracy’ was introduced by presidential decree; and a Local Government Code was enacted in 1983.  But in practice, even though the Philippine state remained fairly weak, political power was centralized, with patronage networks used to ensure the compliance of local officials.  Also, in 1972 the Marcos government created a structure of eleven regions, as a basis for economic planning and general administration.


Following the People Power Revolution, a new  Local Government Code was enacted in 1991 which provided for a substantial decentralization of responsibility for the delivery of basic services in health, education, social welfare, agriculture, public works, and environment and natural resources, with a corresponding increase in the allocation of funds to LGUs.  Reflecting the new government’s commitment to ‘people empowerment’, the 1991 Code also provided for enhanced participation in local governance by NGOs and POs (people’s organizations) and the private sector generally.  Amendments to the Code in 1995 strengthened the decentralization of the system.


In the words of the Local Government Code, 1991 ‘the barangay serves as the primary planning and implementing unit of government policies, plans, programs, projects and activities in the community, and as a forum where the collective views of the people may be expressed, crystallised and considered, and where disputes may be amicably settled’. Each barangay has a legislative body (sangguniang barangay) comprising the chief executive (punong barangay), seven elected members and the chair of the local youth organization.  The Code also provides for a barangay assembly, composed of all residents of the barangay aged over fourteen years, which is required to meet at least twice a year to consider reports of the sangguniang and discuss problems affecting the barangay;  itmay initiate legislation.  Formal provision is made for local dispute settlement.  At present there are about 45,000 barangays.


Above the barangays are municipalities, whose function is stated to be ‘primarily as a general purpose government for the coordination and delivery of basic, regular and direct services and effective governance of the inhabitants within its territorial jurisdiction’.  Each municipality is headed by a mayor and a vice mayor, and has its own legislature (sangguniang bayan) comprising elected members from the municipality’s barangays, the presidents of the municipal league of barangays and youth federation, and three sectoral representatives.  The vice mayor presides over the sangguniang while the mayor exercises ‘general supervision and control over all programs, projects, services, and activities of the municipal government’.  Although formally responsible to the sangguniang bayan, the mayor has always been a powerful local figure in Philippines politics, and the Local Government Code gives the municipality, and its chief executive, extensive powers. Currently there are 1543 municipalities.


Cities in the Philippines are divided into two categories: ‘highly urbanized cities’ and ‘component cities’. Both are described, like municipalities, as serving ‘as a general purpose government’. Each city is headed by an elected mayor and vice mayor.  The latter presides over a sangguniang panlungsod, whose composition mirrors that of other local assemblies.  The mayor, as chief executive, has powers parallel to those of other chief executives of LGUs. There are 65 highly urbanized cities, which are independent of provincial authority and exercise equivalent functions and responsibilities.  Component cities (of which there are many) come under the supervision of the provinces and are similar in structure and function to municipalities.


Provinces are at the top of the LGU structure.There are 79 of them. Each is headed by an elected governor and vice governor and has a legislature (sangguniang panlalawigan) composed of elected members from the provinces, municipalities and component cities, the presidents of the provincial barangay federation and the provincial youth federation, and three sectoral representatives.  The vice governor presides over the sangguniang, while the governor appoints all officials and employees whose salaries derive from provincial funds.  The provincial governor is a person of significant power and authority in the Philippines, and an important link between the national government and the municipalities.  Even at the provincial level, higher offices are frequently dominated by powerful local dynasties, notwithstanding post-1986 legislation designed to reduce the political power of local elite families.


Authority to exercise ‘general supervision’ over LGUs resides with the president, but is delegated through the Department of Interior and Local Government.  All LGUs have exclusive powers to raise revenue from specified taxes, fees and charges, and may raise loans, accept overseas development assistance, and participate in certain joint-venture business operations.  However, the majority of LGU funding (currently around 60 per cent) comes from unconditional block grants from the national government.


After a good deal of initial enthusiasm for the 1991 Local Government Code, critics of the decentralization arrangements were quick to emerge.  It was noted that provisions for representation of civil society organizations had not always been implemented, that local development councils and other bodies were often ineffective, and that local youth councils were frequently dominated by the children of the political elite (see, for example, Turner 1999).  Critics on the left argued that the Code had simply delivered greater power to local dynasties and ‘warlords’.  Generally, however, assessments of the decentralization initiatives of 1991 and 1995 have been positive; indeed, in announcing her support for federalism in 2005, President Macapagal-Arroyo specifically referred to the success of decentralization in the Philippines.


It should also be noted that since 1972 the administrative regions established by Marcos – named Region I to Region XI (to which was added Region XII in 1975) – have acquired some degree of local identity, and seem to be referred to increasingly by locality (for example, ‘Region I (Ilocos)’, ‘Region II  (Cagayan Valley)’, etc). Moreover, recent additions (there are now seventeen regions) have been given titles (mostly acronyms from the constituent provinces) which identify them with the locality – ARMM, CAR, National Capital Region (NCR), Caraga (Region XIII), CALABARZON and MIMAROPA (Regions IV-A and IV-B, formerly the single region of Southern Tagalog) and SOCCSKSARGEN (the provinces remaining in Region XII (Central Mindanao) following the creation of the ARMM in 1990).  In what little discussion there has been about what might constitute the component units of a federal system, the regions seem to have emerged as the appropriate starting point.


The idea of federalism in the Philippines


While the Philippines has never had a federal system, the federal idea is not entirely new.


During the Philippines Revolution against Spain, the first Philippines Republic established at Biak-na-Bato by revolutionary leader General Emilio Aguinaldo had a federal constitution.  The republic lasted only six weeks, its leaders going into exile in Hong Kong, but when Aguinaldo returned the following year to proclaim Philippines independence the Biak-na-Bato federal constitution was revived.  The ‘Malolos Constitution’ approved by the Revolutionary Congress in 1899, however, was not federal, though Aguinaldo recognized the separate status of the Moros and proposed that the new government be empowered to negotiate with the Moros ‘for the purposes of establishing national solidarity upon the basis of a real federation with absolute respect for their beliefs and traditions’ (quoted in Canoy 1987:69-70).  The Moros declined negotiation, and in the event the revolution ended when the United States took control of the Philippines. Several ‘little republics’ set up during the revolution quickly faded away, though the ‘Negros Republic’ survived until [1901?], anticipating statehood within a federal Philippines republic.  The US, despite its own experience of federal government, did not pursue the federal idea.


Seventy years later, delegates to a constitutional convention set up by the Marcos government voiced some support for a federal system – delegate Antonio de las Alas, for example, argued for a Swiss-style confederation of twenty autonomous states, and Salvador Araneta proposed (under what he called the ‘Bayanikasan Constitution’) a federal republic comprising five states, to be introduced in ten to twenty years.[3] But in 1972 Marcos declared martial law and the constitutional convention lapsed.


Following the People Power Revolution, in 1986 a Mindanao People’s Democratic Movement (later renamed Mindanao Independence Movement) emerged, with the declared intention of establishing a Federal Republic of Mindanao, with ‘proportionate cultural representation’ of Christians, Muslims and Highlanders (tribal groups/cultural communities).  The movement was led by Mindanao politician and former Marcos oppositionist Reuben Canoy,[4] who in 1986 was involved in an abortive attempt to set up an independent state of Mindanao (see May 1992:137-138).


In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was some discussion of ‘federalization’, notably in the advocacy of the political group, Unlad Bayan, led by businessman Enrique Zobel, and in a scholarly article by Rizal Buendia (1989). Proposals for a federal system emerged again in the late 1990s.  The case for federalism was argued (if at all) largely in terms of resolving the continuing problems of separatism in Muslim Mindanao, though probably the most prominent advocate of federalism was Senator John Osmeña, a member of the clan which has dominated politics in the Visayan province of Cebu for most of the past century[5].  Another advocate was Aquilino Pimentel, like Canoy a Mindanao politician and former Marcos oppositionist, who became minister for local government in the Aquino government and was principal author of the Local Government Code of 1990, before becoming president of the Senate. In 2000 Senators Pimentel, Osmeña and Francisco Tatad proposed a bill to establish federal government and the chair of the Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, promised to call for a constitutional convention to consider the proposal, but the initiative lapsed.


About this time also, political scientist and former university of the Philippines president, Jose V. Abueva published a seminal article which supported a shift to a Federal Republic of the Philippines with a parliamentary government, and presented a draft constitution for such a republic (Abueva 2001; also see Abueva 2000, 2005). Abueva’s proposal was presented to a Mindanao Stakeholders Forum in Cagayan de Oro City in 2001. In Mindanao two civil society organizations, Lihuk Pideral and Kusog Mindanaw emerged to push for a federal system; these gave birth to the national Citizens’ Movement for a Federal Philippines (CMFP), which was launched in Manila in February 2003. Over the following years the idea of federal government has gained ground.  The Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the Canadian government, and the German government have sponsored workshops to discuss federalism, and a range of NGOs has supported the idea.


Most prominent in the advocacy of federalism has been the CMFP, convened by former Congressman Rey Magno Teves, who is also secretary-general of Kusog Mindanao.  CMFP has a national steering committee, assisted by a ‘Resource and Advisory Pool of prominent citizens’ headed by Dr Abueva, and international linkages. Abueva is now founding president of the Kalayaan College in Marikina (Metro Manila), which hosts a Federalism Research Project.  CMFP has a website (, which includes a ‘primer on federalism’, a number of pro-federalism articles, and a ‘CMFP Draft Constitution for a Federal Republic of the Philippines with a Parliamentary Government’ (based on Abueva’s 2001 draft, but revised to 14 February 2005), edited by Abueva.


Towards the end of the presidency of Fidel Ramos, who succeeded ‘People Power’ president, Corazon Aquino in 1992, there were proposals for a review (popularly referred to as ‘charter change’ or ‘cha-cha’) of the 1987 constitution. In 1997 a Peoples Initiative for Reform and Amendment gathered the constitutionally required number of signatures (12 per cent of registered voters) to petition for constitutional amendment, but the petition was dismissed by the Supreme Court. Although Ramos had generally been considered a good and effective president, the suggestion of a charter change generated considerable angst, with a range of groups accusing Ramos of seeking to extend his term in office (under the 1987 a president may serve only a single seven-year term), and some even suggesting that he was on the verge of re-imposing martial law.[6] A consultative commission was created in 1999 by Ramos’s successor, Joseph Estrada, primarily to look at issues of national patrimony and economic reform, but little progress was made before Estrada’s term in office ended prematurely with the threat of impeachment. Proposals for charter change were revived by incoming president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2003. ‘Federalism’, she suggested, ‘will empower regional governments….bringing governance and public service closer to the people…reducing corruption and making government more responsive and accountable to the people’[7].  In the presidential election the following year she promised if elected to shift to a federal constitution as part of a wider constitutional reform.  Macpagal-Arroyo was supported by House of Representatives Speaker Jose de Venecia, who in 2005 told an international conference on federalism that ‘Federalism is the best antidote to secession and separatism [in the Philippines]’; he described federalism as ‘the wave of the future’, and recommended it for Iraq and Myanmar[8]. In 2004 Constantino Jaraula, chair of the House Committee on Constitutional Amendments, introduced a concurrent resolution calling for constitutional change – specifically including a shift from a presidential and unitary system to a parliamentary and federal system.  There followed a period of contention between members of the house, who favoured convening Congress as a constituent assembly, and senators, who mostly demanded a constitutional convention.


Eventually, in her state of the nation address in July 2005, President Macapagal-Arroyo suggested that it was ‘time to start the great debate on charter change’.  The president went on to say:


The economic progress and social stability of the provinces, along with the increasing self-reliance and efficiency of political developments and public services there, make a compelling case for federalism.

Perhaps it’s time to take the power from the center to the countryside that feeds it.



In August 2005 President Macapagal-Arroyo appointed a Consultative Commission (ConCom) to conduct consultations and studies and propose constitutional amendments and revisions, ‘principally the proposals to shift from the presidential-unitary system to a parliamentary-federal system of government’[9]. The 54-person commission, chaired by Professor Abueva, reported in December 2005 (see below).


There appeared to be a good deal of support for the proposed parliamentary-federal charter change; nevertheless, as happened with former president Ramos, there was also some strong opposition. President Macapagal-Arroyo has been accused by her critics of ‘cheating’ in the 2004 presidential election (which she won by a fairly narrow margin) and there have been allegations of corruption against her husband.  In the cynical climate of Philippine politics, her opponents have accused Macapagal-Arroyo of using charter change as a political diversion and, having failed in an impeachment bid, called on her to step down.  Perennial rumours of an imminent military coup surfaced again in the latter part of 2005. In the event, however, these moves have not derailed the charter change process.


The debate


Why federalism?


An annotated CMFP draft constitution, edited by the CMFP’s advisory committee chairman, Abueva, lists six advantages of federalism:


First, a Federal republic will build a just and enduring framework for peace through unity in our ethnic religious, and cultural diversity, especially in relation to Bangsa Moro or Muslim Filipinos.  Responsive Federalism will accommodate their legitimate interests, end the war in Mindanao, and discourage secessionism.


Second, Federalism will empower our citizens by enabling them to raise their standard of living and enhance their political awareness, participation and efficacy in elections and the making of important government decisions. Governance will be improved and corruption will be reduced….


Third, Federalism will improve governance by empowering and challenging State and local leaders and entrepreneurs around the country….the people will be more willing to pay taxes that will finance government programs and services for their direct benefit.


Fourth, Federalism will hasten the county’s development….There will be inter-State and regional competition in attracting domestic and foreign investments and industries, professionals and skilled workers, good teachers and scholars, artists, and tourists. A renaissance of regional languages and cultures will enrich the national language and culture.  The Federal Government will help support the less endowed and developed regions, and the poor and the needy across the land….


Fifth, Federalism, together with parliamentary government, will improve governance  promoting the development of program-oriented political parties that are responsible and accountable t the people for their conduct and performance in and out of power.


Sixth, Federalism will broaden and deepen democracy and make its institutions deliver on the constitutional promise of human rights, a better life for all, a just and humane society, and responsible and accountable political leadership and governance (CMFP Draft Constitution February 2005:4-5).


‘A Primer on Constitutional Reform/FAQ [frequently asked questions]’ by the Institute of Popular Democracy, headed by academic activist Joel Rocamora, asks, ‘Why a federal system of government in the Philippines?’ and ‘What are the advantages of Federal System of Government?’. It answers:


The present unitary and centralized form of government of the Philippines is a remnant of its colonial past.  It continues to be used as a tool for domination and control….


…the federal system will foster closer dialogue and interaction between the people and regional leaders because the locus of power is physically closer to the people and it provides a list of advantages similar that of the CMFP.


The specific expectation that federalism would help solve the Mindanao conflict has been a recurring theme in the discussion. It is an argument that has been made by Pimentel and by Teves, and also by prominent Muslim lawyer and former Congressman Datu Michael Mastura, who described federalism as ‘the antidote to secession’[10]; more importantly it is a view that was endorsed as early as 1997 by MNLF leader Misuari and also by the late MILFleader Salamat[11], and more recently by the Ulama League of the Philippines[12],  the chair of the Islamic Directorate of the Philippines (Macapanton Abbas), the Mindanao Bishops-Ulama Conference, the attorney general of the ARMM (Jose Lorena), and the newly formed Muslim Movement for Federal Philippines chaired by Farouk Sampao. Lorena, for example, argues that under the present autonomy arrangements the ARMM is treated as a local government under the supervision of the national government, whereas in a federal system it would have sovereignty within its own sphere of responsibilities. The argument has been questioned, however, by Mindanao-based lawyer and academic Benedicto Bacani (see Bacani 2003, 2004).  Bacani compares the powers of the ARMM under the present organic law and those under the proposed [CMFP] draft constitution, and concludes that ‘there are features in the Organic law that provide for a higher level of self-determination than in the proposed federal system’; perhaps, he suggests, the failure of the present autonomy lies not in autonomy as a framework but in its operationalization (2004:133).


What form might federalism take?


As revised to 14 February 2005, the ‘CMFP Draft Constitution for a Federal Republic of the Philippines with a Parliamentary Government’ envisages a Federal Republic of the Philippines (Ang Republica Federal ng Pilipinas) with a federal or national government (Gobyerno Federal) and ten states (Estados). The proposed ten states are: Bangsamoro (ARMM); Central and Southern Mindanao (Regions XI, XII); Northern and Western Mindanao (Regions IX and X and Caraga); Eastern Visayas (Region VII); Western Visayas-Palawan (Region IV and part of Region VI); Bicol (Region V and part of Region IV); Southern Luzon (most of Region IV); Metro Manila; Central Luzon (Region III), and Northern Luzon and Cordillera (Region I and CAR).  (A later [June 2005] paper by Abueva refers to eleven states, with Northern Luzon and CAR becoming separate states.)  It is proposed to establish a federal capital, New Manila, within the Clark Special Economic Zone, north of Manila (fortuitously, in the home province – Pampanga – of President Macapagal-Arroyo).


The draft constitution proposes a distribution of powers and functions, with thirty-three subjects listed for exclusive federal jurisdiction, twenty-eight subjects listed for primary state jurisdiction, and another twenty-three areas for concurrent jurisdiction.


The CMFP draft constitution proposes a bicameral federal parliament, with a House of the People (Balay Sambayanan), elected mostly from parliamentary districts but in part (60 out of up to 350 members) also on proportional representation from a party list vote, and a Balay Estados or Senate, to represent the states and protect their rights and interests.  The senators, it is proposed, will be elected by the unicameral state assemblies (batasang estados) – two to three per state – ‘mostly from among their members’.


The draft constitution makes provision for the shift from a presidential to a parliamentary system at both levels of government. The chief executives of the states will have the title of  ‘governor’.


In a paper prepared by Abueva it was suggested that ‘A transition period is needed to enable the Federal Government and the various states to prepare for, and adjust to, the redistribution of powers, functions and tax bases between the Federal Government (National Government) and the several States (Regional Governments) and their local governments’ and that ‘The actual formation of the individual States shall depend upon their relative political, economic, fiscal, and administrative capabilities to govern themselves as autonomous regional governments and territories’. It is proposed that the ‘more developed and ready’ become fully operative in the first five years following ratification of the revised constitution, and the ‘less developed’ in the next five years. However, the Bangsamoro and Cordillera states (which are amongst the least developed) should be enabled to become operative in the first five years.


The CMFP proposed the holding of a plebiscite in 2007 (when national elections are scheduled) to ratify the proposed revision of the 1987 constitution.)


The report of the Consultative Commission


The Consultative Commission commenced work in September 2005, setting up three committees – on national patrimony and economic reforms, form of government, and structure of the republic – and a sub-committee on transitory provisions, and holding several regional consultations. It reported on schedule in mid December.


The Commission has recommended a unicameral national parliament, with the majority of members voted from district constituencies but 30 per cent of members elected on a party list basis. A prime minister is to be elected by all MPs, and will appoint a cabinet, at least 75 per cent of whom are to be MPs. A presidential head of state is to be elected by MPs.


On the proposed shift to a federal system, however, divisions emerged within the Commission.  It was apparent from the outset that several members of the Commission had doubts about the federal idea, though in November Abueva reported that a ‘clear majority’ of people consulted strongly or very strongly favoured a shift to a federal system after a ten year transition (Zamboanga providing a notable exception[13]).  These differences became more apparent in the days preceding the submission of the report.  On 9 December it was reported that one commissioner, Camaguin Provincial Governor Pedro Romualdo, had said that ‘The federal structure is a beautiful mechanism for fragmenting the country’.


Romualdo argued that resources were lacking and without adequate resources states could not be effective as independent entities; he cited the ARMM as ‘a classic case of failure’ and called instead for a strengthening of LGUs. Other commissioners suggested that if each state could draft its own legislation it would be difficult to harmonize laws nationally – even that autonomous states could ‘seek from outside countries implicated in terrorism activities funding assistance for development’. In the event, it was reported that the commissioners had unanimously agreed ‘to junk the mandatory switch to federalism’ as proposed by Abueva and instead approved ‘a gradual constituent-initiated transition to federalism[14]’.


In fact, the Commission’s report makes scant reference to federalism, though provision is made for its eventual realization. In a section on ‘Autonomous Territories’ (Article XII B), the proposed revision of the 1987 constitution says:


SEC. 12. An autonomous territory may be created in any part of the country upon a petition addressed to Parliament by a majority of contiguous, compact and adjacent provinces, highly urbanized and component cities, and cities and municipalities in metropolitan areas through a resolution of their respective legislative bodies.


In exceptional cases, a province may be established as an autonomous territory based on area, population, necessity, geographical distance, environmental, economic and fiscal viability and other special attributes.


SEC. 13. Within one year from the filing of the bill based upon the petitions and initiatives, Parliament shall pass an organic act which shall define the basic structure of government for the autonomous territory, consisting of a unicameral territorial assembly whose members shall be elective and representative of the constituent political units. The organic acts shall provide for courts consistent with the provisions of their constitution and national laws.


The creation of the autonomous territories shall be effective when ratified by a majority of the votes cast by their proposed constituent units in a plebiscite called for the purpose.


The autonomous territory assemblies will have legislative power in the following areas (SEC. 16):


1. Administrative organization, planning, budget and management;


2. Creation of sources of revenues and finance;


3. Agriculture and fisheries;


4. Natural resources, energy, environment, indigenous appropriate technologies and inventions;


5. Trade, industry and tourism;


6. Labour and employment;


7. Public works, transportation, except railways, shipping and aviation;


8. Health and social welfare;


9. Education and the development of language, culture and the arts as part of the cultural heritage;


10. Ancestral domain and natural resources;


11. Housing, land use and development;


12. Urban and rural planning and development; and


13. Such other matters as may be authorized by law for the promotion of the general welfare of the people of the autonomous territory.


In the event of inconsistency between national and autonomous territory/local government laws, the former will prevail. No mention is made of concurrent powers.


Under ‘Transitory Provisions’ (Article XX, SEC. 15, 16), the proposed revision of the constitution stipulates that within one year and after at least 60 per cent of provinces, highly urbanized cities and component cities have petitioned through their regional assemblies for the creation of autonomous territories, parliament will enact the basic law for the establishment of a Federal Republic of the Philippines, in which the autonomous territories will become federal states.  To this end, a constitutional preparatory commission will be appointed by the prime minister to study and determine all constitutional, legal, financial, organizational, administrative, and other requirements necessary or appropriate for a smooth and orderly transition to the Federal Republic.  Special provision is made (SEC. 14) for the ARMM to ‘exercise the powers and…be entitled to benefits given to autonomous territories’.


There is nothing in the proposed revision of the constitution to suggest how many autonomous territories there should be, or how they should be constituted, and critical issues such as intergovernmental financial arrangements are left for future discussion.


Controversially, the national election scheduled for 2007 is now to be held in 2010. In the meantime, members of House and the Senate will become members of an interim parliament, which will elect an interim prime minister, and the president will appoint a cabinet from among the MPs. Amendment or revision of the 1987 constitution may be proposed by a 75 per cent vote of all members of Congress or a constitutional convention; ratification requires a majority of votes cast in a plebiscite.


Will federalism work?


Considering the apparent groundswell of support for a federal system in the Philippines (at least prior to December 2005), it may seem churlish to question the idea.  Nevertheless, for anyone familiar with the history of federal experiments in the latter half of the twentieth century, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the advantages claimed for federal over unitary systems read more like statements of faith than reasoned arguments.  This is the more so given the long history of unsuccessful autonomy arrangements in the Philippines, and the already high degree of decentralization (at least on paper) prescribed by the amended Local Government Code.


If autonomy arrangements specifically directed to the demands of Philippine Muslims, and arising from negotiations intended to secure a peaceful settlement to the armed conflict, have fallen short of expectations and failed to produce a lasting settlement, what chance is there that the establishment of ten or so states in a federal republic will, incidentally, solve the ‘Moro problem’?[15] Most of the prospective benefits claimed – the ability to use shari’ah law (with safeguards for non-Muslim minorities), the boosting of local cultures, greater popular participation in politics, the possibility of pursuing appropriate development paths, and the promise of fiscal redistribution – are all available under existing political arrangements.  If the CAR has twice rejected autonomy, why should federalism be any more attractive?  If decentralization to provinces, cities, municipalities and barangays has failed to deliver sufficient participation, transparency, accountability, fiscal redistribution, competition, and checks on corruption, why should the creation of another layer of government do so?  Although Abueva and Rocamora have made some attempt to rationalize their list of advantages for federalism, the case has not been strongly argued.  Social engineering, through a shift from unitary to federal government, will not necessarily change entrenched patterns of political behaviour;  indeed (as with the decentralization of 1990) the transfer of powers and functions to states may well strengthen the position of local elite families.  Some cynics argue that this has been one source of the demand for federalism.


Moreover, some of the bigger, and more intractable, questions have yet to be addressed.  The question of how many states and how they are constituted is unlikely to resolved easily (though the CMFP proposals for ten or eleven states provide a good starting point).  And, as in federal and federal-type systems everywhere, the question of intergovernmental fiscal relations will be vexed (as it already is under the Local Government Code).  The CMFP claims that, ‘The Federal Government will help support the less endowed and developed regions, and the poor and the needy across the land’, but to date there is little historical basis for such optimism.


At the same time, some of the opposition to federalism which emerged in the final stages of the Consultative Commission’s work in December 2005 seemed to derive more from ignorance (or more venal motives) than from a reasoned assessment of arguments.


The push for federalism, largely as a response to ethnic or regional tensions, is enjoying something of a renaissance, from Solomon Islands to Iraq – though there is little evidence that those espousing it have referred to the literature on failed federalism in the second half on the twentieth century (see, for example Franck 1968; Hazlewood 1967; May 1970; etc).  Whether or not the Philippines will be a federal republic in 2010 remains to be seen. Certainly the CMFP’s proposals that there be a transitional period to develop support for the idea, and that the achievement of statehood be geared to individual states’ capabilities (though likely to prove contentious) are to be commended.  In the meantime, if the issues do not get lost in the personalistic politics that has characterized the Philippines for some decades, there should be some interesting debates.






Abueva, Jose V., 2000. ‘Transforming our unitary system to a federal system: a pragmatic, developmental approach’. (Downloaded from CMFP website.)


Abueva, Jose V., 2001. ‘Towards a Federal Republic of the Philippines’, IBP [Integrated Bar of the Philippines] Law Journal 27(2):1-30.


Abueva, Jose V., 2005. ‘Some advantages of federalism and parliamentary government for the Philippines’. (Downloaded from CMFP website.) 


Araneta, Salvador, 1962. ‘Our constitutional heritage’, Philippines Law Journal 37(3):439-444.


Bacani, Benedicto R., 2003. ‘Federalism vs. autonomy: roadmaps to peace’. ARMM Roundtable Series No.6.  Cotabato City: Notre Dame University.


Bacani, Benedicto R., 2004.  Beyond Paper Autonomy.  The Challenge in Southern Philippines.  Cotabato City: Center for Autonomy and Governance, Notre Dame University College of Law. 


Buendia, Rizal G., 1989. ‘The prospects for federalism in the Philippines: a challenge to political decentralization of the unitary state’, Philippine Journal of Public Administration 33(2)121-141.


Canoy, Reuben R., 1987.  The Quest for Mindanao Independence. Cagayan de Oro: Mindanao Post Publishing Company.


De Guzman, Raul P., Reforma, Mila M. and Panganiban, Elana M., 1988. ‘Local government’, in de Guzman and Reforma (eds), Government and Politics in the Philippines. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 207-240.


De Venecia, Jose, 2005. ‘Federalism as the wave of the global future. Statement of Hon. Jose de Venecia, Jr., Speaker of the House of Representatives, Republic of  the Philippines.  Third International Conference on Federalism at the E u r o p e a n Parliament, Brussels, 3 March 2005’. Unpublished paper.


Franck, T.M. (ed.), 1968. Why Federations Fail.  An Inquiry into the Requisites of Successful Federalism. New York: New York University Press.


Fry, Howard T., 1983.  A History of the Mountain Province.  Quezon City:  New day Publishers.


Gowing, Peter G., 1977. Mandate in Moroland.  The American Government of Muslim Filipinos 1899-1920.  Quezon City: Philippine Center for advanced Studies, University of the Philippines System.


Hazlewood, A. (ed.), 1967. African Integration and Disintegration. Case Studies in Economic and Political Union.  London: Oxford University Press.


Lopez, Violeta B., 1976.  The Mangyans of Mindoro:  An Ethnology. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press.


May, R.J., 1970. ‘Decision making and stability in federal systems’, Canadian Journal of Political Science 3(1):73-87.


May, R.J., 1992. ‘The wild west in the south: a recent political history of Mindanao’, in Mark Turner, R.J. May and Lulu Respall Turner (eds), Mindanao: Land of Unfulfilled Promise. Quezon City:New Day Publishers, pp.125-146.


May, R.J., 2002. ‘Governance and social safety nets in the Philippines’ in OECD, Towards Asia’s Sustainable Development. The Role of Social Protection.  Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, pp.91-113.


Rood, Steven, 1991. ‘Decentralization, democracy and development’, in David G. Timberman (ed.), The Philippines.  New Directions in Domestic Policy and Foreign Relations. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp.111-135.


Santuario, Edmundo, 2001. ‘Federalism: antidote to separatism?’ and ‘A crisis needing a surgical solution’, Bulatlat 10, 11 (20-26 April and 27 April- 3 May) [available at archive/].


Sosmeña, Gaudioso C., 1991.  Decentralization and Empowerment. Manila: Local Government Development Foundation.


Tapales, Proserpina Domingo, Cuaresma, Jocelyn C. and Cabo, Wilhelmina L., 1998. Local Government in the Philippines: A Book of Readings.  Quezon City: Center for Local and Regional Governance and National College of Public Administration and Governance, University of the Philippines.


Turner, Mark, 1999. ‘Philippines: from centralism to localism’, in Turner (ed.), Central-Local Relations in Asia Pacific.  Convergence or Divergence? Houndmills: Macmillan Press, pp.97-122.


[1] The eight areas listed covered administrative organization; sources of revenues; ancestral domain and natural resources; personal, family, and property relations; urban and rural planning; economic, social, and tourism development; educational policies; preservation and development of

cultural heritage; and ‘ such other matters as may be authorized by law for the promotion of the general welfare of the people of the region’. Responsibility for the preservation of peace and order within the regions was also given to the local police agencies.

[2] This section draws on previously published material in May (2002). For a more detailed account see Turner (1999), de Guzman et al. (1988), Osmeña (1991), Rood (1998), Tapales et al. (1998).

[3] For an account of the Bayanikasan Constitution see Lina AranetaSantiago on posted 28 July 2005 ( index.php?index=1&story_id=45090). Also see Araneta (1962).

[4] Canoy’s case for Mindanao’s independence, together with a copy of the proposed constitution, are set out in Canoy (1987).

[5] Other members of the Osmeña clan also supported federalism, notably former Cebu governor and presidential candidate Emilio ‘Lito’ Osmeña, who founded the regional political party PROMDI and at one stage called for an independent Republic of Cebu.

[6] General Ramos had been head of the Philippine Constabulary under President Marcos but, facing arrest, had switched sides to the Marcos opposition in 1986, helping to precipitate the revolt on EDSA.

[8] See de Venecia (2005), summarized at

[9] ‘Executive Order No.453 Creating a Consultative Commission to Propose the Revision of the 1987 Constitution in Consultation with Various Sectors of Society’, 19 August 2005.  EO 453 was amended by EO 453- A in October to increase the maximum membership from fifty to fifty-five.

[10] Quoted in Santuario (2001).

[11] According to, Misuari has become ambivalent on the subject, and MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu does not support federalism. See

[12] See, for example, Philippine Daily Inquirer 3 November 2004, p.A19.

[13] See  Zamboanga – a predominantly Christian area in a region of traditional Muslim influence – had been strongly opposed to the terms of the agreement negotiated with Misuari in 1996.

[14] The quotations here are taken from the Consultative Commission’s website, which provided a daily news coverage of the Commission’s work (see

[15] Bacani (2004:134) similarly asks: ‘If the Bangsamoro state is established with the other states in a Federal Philippines, will not the unique reason for its existence as fought for by the Moros for many years be lost in the broad sweep of a national federal set-up? If autonomy cannot be made to work in one region – the ARMM – how can the federal system bring development to eleven or more states? In these times of scarcity and need, when not enough budget support can be given the ARMM, will the Bangsamoro state further lag behind as resources are siphoned off to more developed regions?’


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