Leonardo Lanzona Jr. is director of the Ateneo Center for Economic Research and Development and a senior fellow of Eagle Watch, the school’s macroeconomic research and forecasting unit. This article originally appeared on Business Mirror.


The election of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo R. Duterte to the presidency only highlights the importance of local politics not only to the local communities themselves but to the whole country, as well. In the case of Duterte, most voters did not seem to mind the character bringing the message, especially his uncouth manner and distasteful pronouncements. What mattered the most was the sincerity of the person who conveyed the message.


Simply put, the message is that the national government must care about the local issues and problems. Through various governance reforms, the outgoing Aquino administration has succeeded in making the economy grow and financially stronger. However, it seems that the fruits of these reforms at the national level were not felt at the local level.


If the whole country then wishes to elevate the local interests to its national goals, what then are the key issues we should confront? Not surprisingly, Duterte, who had been involved directly with these local concerns on a day-to-day basis, crystallized these for everyone. The first is the issue of drugs. As mayor, Duterte had firsthand experience of this malaise and how it affected families. Second is transportation. If the communities are to be integrated into the national, then mobility has to be improved. This pertains not just to the traffic, but the whole infrastructure system that links people together from one locality to the next. Third is local corruption and associated criminality. Among other things, this involves dealing with random violence and facing powerful dynasties that have the strongest influence at the local community. Private goons and armies constantly threaten security in the small communities.


The interesting point here is that these are not new. My colleague, Alvin Ang, in his article last week in this column, pointed to a 2015 national survey conducted by the National Economic and Development Authority on the aspirations of the Filipino family. Among the issues raised in the survey include the constraint imposed by corruption in achieving a better future. The corruption that the people are concerned about is not the large-scale corruption, but the ordinary petty corruption that people face daily in their dealings with government. To many people, the administration did not do much to address these issues. The government seemed to have ignored them, expecting that these would be resolved eventually once the economy started to move, and employment increases along with household incomes.


The reality, however, is that under the present government structure, the national government does not have the tools or the power to deal with specific local concerns either directly or indirectly. Hence, in cases where the national government did involve itself in local issues, it was blamed for everything that failed. The Aquino administration tried to intervene in many aspects of local life, starting from the traffic in Metro Manila, the disaster relief in Leyte, to the Mamasapano incident in Mindanao. As we all know, its inability to control these events presaged the downfall of this administration and its daang matuwid program.


The task of addressing local concerns at the national level, hence, requires no less than a change in the institutions and the way of doing government. Seen in this light, Duterte’s election can best be viewed not only as a protest vote, but also a call for further governance reforms. The incoming administration can formulate programs that build on the previous governance reforms in order to ensure that clear and tangible benefits are produced at the local level.


In fact, during the campaign period, Duterte pointed out two institutional measures of linking national with local development. One is by imposing a strong authoritarian government, similar to the one imposed during the Marcos period. The alleged goal here is to make the local interests conform with the national concerns. Duterte refers here to individuals who do not see the value of national goals and must face the dire consequences of violating the rules and institutions. In the case of crime and drugs, the imposition and enforcement of the rule of law will be a significant factor. However, beyond certain limits, this can lead to sacrifices and injustices, including the infringement of basic human rights, and end possibly extra judicial killings. Of course, this option, through a system of incentives and penalties, can be moderated in a way that is consistent with our laws and our sense of human dignity.


The other option is to promote federalism. The aim is to empower local governments and to reduce the power of the national government. In a country with so much geographic and cultural diversities, this system of government can enable the local governments to make their own decisions, and enforce a larger influence in their communities. This can promote democracy and encourage pluralism. Furthermore, by relieving the national government of responsibility over specific local concerns, greater political stability can be achieved. Unfortunately, under this system, we may end up with no coherent national policy and can diminish accountability because of unavoidable overlaps between local and national agencies.


The challenge is for the next government to find the correct mix of these two options. Implementing only one option will be more divisive than the current situation. One should check and balance the other.