Why the BBL was not included in the recently declared priorities of the government is not clear. What is more unclear is the assertion from some quarters at the outset that because Federalism is declared to be a priority, the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is then not a priority. While it is not categorically mentioned in the list, the fact that federalism is given priority after the new BBL was drafted and submitted to Congress, it can only mean that the Bangsamoro initiative is very much a priority.
The federalism initiative and the BBL are not mutually exclusive. Without at least an amendment of the 1987 Constitution, the BBL cannot be passed as originally formulated. In fact, a simple comparative reading of the original BBL, former Senator Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos Jr.’s BLBAR, and now former President and Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s BABAR, it will not be difficult to glean that there is a serious effort to ensure consistency with the 1987 Constitution. This seems the primary consideration of policy makers and not what parties in the peace process agreed. This is fundamental as it only means that many of the points agreed on in the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) cannot be fulfilled. If this is the case, there is a serious problem in the current efforts to pursue lasting peace in the region. No amount of intent to put in place what is needed to finally put an end to conflict in the south on the part of any sitting President is possible if conforming to the current constitution will always be the foremost consideration of policy makers.
There are only two possibilities that could happen if the BBL is pursued on its own without Federalism or at the least an amendment of the Constitution, and this can very well be a repeat of how it was before. The BBL will pass both houses, but, especially in the Senate where each member will have his/her particular take on it that is fundamentally independent from the government’s official position, it will be significantly diluted. The reason as already mentioned is that the common position expected will be to conform to the letters of the existing constitution. Reading the BABAR for example will prompt one to note starting with the deleted Preamble and the statement of territory, the original draft was revised to make sure it conforms to the constitution. The only unique provision retained is the form of government in the region, proposed to be parliamentary. This feature of the proposed Bangsamoro alone will also be questioned if the BBL is passed and the Constitution remains exactly as it is. Note that the constitution only allows symmetric autonomous governments in both form and structure of government and powers.
The second possibility is, if, for the sake of argument, it passes close to its original form, it will be questioned in the Supreme Court (SC) where it will take time to be resolved. As it hangs in the balance in the court, discontent remains in the region and there’s no second-guessing the possibilities. As the SC deliberates, whatever comes out of the proposed law cannot be implemented. Ultimately, it can go the same way as the Memorandum Agreement on Ancestral Domain or MOA-AD, that the verdict of the SC will be unconstitutional. Whichever of the two happens, everything is back to square one.
Considering that Federalism was mentioned to be among the priority, any and all initiatives with the Bangsamoro should be couched along this direction. The Bangsamoro stand only to gain with the Federalism initiative moving forward more than any other region in the country. While there are two autonomous regions mentioned in the existing constitution, only the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was realized and the Cordillera Autonomous Region (CAR) was attempted twice in the past and both attempts failed. It is the only region that had the chance to experience how it is to have a regional government, the closest there is to a regional government proposed in a Federal Philippines. In fact, if anyone could only do an honest, objective assessment of the state of affairs in the current ARMM government, one will only conclude that they have a very professional and capable career officials contrary to what was propounded before that it is a “failed experiment”.
More than that, it is also the region that is more advanced in pursuing a really autonomous region in the country with the continuing peace process, the number of signed agreements between the Moro rebels and the government as basis for the formation of a new autonomous region, and of course, the focus of the President, the development organizations and the international community is in putting an end to the long dragging conflict and violence in the region. Over and above all of the foregoing, any further autonomy the region aspires, that is the realization of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), whether thru the passing of an undiluted BBL or not, it can only happen with an amended 1987 Constitution, most especially if a Federal form of government is adopted. There is therefore nothing to lose on the part of the Bangsamoro if federalism is pursued, especially if they take part in the process.
Meanwhile, the options should be weighed how to move forward. The involvement of all key stakeholders is key in any step to be taken in light of recent developments. There are two that can be undertaken together or one after the other. It is not advisable to just wait what happens next, especially that there is hardly anything that says with certainty how things will play out. Considering the still prevailing political system we have, there is no way we can second-guess what will happen in the process.
The options that can be considered are both anchored on the pronouncement the government already made, that Federalism will really be pursued.
One, just like the BBL, there should now be consultation on the ground how the Bangsamoro people would prefer to proceed in this Federalism direction. This proposition has its basis with the original formulation of the BBL and right after the signing of the FAB and CAB. The Local Government Development Foundation (LOGODEF) was asked to do an assessment and validation on the ground under the IAG run Politics for Peace (PROPOL) project. This has resulted to local stakeholders suggesting there were no consultations undertaken. The original draft was circulated on the ground but only for purposes of disseminating what it contained. Said process of the original BBL hardly even allowed questions from participants.
There is now a concrete Philippine Federal Model adopted by the administration party, the PDP-LABAN, that was presented to the leaders of both houses of congress. Considering that stakes are significantly higher in the Bangsamoro region, and noting that there is this misleading assertion that it’s BBL that should come first before Federalism and that there is likely some feeling on the ground of again being left out, it is best that an effective stakeholders’ assessment, information dissemination and consultation on the proposed Federal form of government are conducted one after another. The result of all these will be useful in the deliberation of the Constitutional Commission or Constitutional Consultative Committee and or the Constituent Assembly or whichever body is convened to draft a new constitution.
Two, and this can be done alongside the previous, is to start capacitating the existing ARMM to have a more engaging and effective working relationship with its component local government units (LGUs). This is in anticipation of establishing a new Regional government. In the same assessment undertaken by LOGODEF in ARMM, still related to the then newly drafted BBL, another revelation is that coordination and collaboration between LGUs and ARMM could very well use fundamental reforms. To put it simply, there is simply no incentive nor institutional mechanism that goads each level of government to work together to pursue good governance at the regional and local level. There are some LGUs that were noted to have performed well, but this is more an exception than the rule and was due largely to the independent initiative of the local chief executive and not necessarily in collaboration with the regional government. Whether the BBL is adopted and implemented or that Federalism is pursued effectively or both, the regional government can work only if it is able to work with its constituent units more effectively this time.
While options are being considered, different groups remain active on the ground and without any concrete initiative to hold on, there is nothing certain what direction is being pursued. What should not be an option is to do nothing while things remain fluid. The situation is rich with possibilities. It might be best to ensure that what comes out of it is a veritable step towards development in the region. The key will always be the involvement of all key stakeholders.
The author is a political science professor and the executive director of the Local Government Development Foundation.