Are local leaders ready for federalism?
- Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco
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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 first appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The rationale for the imposition of a specific time frame for elected office was best expressed by one of the members of the 1986 Constitutional Commission, Edmundo G. Garcia, who made the following argument during the debates on this issue:
“I know that some of us here have been in politics for a long time and I do not wish to offend them. But I simply think that there should be no special caste of professional politicians. It should not be a life-time profession or a career, but rather an opportunity for public service to be broadened to as great a number of people, and there should be no effort to accumulate power. Accumulation of power, at one time, really brings about the desire to accumulate more, and rather than providing a structure or a setup which strengthens this trend, the alternative must be to provide structural safeguards for this kind of practice. Therefore, I would not subscribe to more than one reelection for Senators and more than two reelections for Representatives or local officials.” (Journal Record of the Constitutional Commission of 1986, Volume Two, July 24, 1986, p219.)
However, for all their noble intentions to improve political leadership in the country, triennial local elections have actually given rise to three major constraints on socioeconomic development planning that currently beset local leaders.
First, the three important local planning bodies—the local chief executive, the local development council, and the sanggunian—cannot establish administrative continuity within the local government structure because of the frequent changes in political leadership. The corresponding administration turnover rate has made any form of long-term development planning practically impossible.
Second, local leaders have acquired the proclivity for quick-gestation projects. Strategic development formulation is grossly limited by a benefits-now paradigm, such that undertakings requiring an extended time frame, even if it will produce more socioeconomic benefits for the community, almost always never see the light of day.
Third, local officials very often yield to populist demands and avoid difficult but necessary reforms. And in conjunction with the inclination to come up with development ideas with instantaneous effect, these very same ideas are often dictated by the need to be reelected.
In sum, the local leadership paradigm has selfishly linked the mandate for development to the political burden of pleasing loyal followers. This electoral arrangement has grown to the extent that urgent and critical reforms that will benefit the public at large are ignored if they will cause discomfort and displeasure to the majority of voters.
Furthermore, the political reality in our country illustrates that term limits have not curbed the appetite of politicians to acquire political power. Unfortunately, Garcia and his colleagues in the Con-Com probably did not foresee that the imposition of term limits would actually push politicians to use family members to circumvent this rule.
Indeed, by employing a revolving door scheme among family members, politicians have not only found a way to beat the term limit but have also expanded the reach of their political power within the government. By some ironic twist, they have also arrived at a legal and democratic way to firmly entrench their families in local politics.
Sadly, political dynasties have made local governance a family enterprise. Father is governor, mother is congresswoman, brother is mayor, son is councilor, niece is SK (Sangguniang Kabataan), cousin is barangay captain, kinakapatid is vice mayor, and so forth. This phenomenon is summed up perfectly by respected Mindanao civil society activist Guiamel Alim as “clan-inclusive government.”
The fact is political elites in the Philippines are so entrenched that they have become essentially insulated from political competition. This has led to the enculturation of a myopic and parochial governance mindset.
Even worse, as local communities continue to suffer inept and corrupt dynastic leaders, those who can, and are willing to, push for reforms but do not have the inherited political advantage are effectively denied the right to run for public office because of the monarchical nature of local government. Indeed, Filipinos who are more qualified, passionate and patriotic, including many from the youth ranks, are deprived of the opportunity to establish clean and effective local governance.
This situation has become a bane to local communities clamoring for socioeconomic progress. Numerous studies have shown that standards of living, lower human development, and higher levels of deprivation and inequality persist in the districts governed by local leaders who are dynasts. A more alarming development is that the “fattest” dynasties—those with the most family members in office—are ensconced in the poorest parts of the country.
Indeed, the answer to our query here is also the most important realization in the discourse on the Bangsamoro Basic Law—that the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is a failed experiment. The lesson is that increasing the autonomy of local levels of government ultimately amounts to nothing if local leaders are incompetent and incapable of properly utilizing the expanded powers and resources.
Hence, it is definitely unwise to proceed with federalization, with the quality of local leadership still in an untenable state. It is certainly justified to be concerned that federalizing with political dynasties still lording it over local communities would make socioeconomic development more inequitable than it currently stands.
It will serve the federation cause better if the incoming president, Rodrigo Duterte, rallies all his political capital behind reform measures aimed at improving the quality of local leadership in the country. Legislation regulating local dynasties, establishing a genuine political party system, and ensuring transparency and accountability in local governments are just some of the steps that can drastically improve the governance mindset of our local officials.
He may be the patriarch of a local dynasty himself, but there can be no doubt that Duterte is presently the only national leader qualified to undertake this difficult task. For he is, in fact, living proof that effective leadership is an indispensable requirement of local development.