There are voices in the Philippine discussion about federalism who predict a disaster if ever a federalist system is established.


I am afraid they are right. As a German, I strongly believe in the advantages of a federal system for a huge, multi-ethnic island archipelago like the Philippines. But a federal government structure is a complex entity that needs sound democratic fundamentals to work for the benefit of the ordinary citizens. Without inclusive democratic participation, it will be controlled by the traditional oligarchic elites and will lead to powerful regional dynasties, using their dominance to oppress the people and to put themselves above the rule of law.


I am afraid, because I do not hear the advisors and groups around President Duterte and the great number of politicians, who are now with him, mentioning in their naïve enthusiasm the crucial pre-condition of cleaning up the electoral mess in the Philippines for a democratically controlled federal system of governance.


Clean and fair elections in a truly democratic system are not everything that makes up a functioning democracy. But without them everything is nothing – including the modern concept of a parliamentary and federal system of governance.


Inclusive democratic participation builds on three elements: a sound system of principled political parties, a transparent and uncorrupted electoral process and an inclusive electoral system. All three are lacking in the actual Philippine reality.


Empirical research in many countries has come to the conclusion that there are four basic international standard criteria for modern, genuinely principled political parties:

• a clear ideological orientation, demonstrated through a detailed and meaningful political platform, based on joint principles – not just a collection of motherhood statements;

• to be owned by their members, not by a patron who pays and therefore dictates all decisions;

• internal bottom up democratic structure and procedures enshrined in clear constitution and by-laws, which are strictly followed; and

• more importantly, to have continuous activities between the elections in order to allow citizens’ participation in democratic decision making.

The traditional parties in the Philippines do not fulfil any of these criteria. Therefore they provide no answers to the key questions that have to be answered by political parties in modern societies:

• who integrates the different interests of citizens, groups, sectors into political concepts under broadly accepted values and rules?

• who selects competent and committed candidates for the elections to represent the electorate in a committed and professional way?

• who educates interested citizens in political opinion building to be able to play their role as democrats?

• who connects the citizens and their requests, needs, ideas, problems with the political decision makers between the elections?

• who holds accountable the elected representatives of the citizens in the legislative bodies in their personal performance and in their political actions between the elections?


Given the lack of real political parties in the Philippine elections, the voters have no choices for political concepts, interests and values. They just decide on persons who cannot provide sustainable solutions and cannot be controlled after being elected.


The enforcement of a modern political party law, like it was adopted already in the House of Representatives early in 2013 but then taken out of the Senate agenda on intervention of Malacañang, would be the first precondition of inclusive democratic participation as fundamental for a beneficial federal system of government.


The second is a clean electoral process. In the Philippine elections, vote buying and other forms of fraud are so widely used and generally accepted that we cannot speak of fair democratic elections. A Comelec which turns a blind eye to these practices, needs to be dissolved and completely rebuilt– with enough funds and power to prevent or investigate effectively each and any of these practices and bring the operators and benefiting candidates to court. A state that does not have the political will to enforce clean elections should stop calling itself democratic.


The third one has to be a fundamental reform of the Philippine electoral system. The election of most members of the House of Representatives in one-person constituencies plays into the hands of local dynasties and does not give even real, principled political parties much opportunities of successfully campaigning for good candidates.


To improve the inclusive democratic character of the elections, it would be necessary to increase the number of MPs elected proportionally through party lists to at least 50 percent of the total number and to delete the artificial separation between political parties and party lists. Neither the Comelec nor the Supreme Court has been able to provide a viable definition of “marginalized groups and sectors.” If national political parties, registered under a new, modern Political Party Act, have the right to compete not only with their candidates in the constituencies, but also with their democratically chosen party lists for these 50 percent proportional seats in the elections, based on their political platforms and including representatives from different sectors, this would create a powerful game-changer in the direction of inclusive democratic participation.


Let’s hope that the experts and politicians working to reform the Constitution in order to set up a federal system will be wise enough to include these constitutional, legal and political changes in their reform concepts – in order to prevent a disastrous failure of their ambitious project.


Dr. Peter Koeppinger is the current project director of the European Union – Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (EU-KAS) Philippines Partnerships for Integrity and Jobs Project (Project I4J). He is a former resident representative of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) in the Philippines (2009-2014), he served as one of the co-convenors of the Centrist Democratic Movement (CDM) of the Philippines in years 2010 to 2011 and has been the foreign political consultant of the Centrist Democratic Party of the Philippines: Ang Partido ng Tunay na Demokrasya (CDP) from its establishment in 2012 and at present. He is a member of the Board of Advisors of CDPI. This commentary also appeared on The Manila Times.