Dr. Francisco 'Pancho' Lara Jr. is the Philippine Country Director of International Alert. He delivered this paper at the IAG federalism lecture series at the House of Representatives on Aug. 30, 2016. 


Three weeks ago I posed a question at a conference sponsored by FOCAP. I asked whether FEDERALISM would produce more JESSE ROBREDOS or ANDAL AMPATUANS. I was not being facetious. I felt that this was a genuine concern and that these were the sort of questions we needed to ask in any discussion of federalism.


I also asked this question because there were three factors that would need to be considered in addressing the issue:


One, how do you deal with rival holders of coercive force We are aware that rival armed groups with increasing access to sophisticated weapons and munitions held sway in various parts of the country. Dealing with these armed groups would require a strong center.


Two, how do you deal with rival claimants to revenues? We are all victims of forced taxation by politicians and other crooks in one way or the other – but others are more victimize by the collection agents and letters of authority that come from the CPP-NPA. How do we deal with the lack of fiscal integrity in many parts of the country?


Three, how do you deal with rival rule systems, norms, and traditions that spring from certain ethnic, religious, language differences. The particular issue of “institutional multiplicity” has been an important bone of contention in the Bangsamoro, and to a lesser extent in the Cordilleras.


I argued that instead of giving birth to enlightened and progressive political elites, there was a distinct possibility that federalism may lead to strengthening warlord clans and corrupt politicians, or worse, to separatists or secessionist causes. My conclusions were based on my own studies of how political legitimacy and political authority was understood and received at the subnational level, and of similar studies of fragile and crisis states that underscored the need for basic security as a “precondition for a wide set of governance reforms from implementing competitive elections to carrying out programmes of decentralization and devolution.” (LSE Crisis States Research Centre 2012,19)


My research revealed several instances when social contracts between the states and its people permitted the continuation of corruption in exchange for unhampered access to illicit economies. Or how clan institutions, often seen as despotic and repressive, actually proved more effective in the face of perpetual hardship and crisis, rather than the institutions of a democratic state.


Two days ago I returned from the Oslo peace talks after having participated as chair of the GPH Ceasefire Committee. I began to wonder now federalism could have an impact in dealing with armed challenges to the State. I examined and explored how it could be wielded in an asymmetric manner to take into account the three challenges I posed above.


Asymmetric federalism, as opposed to coercive federalism, is defined as the unequal apportioning of powers and resources under a federal system to address distinctive aims and objectives. It may be possible that the Bangsamoro, for example, is given more powers and resources in contrast to other regions in a federal system – to enable it to catch up, and to take into account the rival rule systems that emanate from clan institutions and Islamic norms and traditions.


It certainly was the case for Spain when it offered powers and access to resources to Catalonia, or the Basque region to head off the secessionist appeals from local political groups, including ETA.


We could offer more resources and powers to disadvantaged regions that could probably stem secession or separatism. This seemed particularly relevant in the case of the ARMM, and the fate of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. We can conclude, finally, that legislating a revised law should come before, rather that after the constitutional reform process.


Beyond this, asymmetric federalism could also, in a way, provide a window of opportunity for a revitalized Philippine Left to see in federalism the same opportunities that communists in West Bengal saw 30 years ago when they took control of local politics.


A more fundamental question arises from these reflections – could we or could we not achieve the same objectives through an enhanced Local Government Code? And could we not have realized the asymmetrical relationship by simply passing the BBL?


I am for stronger powers and ampler resources to be given to local governments. But achieving these goals gives us a choice of various alternatives – from strengthening the current LGC, to enhanced autonomy through the BBL, or even the revision of the social chapters in our constitution – or those pertaining to social justice and autonomous rule. The latter, in particular, could deepen the capacity for self-determination of many regions that are bound simply by language, and allow more control over their resources.


I say this because I am getting confused by the distinct narratives about the looming change in the relationship between center and periphery that is being used by competing sides in this debate.


The more dominant narrative comes from the big majority who voted for and applauded the victory of Rodrigo Duterte and saw it as an equivalent victory by the periphery over the center. It is certainly a fascinating narrative.


It underscores the possibilities that can be brought about by the possible loosening of the center’s control over the country’s human and economic resources – a possibility made real by the President’s relentless drive to institutionalize a shift to some form of federalism.


However, there is a second narrative that highlights the change in the way power will be wielded by the center. This framework does not accept the bold predictions of a future diffusion of power to the periphery, but rather EMPHASIZES the further strengthening of the center through the employment of pro-active, specific, and “least common denominator” campaigns such as the war on drugs that has inspired a momentum for strong-fisted, but nevertheless, central, rule.


In this second perspective, the political and institutional onslaught brought about by the war on drugs would strengthen rather that weaken the center. In the absence of the sort of “best practice” offered by the proponents of the BBL, the cause of federalism will turn into a race to the bottom, and would likely amount to no more than the embellishment of the present Local Government Code. Of course, this narrative suggests that the government will not stop with the drug menace but will deal with other emerging threats in the same manner.


And that is the rub – it makes it more difficult to see how federalism will look like when its own advocacies are by words and deeds actually utilizing the absolute powers of coercion that only a strong central state would provide in dealing with drugs, or traffic, or violent conflict.


So, to disentangle myth from reality, some things bear watching, three (3) of which are to my mind most important:


The most IMPORTANT aspect pertains to the task of revenue generation and the apportioning of rents between national and local elites and the trade-offs that will happen between local demands and centralizing priorities.


In the first place, the administrative and politico-military reach of the state and its fiscal integrity remains fragile. As I noted earlier, there are rival rule systems at the local level, rival claimants to revenues, and rival holders of coercive force. Given this backdrop, from what foundations will the federal form of government draw its strength from and how will it administer the state and protect its citizens?


The second aspect pertains to the state of national to local political coalitions in the first instance and subsequently, the state of political parties in the country in general.


The control over vote banks and the decentralized means of coercion exercised by local clans and political elites is worth investigating. The President has launched an explosive campaign against drug lords, and has promised an equally vicious campaign against corrupt officials and warlords – yet these will target the same clans and political elites, in and out of political office, that served the interests of national political and economic elites so well – in terms of heading off insurgent challenges and delivering the votes to the center. A lot of them are certainly within the President’s own circle.


If we look at Mindanao where the President comes from, the local political elites, with very few rents from the center, have also been the most entrepreneurial, albeit in the informal coping economy or in the control of illicit and deadly economies such as illicit drugs and guns, KFR, and illicit cross border trade. Leaders like Ampatuan claimed prominence precisely because their power to deliver vote banks in closely fought electoral contests and their ability to train their coercive might against insurgent and criminal (except themselves) challenges to the central state made national elites beholden to them.


Will the application of federalism deal with these issues effectively? Our experience in the case of the Ampatuan massacre was that the same central state had to abandon its warlord ally in Mindanao, even if only temporarily, and shift the bargain towards other elites and engineer a new political settlement where the center continued to hold sway.


Meanwhile, the dame situation remains for political parties in this country. See the massive swing towards the PDP-LABAN and you see the point.


I always believed that the only existing genuine political party with a programmatic agenda is the Communist Party of the Philippines – and many would like to see them move closer to the mainstream as a model that other political parties may emulate. However, the Left is not exactly the model one would think of in terms of weakening the center. The CPP is a centrifugal force bent on centralizing, rather than decentralizing Philippine politics.


Last I heard, despite my own dreams, the CPP has made no mention of a powerful SUBSTATE role ala West Bengal for itself. The CNN remains desirous of a future national coalition government – or the recognition of the political authority that it has established in a resilient manner at the subnational level in a few subregions such as Eastern and Southern Mindanao, and Eastern Visayas. Of course, last I looked I also thought that a de-facto coalition government was already in place.


Meanwhile, as far as I know, the ETA has not succumbed entirely to the temptation that asymmetric federalism offers to the Basque region.


Therefore, any constitutional reform that foists federalism or enhanced devolution must be accompanied by equivalent legislation that strengthens political parties and disallows dynasties. This is the only way to ensure that more Jesse Robredo’s emerge from our political firmament.


Finally, the third aspect pertains to the trajectory of violent conflict and the fate of national and subnational peace processes. Violent conflict in the country remains intractable, but it is less vertical, and more horizontal in nature. While vertical political conflict exacts the most in terms of human and economic costs, horizontal conflict is the day-by-day eruption of violence that provokes most of the uncertainty and insecurity that scares investors away, retards human capital, and provides the basis for newly emerging threats, such as violent extremism, to emerge across the country.


This fact underscores the essential need for a strong central state as an indispensable component in whatever form of decentralization or devolved politico-economic authority ill emerge.


In conclusion, I shall abide by the safe and sure prognosis that the truth is yet to come. It is too early to say where the country is headed, and academics like us from both sides of the fence often prevaricate or resist sunny or dire predictions of this sort. We leave that job to the politicians in this awesome gathering.


Thank you.