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The Philippine Federation – the shape of things to come

The shape of the proposed ‘Federation of Philippine States’ and the means of creating it are now becoming clearer as a working timetable is being been laid out to drive the republic from a unitary to a federal system of government.

Here’s what we know. Necessary changes to the 1987 Constitution will be effected by means of a Constituent Assembly and not, as was widely suggested, by a Constitutional Convention. This is an alternative option provided by the constitution to allow revisions to the charter. Three quarters of sitting lawmakers will be needed to makes the changes effective.

The reason for this move is that Constitutional Conventions – the Philippines has held five; the first in 1897 – are timely, costly and unwieldy. They require the nationwide election of delegates: a long drawn-out process which would run up a bill of several billion pesos. By contrast, a Constituent Assembly can be formed by convening and realigning the existing Congress as a dedicated body for the specific and exclusive purpose of discussing charter change in the context of establishing a Philippine Federation.

In other words, the opportunity of it becoming a free-for-all talking shop on every fringe issue and for every personal and party agenda item that lawmakers might want to bring up in relation to broader political and economic business/reform can be averted. Economics, logistics, expediency and the need to maintain focus solely on the matter of creating a federal Philippines, form the argument for not going the Constitutional Convention route.

Both methods, however, require ratification by the people through a plebiscite.

With regards to how the federation is composed, while this is one of the main issues which the assembly will tackle, the general feeling seems to be that there should be 11 or 12 states, possibly 11 federal and one federal administrative region. The Union of Philippine Federal States

While geography will largely determine the states’ formations with areas of close proximity allowing natural state borders, economics are also likely to play a part with lower-income areas being grouped with wealthier ones. Similarly, issues of language (dialect), religion and tribal culture will also be taken into account.

fed-mapIn 2008, Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr proposed a federation of the following states, each with its own capital: Northern Luzon (Tuguegarao City), Central Luzon (Tarlac City), Southern Tagalog (Tagaytay City), Mimaropa (Mamburao, Occidental Mindoro), Bicol (Legazpi City), Eastern Visayas (Catbalogan City), Central Visayas (Cebu City), Western Visayas (Iloilo City), Northern Mindanao (Cagayan de Oro City), Southern Mindanao (Davao City), Bangsamoro (Marawi City). Metro Manila would be the Federal Administrative Region with Manila as its capital.

While this may not be the final outcome, it’s likely to provide a starting point for the discussions on how the states will be configured. Other proposals include a three-state structure based on the main island groups of Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao. This, however, we can dismiss as it would prevent anything but the broadest representation of federal government – the wide ranging cultural and religious divisions in Mindanao, for example, would never be able to flourish in their own right.

Finally, timing. While charter change was not a priority of the previous government – much less was any notion of federalism – the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte has moved it to the top of its reform agenda.

It’s understood that a Constituent Assembly would need a full year to debate and then make the necessary constitutional changes, allowing the proposals to then be put before the electorate in a referendum. For reasons of logistics and cost-efficiency, this is most likely to take place during the 2019 midterm elections when the people go to the polls for the three-yearly congressional elections. And if it is the people’s will that their country should transition to the Philippine Federation, that will be the basis of the 2022 national elections.

Viewed like that it would seem there is plenty of time to get everything in order. But while forming the assembly and holding the referendum will take no time at all, given the time it traditionally takes for legislators to get through their business – and often business far less contentious and far reaching than this – the estimate that it can be conducted and concluded within one year seems optimistic.