Government News Analysis

Time to use the “F” word


There are concerns in the opposition ranks in the Philippines that next year’s mid-term elections might be cancelled. While that’s possible, in the absence of specifics, we believe it’s an extreme long shot, even though the idea has been floated by a senior politician who also happens to be a close ally of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Driving this fear is the word opposition groups have yet to come to terms with. That’s the “F” word – Federalism. According to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Pantaleon Alvarez, the polls, scheduled for 13 May 2019 might be overtaken by events. On that day, 12 Senate and some 300 House seats are due to come up for grabs along with numerous local government positions.

The event in question is the outcome of a referendum on federalism. If Alvarez is correct, that could happen as soon as this year, leading the way clear to adopt a new Constitution which will allow the Philippines to switch from its present unitary system of government in which power is held centrally, to a federal one where power is dispersed to the states (likely in the form of grouped provinces).

Before that can happen, though, a Constitutional Assembly needs to be convened to thrash out necessary changes to the 1987 Constitution – the charter put in place by Corazon Aquino just 12 months after assuming the presidency. Alvarez has said that lawmakers will convene early this year as a Constitutional Assembly to address changes to the charter.

Those deliberations, however, are not going to be over soon; they could go on for a year or more. No one knows for sure – it’s like asking how long is a piece of string? Three quarters of sitting lawmakers will be needed to makes the changes effective.

That draft of the Federal Constitution will then have to be placed before the people in a plebiscite. And only once it’s been ratified by them can federalism start to take any real shape. All the practical and logistical aspects of delivering the Philippine Federation can’t start in any meaningful way until the people have given their nod of approval. It would be unwise to jump the gun on an unknown of this scale.

The chances of all that happening between now and May 2019, as far as we can see, are virtually nil. Thus, the only reason for cancelling elections that would bring in a new intake of lawmakers and others is if there were no positions for them to fill. Let’s explain.

Aquino effected charter-change by means of a Constitutional Convention. She did this by first establishing a revolutionary government and by issuing Proclamation No. 3 – the 1986 Amendment (the 1986 Provisional Constitution). This was a stop-gap measure which held everything in abeyance; giving her both executive and legislative powers until the draft had been produced and the referendum on it had been held.

Something similar, therefore, is possible this time around also. So yes, it’s possible to make that switch before May 2019. But the proposals here are far more wide-ranging than those undertaken by Aquino. This involves a lot more than tweaking a few Articles; this will change the entire shape of government. Aquino’s revision started and ended with charter change – from go to whoa that entire process took just 12 months.

By contrast, behind this proposal is a mass of other sweeping changes. And we don’t see President Duterte establishing a revolutionary-style government – at least not for these purposes – that far out. That doesn’t mean he won’t; it means we believe it’s highly unlikely he will.

It may just be that Alvarez was floating the idea at this stage to elicit a reaction. If that’s the case, he got one. Vice President Leni Robredo, an abiding critic of Duterte, said this on her weekly radio show on Sunday: “We are very much against this no-election proposal because holding elections sums up democracy … This is the only way for ordinary Filipinos to participate in the process of choosing who should lead them”.

Leaving aside the fact that this wasn’t a proposal, no one would disagree with her that elections are “the only way for ordinary Filipinos to participate in the process of choosing who should lead them” – certainly Duterte’s supporters wouldn’t. In fact, ever since his election by the people, she and members of her Liberal Party have been the chief objectors to the people’s choice of Duterte, challenging him over the majority of policies he’s put forward.

Furthermore, plebiscites – national referendums like the one that’ll need to be carried out before a Philippine Federation can be given legs – is another democratic means of allowing the people a say in the future of their country. They can say “Yes” or they can say “No”. Presumably, then, given her espoused support of democratic principals neither she nor her party will be objecting to a referendum on federalism being conducted. For that we’ll have to wait and see, though we believe that’ll be precisely the quarter from which objections will come.

Right now, however, there are a great number of unknowns. How many states will there be? We know the existing provinces will need to merge here and there to create those states; but which ones with which ones? What’s likely is that efforts will be made to integrate poorer areas with wealthier ones – though there could be geographical constraints in some cases.

In fact, the entire geo-political map of the Philippines will need to be re-drawn. There’s nothing to even say that whole provinces will end up in one state; they might be split in some way to form constituent parts of separate states.

Effectively, though, the country’s present 81 provinces will be distilled down to possibly around 12 states. The only thing we’re sure of at this point is that one of those states with be Bangsamoro – the long-proposed antonymous homeland for the Moros (Muslim) people in Mindanao. We also know the provinces that will merge to form that.

In 2008, Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr – father of the current Senate president, Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III and a strong advocate of federalism – proposed the following configuration for a federation of Philippine states (and state capitals): 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.

That may be a little simplistic – under that ‘blueprint’ the vast island region of Mindanao would only comprise three states, as would the scattered Visayas, while the northern Luzon region would be occupied by five.

Figuring out how many states there should be has historically preoccupied discussions on Philippine federalism. While some authors of the 1899 Malolos Constitution of the short-lived First Republic favoured three states; those being based on each of the three island regions, others favoured 10. In the event no provision for federalism made it into that constitution.

Other proposals lodged with the American colonial government around that time proposed variously, 11 state subdivisions, and later seven states. Neither was taken up; the Americans had little interest in decentralising power.

Five states – Northern Luzon, Southern Luzon, Visayas, Mindanao, and Christian Mindanao – was another proposal. This appeared in the 1980 draft Bayanikasan Constitution prepared by statesmen, Salvador Araneta, and intended for adoption any time from 1990 to 2000.

But there are many other unanswered questions at this stage. For one thing, there’ll still be a central government – the federal administration. National defence, foreign affairs, federal taxes, for example, will still be handled by the Executive Branch in Manila (assuming the capital doesn’t move); the Legislature will still be making and amending laws; the Judiciary will still be running the federal justice system (hopefully, more efficiently than it does right now); there’ll still be a Supreme Court.

But what’s the shape of the federal legislature? How big will that assembly be? How many constituencies will each of those states contain? Certainly, they will in no way replicate the present constituencies; so anyone sitting in the two chambers of Congress right now, or elected in next year’s mid-terms, should they go ahead, will have their constituencies disbanded under the federal system.

Will it be bicameral as it is now; or unicameral? In other words, will the Senate survive or will it be abolished? Given its recent machinations – the theatrical performances of certain senators – there’s probably a large appetite in the country to support the latter. The point is, we simply don’t know how the mechanics of federalism will be constructed. No one does right now.

And what about the Judiciary? What powers will be devolved to the states? In fact, there’s no end to the questions.

Certainly, huge logistical and administrative issues will need to be addressed before any of this becomes a reality. And if those pushing for it manage to pull it off, the Philippines will be only the second member country of the  Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to federalise.

Presently, Malaysia is the one country in Asean that operates a federal system of government. It came into being as the Federation of Malaya – 11 Malay states and two British settlements – in 1948. Renamed Malaysia in 1963, the 13 states – all part of Peninsular Malaysia – remain today. The law of the land is the 1957 Federal Constitution which enshrines the separation of powers.

Indonesia briefly flirted with a federal system, becoming the Republic of the United States of Indonesia when it gained independence in 1949. The following year, however, it returned to a unitary system of government.

When Burma gained independence in 1948, ethnic nationalities – comprising roughly one third of the population – pushed for a federal union. And although it had actually been promised – and remains part of the 1947 Panglong Agreement – it never materialised. Today, 70 years later, there’s still an appetite among the ethnic groups for a Federal Union of Myanmar.

Clearly, given the enormity of what’s involved in drawing up a comprehensive blueprint for all areas of the country’s governmental reorganisation, it’s impossible to imagine a reliable timetable right now for bringing all this to fruition and launching the Philippine Federation. And so, while between now and May next year a great deal of midnight oil will need to be burned, we believe that the present arrangements – as far as Congress is concerned – will stay in place.


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