Government News Analysis

The current state of play

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It’s still early days, and this is very much a work in progress; but picking up on recent remarks by Aquilino Pimentel Jr, a member of the Consultative Committee set up to review the 1987 Constitution – the first step in preparing the way to federalising the Philippines – we can now explore a little further the shape of things to come in terms of the possible configuration of states in the proposed Philippine Federation.

A great deal of flesh needs to be put on these bones before we can get a proper feel for what the finished article will look like, but the picture that’s emerging is that it’ll comprise 12 states. These may change it terms of area and which provinces will finally be lumped together – whether even if some present bordering provinces will be split to form parts of different states. But 12 looks like the number.

Here, then, are the states being proposed. The island region of Luzon will have four states – Northern Luzon, Central Luzon, Southern Luzon and Bicol. The island region of the Visayas will be made up of three states – Eastern Visayas, Central Visayas and Western Visayas. Minparom, the islands provinces of Mindoro (comprising Occidental Mindoro and Oriental Mindoro), Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan (collectively known as Mimaropa), will have its own state. The island region of Mindanao will comprise three states – Northern Mindanao, Southern Mindanao and Bangsamoro. The final state will be Metro Manila which will also be the federal capital district.

In fact, this proposal is identical (with one minor name change) to that which Pimentel put forward in 2008 when he was a member of the Philippine Senate and advanced Joint Resolution No. 10 to convene Congress as a Constituent Assembly in order to revise the 1987 Constitution and, like now, to establish a federal system of government for the country.

That proposal was for the same 11 states and one administrative region – Metro Manila. All that’s changed is that Southern Luzon replaces Southern Tagalog – a region which no longer exists as a political entity.

This doesn’t mean that the committee has simply dusted off an old boiler plate. With the odd refinement here and there, this still looks like being the most workable model. In terms of geography, language distribution, cultural cohesion and transport logistics, with some exceptions, it looks to be the most sensible way of slicing up the cake.

But whatever the eventual outcome is, it’s safe to say that many Filipinos will have serious misgivings. And objections, once the public consultation period gets underway, are likely to be voluble. The fact is, creating 12 states out of 81 provinces is never going to satisfy everyone. For one thing, provinces which have hitherto been rivals of each other will likely end up being administered by the same State Congress. This plan is also bound to throw up a number of anomalies.

An earlier suggestion had been for 13 states. That had identified the “Sultanate State of Sulu and the Bangsamoro” which has since been replaced by Bangsamoro, and the “State of Zamboanga” which was later dropped in terms of being a stand-alone state.

Presumably, the plan now under consideration will be to fold Zamboanga into the State of Northern Mindanao. This, however, is likely to be among the stickiest pieces of rezoning of the lot. The Zamboanga Peninsula – Region IX on the present administrative schedule – comprises the provinces of Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay and Zamboanga del Norte.

Zamboanga City, however – which sits on the southern lip of the peninsula – has long been a bone of contention over discussions of who goes where in what was to have been the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region; a failed initiative to give the Moro (Muslim) people a homeland. In fact, federalism is seen as a sure way of finally establishing that homeland.

Back in May 2015, Zamboanga City mayor, Maria Isabelle Climaco, said this: “The City of Zamboanga and all of its 98 barangays and sitios [enclaves] should never be included in the Bangsamoro, now or ever”.

However, with its close links to Basilan province (an integral part of Bangsamoro), and a large Muslim population – around 25% of citizens practice Islam – Zamboanga City is caught in an awkward position. Thus, feedback from public federalism debates there are likely to be highly charged.

Where we see a more general potential for friction is in getting universal plebiscite approval for the state capitals. Local and provincial pride is involved here and in many cases it might be difficult to assuage.

In the 2008 submission, specific state capitals were proposed for each of the envisioned states. Some of these will likely stand going forward – lloilo City (Western Visayas State); Catbalogan City (Eastern Visayas State); Cagayan de Oro City (Northern Mindanao State); Davao City (Southern Mindanao State); Marawi City (Bangsamoro State). And Legazpi City (Bicol State) – though the citizens of Naga City in Camarines Sur, the adjacent province to Albay where Legazpi is located, might want to challenge that.

The other state capitals – if the new plan mirrors the 2008 proposals – are far more contentious. Let’s take a look at those.

Northern Luzon State – the country’s top producer of corn, the Corn State. Provinces to be absorbed are: Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Apayao, Abra, Kalinga, Cagayan, La Union, Benguet, Ifugao, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya, Quirino, Pangasinan.

Oddly, in the 2008 proposal, Tuguegarao – a third-class component city and the capital of Cagayan province was posited as the state capital. If it came down to a popular vote, however, that would be unlikely to stand.

Tuguegarao has a population of around 154,000, where as Baguio City in Benguet province, and the regional centre for the Cordillera Administrative Region, has a population of around 350,000. But even the slightly smaller cities of Santiago and Ilagan, both in Isabela province, might feel they have stronger claims to state capitalhood than Tuguegarao.

Central Luzon State – producer of one third of the country’s total rice production and known as the Rice Granary of the Philippines; the Rice State. Provinces to be absorbed are: Zambales, Tarlac, Pampanga, Bataan, Nueva Ecija, Bulacan, Aurora.

Here there’s likely to be one of the fiercest contestation of anywhere over which city should be the state capital. The 2008 plan has Tarlac City penciled in but we can see a number of objections to that going forward – and not least that it’s the family seat of the Aquino-Cojuangco clan; the family of former president Corazon Aquino and her son, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino who formed the last administration and whose popularity right now is on the wane.

But anyway, there are other serious contenders. These include San Fernando in Pampanga province, already the established regional centre of Central Luzon; Malolos, the capital of Bulacan – the region’s most populous province – which might submit historical claims. Malolos was the capital of the short-lived First Philippine Republic (1899-1901). And then there’s the ‘dark horse’, New Clark City, the purpose-built new metropolis in Tarlac province – though it’s possible there might be a far more prominent position in store for it.

This involves the federal administrative capital of the Philippine Federation. Presently, that looks like being Metro Manila, but this is a city that’s long past it’s “best-by” date and there’s a very good argument – in the interests of a fresh start – for removing it as the epicentre of central government. Indeed, retaining it as the country’s federal capital might look like little has changed with respect to devolving power from the centre; one of the main purpose of the Philippines going federal.

A radical step? In fact it’s not. It’s been done all over the world and if the Philippines wants to relocate its capital, it won’t have a better opportunity than this. And New Clark City would be the ideal place to re-site it.  A capital idea [31 July 2017]; Transfer of capital [11 January 2018].

Southern Luzon State – with two of the five provinces that form it named after past presidents, the President State. Provinces to be absorbed: Rizal, Quezon, Cavite, Laguna, Batangas.

According to the 2008 plan, Tagatay (population c72,000) in Cavite province, and just 59 kilometres from Manila, was the nomination for state capital. But other popular contenders could include Imus, the provincial capital of Cavite, with a population of some 405,000. Or, Batangas City, the capital of Batangas province, with a population of around 330,000, and one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Both these cities have far greater administrative infrastructures already in place that Tagatay.

Central Visayas State – the Philippines’ most visited destination for both local and foreign tourists; the Travel State. Provinces to be absorbed: Bohol, Cebu, Negros Oriental, Siquijor.

In 2006, Toledo – a third-class city in Cebu province of around 170,000 inhabitants – was slotted in as state capital. This seems an odd choice to put it mildly. Toledo is basically a mining town which built up around Atlas Consolidated Mining and Development Corporation’s massive copper concessions. It would also seem to have no administrative infrastructure capable of running a state.

Thus, support is likely to come for Cebu City, the region’s biggest and most commercially successful city and an administrative hub for the entire Central Visayas region. Alternate support could come for Lapu-Lapu City, which lies within the Cebu Metropolitan Area and is named after the local chieftain who repelled a Portuguese landing party there in 1521. Certainly that’s likely to have far more emotional appeal than Toledo.

Minparom – made up entirely of islands; the Island State. Here, the 2008 choice of state capital was for Mamburao – a second-class municipality and the provincial capital of Occidental Mindoro with a population of around 43,000.

Again, this seems an odd choice, given what’s available. This includes, foremost, Puerto Princesa, the provincial capital of Palawan and the seat of government and a highly urbanised city of quarter of a million residents. Regarded as the greenest and cleanest city in the entire archipelago, and extremely popular with local tourists, it must be in contention.

There was obviously a reason for slating-in these cities as prospective state capitals, but in many cases it wasn’t for the ease of transferring a federal administration. In a number of these cases, the architecture for that would have to be built from scratch while ignoring fully functioning capitols elsewhere in several of the states.

Perhaps some of these cities were entered as compromise candidates – intending to pre-empt bitter rivalry between obvious contenders; or perhaps the drafters of the 2008 list see something we don’t. In any event, when the final list of proposed state capitals is published, you can expect no shortage of conflicting opinions.

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