Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte's presidential bid is highly controversial for his hardline beliefs on criminal justice and his authoritarian form of governance. One of the highlights of his platforms is his promise to introduce federalism to the Philippines.
What is federalism?
The Philippines is currently under a unitary form of government - this means that the central government is the highest governing power. It receives a large part of every region's income and redistributes it, often disproportionately so. Our autonomous regions, provinces, municipalities and barangays can only exercise powers and enact policies that the central government chooses to delegate to them.
Federalism is a type of government wherein sovereignty is constitutionally divided between the national government and subdivisional governments (such as states or provinces). Federalism divides the country into several autonomous states with a national government.
The autonomous states are even further divided into local government units. They will have the main responsibility over developing their local industries, public health and safety, education, transportation, and culture. These states have more power over their finances, policies, development plans, and laws.
The United States, Switzerland, Germany and Australia, Canada, India, Malaysia and Brazil are examples of countries with a federalist form of government.
In the past, the Philippines has had attempts at a reform towards federalism - during the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, she recommended federalism as one of the goals of the proposed charter change. However, the attempt failed because opposition from various sectors believes this reform was used to extend her term limit.
What are its advantages and why is it attractive to Filipinos?
Firstly, under a federalist form of government, states are empowered to make their own decisions. They no longer need to rely on the central government to decide for them. This is important to note in the Philippine context because of the vast geographical and cultural differences between regions - differences that the central government may not always be able to cater to.
Furthermore, states will be able to keep more of their income to themselves. They do not have to rely on collecting real estate tax and business permit fees - 80% of their total earned income stays, while only 20% goes back to the national government. This means that states are able to channel their own income for their own development, creating policies and programs suitable for them without having to wait for the national government to approve. Within the 80% budget that remains with these states, 30% will be funneled to the local state government, and 70% will be allocated to the provinces, cities, municipalities and barangays.
Because states are able to both make their own decisions and retain the income they have to fund these decisions, it's possible for federalism to promote specialization and competition. This affects both the national government and the states - since the national government turned certain administrative powers over to the regional governments, it can now funnel its resources more intensively towards the issues it is assigned to, such as foreign policy and nationwide defense. Likewise, the states are now better able to nurture their individual strengths and selling points because the people who have the decisions and funding are the people who are personally involved in the state's development.
These self-reliant states will compare their growth to the growth of surrounding states. Hopefully, this will lead to friendly competition between states that will help raise the quality of life and economic development for everybody involved.
Mayor Duterte presents federalism as a possible solution to the Mindanao conflict instead of implementing the Bangsamoro Basic Law. According to him, "nothing short can bring peace in Mindanao.". This is likely a reference to the numerous revisions the BBL has undergone, and the number of years it has stayed in Congress.
All in all, federalism is a hot topic among Filipinos because it is expected to accommodate regional preferences and diversity - a matter of great importance in a country with 7,107 islands and more than 40 different ethnic groups.
Geoffrey de Q. Walker, Emeritus Professor of Law at Queensland, believes that "by these means, overall satisfaction can me maximized and the winner-takes-all problem alleviated," especially in policies with divided opinions. if we allow people to make decisions with reference to their cultural and ethnical beliefs, as well as their economic and social backgrounds, we allow them to coexist with others and achieve solidarity as a whole.
What are its disadvantages?
Like all forms of government, federalism has its ugly side too. The first problem the Philippines would have to iron out would be the overlaps in jurisdiction. Unless responsibilities of state governments and national governments are very clearly stated in the amended Constitution, there will be ambiguities that can lead to conflict and confusion.
Next, there is always a chance that it will bring more division than unity. It can arise from more than just increased hostility between ethnic groups - competition between states can quickly become unhealthy, and can lead to the regionalism that is currently already challenging the unity of the country.
Moreover, development of the states might not even work at all. Some states may not be as gifted or as ready for autonomy as others. A major concern is that while some states may progress faster, the converse is also true because other states may devolve faster as well - even more so without a national government to back them up. However, in some federal countries, the national government provides funds to help underdeveloped states. A proposed Equalization Fund will use part of the tax from rich states for the funding of poorer states.
What would the Philippines look like under transition to a federal government?
Past proposals divided the Philippines into 10 or 11 autonomous states. Mayor Duterte envisions 14. Billions of pesos will have to be spent on setting up state governments and the delivery of state services. States will then have to spend for the elections of their own officials.
While the idea of federalism is attractive for most Filipinos, the possible benefits that are marketed by the idea will inevitably come at a cost, and will require extensive time and effort from both governments and citizens alike. If Mayor Duterte becomes president of the Philippines, he has to make sure the people are satisfied with the division of responsibilities that will be stated in the Amendment, and that the work towards building a federalist country will not alienate other states or leave them behind, the way they are being left behind right now.