Pitching federalism: more local power over funding

Choices. In last Friday’s Understanding Choices Forum hosted by the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc., participants heard about how federalism would affect the private sector. (SunStar Foto/Arni Aclao)

UNDER a federal-presidential system of government, the Philippines would have a president and vice president from the same political party elected in tandem nationwide for a four-year term with one reelection, political dynasties and turncoatism would be prohibited, and the regions would have more power over the purse.

These are among the provisions of the federalism model that Vicente Homer Revil, consultant of the Department of the Interior and Local Government’s Center for Federalism and Constitutional Reform, presented in last Friday’s “Perspectives on Federalism” forum in the Eduardo Aboitiz Development Studies Center. The proposal will be submitted to President Rodrigo Duterte next month.

A lawyer and former Masbate governor, Revil said federalism would accelerate economic development in the regions and solve the country’s poverty problem.

More study needed

Other quarters disagreed, however, and called for more study of the issue.

Revil contrasted federalism with the present “unitary presidential system” where he said all policies and decisions emanated from an all-powerful national government that controlled public spending allocations to the regions, and centralized expenditures and revenues despite the Local Government Code of 1991 devolving these to the local government units (LGU).

He cited the distribution of public expenditures in 2016, where the National Government accounted for 72 percent of the General Appropriations Act, compared to only 18 percent for the LGUs and 10 percent for the government-owned and –controlled corporations.

Revil said the political party system would be reformed so that “government will now put money in political parties, so we can also audit them.”

Senators would be elected by federated region, at two senators per region, rather than nationwide; and 40 percent of the members of the House of Representatives would now be elected by “proportional representation and not by party-list system.”

At present, 20 percent of the congressmen should be party-list.

‘Political butterflies’

“But our party-list system now is flawed because the maximum is only three (seats per party regardless of how much more of the vote it got compared to the others),” he said.

To prevent political dynasties, there would be a ban against relatives of incumbents up to the second degree of affinity or consanguinity.

And to strengthen political parties, elected officials would not be allowed to change parties during their term. Political parties that accepted “political butterflies” would have their registration revoked.

Other proposed Constitutional provisions were for the Commission on Human Rights to be elevated to the level of a constitutional commission, and for economic reforms to break cartels and oligopolies.

Revil said land would still be “100 percent Filipino owned,” and each level of government would be vested with “sufficient revenue powers” to enable them to fund their responsibilities.

He said this was a better option than just devolving power under the unitary system because decentralization “is granted by the national government through legislation or executive action and therefore can be taken back by that authority unilaterally at any time.”

“In contrast, federalism guarantees the regions and local governments their powers through the constitution,” he said.

Blaming the unitary system for the imbalances in economic development that he said had fueled the nearly five-decade-long Communist insurgency and the Moro secessionist movement, he called federalism “the solution to the age-old problems of poverty, inequality and instability.”

Other sectors were not convinced.

Grace Magalzo-Bualat, chairperson of the political science department of University of San Carlos, a co-organizer of the forum, said not all countries with a federal system of government are rich.

She listed Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan as examples.

She added that if the Philippines were to adopt the federal system, it would be only the 27th country to do so, as nations with federal systems are “a minority among the 196 in the world.”

Bualat questioned the need for, or the haste in seeking, charter change when the Local Government Code provides for a mandatory review of the code every five years.

Despite this provision, Republic Act 7160 has never been amended to remedy its weaknesses, she said.

She also questioned whether the 18 federated regions proposed had the income to establish their own state (regional) governments considering that poverty and inequality were supposed to be prevalent.

More local permits?

As for the anti-turncoatism provision, she asked, “Is it because the administration wants to take advantage that most (politicians) are already with the PDP-Laban (the ruling political party), and they don’t want these to transfer?”

Bualat also said the Philippine system was actually “semi-unitary” because of the devolution of governance under RA 7160.

Glenn Anthony Soco, immediate past president of the Mandaue Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the chamber was “open to the proposal of federalism” but was concerned about its taxation provisions, which would affect the cost of doing business.

On the ease of doing business, he said his own experience was that “30 to 50 percent of permits in our business have to be done in Manila. Would federalism address that?”

Revil said the taxing powers of the national and local governments would not change.

Soco also cited political dynasties as a concern.

“What if federal leaders become powerful enough that they can just shut down a business if they want to?” Soco asked. “Why not create legislation where business would really be protected? We’re dependent on mayors for business permits regardless of whether we have a violation or not.”

Soco, who is the Regional Development Council’s (RDC) infrastructure development committee head, said former governor Joey Lina, speaking on the importance of the RDCs, had opined that there was no need to shift to federalism as the RDC was already the highest policy making body of the region.

Caucus of Development NGO Networks (Code-NGO) program advocacy officer Mariefe del Mundo said there was “no need to rush to change the Constitution,” and suggested using the full term of Duterte to study the issue.

‘An informed conscience’

She called for an “asymmetric approach” where regional states would not enter into a federal setup all at the same time, but only after each had completed agricultural land redistribution under the agrarian reform program and other asset reform programs, and the institutionalization of basic good governance systems in local governments; and obtained the assent of majority of residents in the area.

She said Code-NGO opposed the hasty mode by which Congress was pushing Charter change by convening incumbent legislators into a Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass), which lacks transparency and people’s participation and would only “extend the term of incumbent legislators.”

Del Mundo also raised concern about proposals to give oversight powers to the President over all branches of government, including constitutional bodies, “practically institutionalizing authoritarian rule.”

Bualat said a Constitutional Convention was preferable to Con-Ass, since the current Super Majority in Congress would defeat checks and balances, and a yes vote would simply be based on patronage and not be “a product of an informed conscience.”


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