Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes police in Metro Manila on February 6, 2018. Reuters/Romeo Ranoco
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes police in Metro Manila on February 6, 2018. Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

The very first insight that struck me as a participant in the 2018 Eurac Winter School on Federalism and Governance at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, came from the first lecturer, Professor Francesco Palermo. He said the search for a finite definition of federalism is in vain because the reality is that federal systems across the world are not alike.

This was a refreshing point of view, because the federalism discourse in the Philippines centers primarily on advocates explaining the meaning of holding-together federalism and coming-together federalism, cooperative federalism and competitive federalism, and so forth.

The working theme of the school was “Federalism in the Making.” The course seemed tailor-made for the Philippines, as it is now undertaking a federalism project with three competing groups (Senate, House of Representatives and the Rodrigo Duterte administration’s consultative committee on constitutional reform) vying to come up with a draft federal constitution.

Through the generous support of the Hanns Seidel Foundation’s Philippine Office, for two weeks I had the privilege of interacting with fellow federalism scholars from various federalized countries and delve deep into the intricacies of federal systems.

Grant is a provincial-level civil servant from South Africa. From him I learned that federalism is greatly valued in his country, but it is still challenged by how to determine accountability among the different spheres of government for the failure to deliver key public services.

Bkele and Adem, both public intellectuals from Ethiopia, shared that federalism might have prevented the fragmentation of their nation-state, but it had not completely facilitated social cohesion in the face of sharp ethnic diversity. Nor has it delivered on the promise of economic prosperity, as Ethiopia currently ranks 174th in the United Nations Human Development Index, indicating low human development.

Russian academics Ylena and Katya intimated in various sessions that because of their country’s sheer size, federalism was almost inevitable. But they are both wary of the trend toward centralization being directed by their autocratic president, Vladimir Putin.

Perilously pedantic

Long and thoughtful discussions with these people confirmed what Professor Palermo concluded about the variety in federal designs. Only thoroughly analyzing the differences between systems as well as the nuances of a particular federal structure can lead to the federal design truly appropriate for Filipinos. Sadly, talking with my fellow participants also showed me that the federalism discourse in the Philippines is perilously becoming pedantic.

Furthermore, learning from the different experiences of nations under a federal system affirmed the notion that designing a federal structure as well as plotting the transition process will be a huge challenge for the Philippines. The capabilities of political stakeholders (that is, local politicians), bureaucratic costs, and the readiness of local communities are just a few matters that need to be seriously considered in establishing a federal system.

But I have also learned that the fundamental requirement to be able push through with a federalism initiative is strong collective action. The active participation of the people is an indispensable component in establishing a federal setup.

Indeed, according to Professor Cheryl Saunders, a noted federalism expert and constitutional scholar from the Melbourne Law School, whatever the final federal design is, there should be among the people both a shared understanding of what has been created and a shared commitment to making the new system work. Otherwise, federalization may not produce the desired outcomes.

The challenge of bringing all these lessons to the Philippine context is truly sobering. In fact, I am still unsure if there is really solid community support behind the proposal to shift to a federal structure.

The argument that the 16 million votes garnered by President Duterte is enough proof that Filipinos want federalism is unconvincing. Clearly, not all of those who voted for him are federalism fans. Similarly, not all of those who did not vote for him, and they number about 44 million, are against federalization.

More public discussion needed

Pertinently, both pro- and anti-federalism groups have held rallies but with only a few thousands in attendance respectively. Hence neither side can claim it represents the prevailing community sentiment. But the absence of any clear indication that most, if not all, Filipinos are fully behind federalism only means that more public discussion is needed.

Notably, there is no disagreement that the fundamental problem of the Philippines is the over-concentration of power in the central government. And both sides of the federalism debate agree that the only way to break its domination is to establish a robust decentralized governance framework.

However, personal attacks and political bickering by and among the two sides hinder Filipinos from acquiring a better understanding of how the common goal of decentralizing governance relates to the federalism initiative. Indeed, only a thoughtful and participatory discourse will bring the people to a level of consciousness where they can properly decide whether to proceed with this drastic change or not.

To conclude, designing the specifics of a multi-layer government structure is extremely challenging. But the federalism debate must not just revolve around theories and concepts. Obviously, knowing these matters is key, but for the discourse to have more depth and relevance, these theories and concepts must be seen in the context of governance reform.

Decentralization crucial

Filipinos must treat the federalism initiative as the way to improve the current political system. The objective is not just to change the structure of government but to make sure the new one will finally meet their demands. Therefore, any attempt at retaining the same centralized framework in the new federal constitution must be rejected.

Most important, as the principal actors in the constitutional reform process, Filipinos must be ready to participate actively in the hearings and consultations to be initiated by the Duterte consultative committee and Congress as part of the federalism initiative.

Former Senate president Nene Pimentel, widely considered as the prime mover of the federalism advocacy, encapsulates how Filipinos should be treating this major reform undertaking.

In his remarks during the launch of a book published by the Ateneo School of Government, Debate on Federal Philippines: A Citizen’s Handbook, he warned: “The proposal for a federal system is not set in stone. Whether we [adopt] the federal system or not, it is up to the people to decide. That is why we need forums and discussions to engage the public. We should not leave it in the hands of lawmakers.”

Here the grand old statesman was not belittling the capabilities of the political elites to lead the constitutional reform process. He was simply reminding Filipinos who should be the real driving force pushing this watershed reform initiative.

Michael Henry Yusingco

Michael Henry Yusingco is a legislative and policy consultant, author of Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective, lecturer at the School of Law and Governance of the University of Asia and the Pacific and a non-resident research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government in Manila. He is also a regular contributor in various public affairs and media outlets in the Philippines and Australia.