Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) distributes goods to residents affected by armed conflict, during a visit to Isabela town, Basilan province, on southern island of Mindanao. Photo: AFP/Rey Baniquet
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) distributes goods to residents affected by armed conflict, during a visit to Isabela town, Basilan province, on southern island of Mindanao. Photo: AFP/Rey Baniquet

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte marked the beginning of his third year in office by signing the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), an autonomy-devolving deal with Muslim rebels that aims to bring peace to the southern island of Mindanao from where he hails.

Duterte is expected to spend the next year pushing for what he hopes will be his overarching legacy: constitutional change that paves the way for federalism across the archipelagic nation.

The grand plan aims to change the Philippines from its current unitary to a federal government structure, akin to the United States, Malaysia and Australia.

While three pathways for the transition are up for debate, the eventual outcome aims to empower local governments to increase productivity and close the wide wealth gap between regions through decentralization measures.

In that direction, Duterte’s government has touted the creation of 16 regional governments and two asymmetrical regions in Bangsamoro and Cordillera, both of which will be afforded special powers to address each conflict-ridden regions’ specific needs.

Federalism was a major plank of Duterte’s 2016 election campaign, where he often repeated his belief that devolving power is the best way to achieve lasting peace in Mindanao, a region wracked by decades of civil war and a new rising trend of Islamic extremism.

Then presidential aspirant Rodrigo Duterte stands in front of a campaign poster on November 30, 2015. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

A former mayor of Mindanao’s Davao City, Duterte played up his “outsider” credentials while campaigning in cities outside of Manila, often lamenting how much funding and infrastructure development the capital region receives compared to elsewhere in the archipelago.

To be sure, Duterte’s push for autonomy-devolving federalism does not solely explain his still strong popularity among voters, many of whom appreciate his tough anti-crime policies and plainspoken manner. But it’s increasingly clear he sees the move to federalism as central to defining his legacy.

“During the [election] campaign, federalism was popular since it was sold as keeping peace in Mindanao and promoting the regions,” says Gene Lacza Pilapil, a political scientist who researches federalism at the University of the Philippines.

“The most important thing is the mode: it was to be through a constitutional convention with delegates elected and was seen as radical democratic change.”

In January, however, Duterte directly appointed 22 members to the Constitutional Committee (ConCom), snuffing out certain hopes of the project’s democratizing potential.

The promise of elected representatives had helped assuage fears that any resultant draft would be highly political and pander to the vested interests of lawmakers. Still, with a diverse range of community leaders, academics and legal experts on the appointed ConCom, the group has reminded that voters will have the ultimate say at the ballot box.

“We are not the ones to write the constitution that will be voted upon by the people. We are only consultants to Congress that will sit as a Constituent Assembly,” Ranhilio Aquino, dean of the San Beda Graduate School of Law and an appointee to the committee.

A Filipino family inside their house at an informal settler area in Davao City, on the southern island of Mindanao. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe 

Federalism’s advocates aver that it’s the only way to solve many of the country’s uniquely entrenched problems. In natural disaster-prone areas, for instance, federalism is touted as a potential solution to the perennial problem of delayed emergency fund disbursals from Manila.

Former budget secretary and now Duterte ally Camarines Sur Representative Rolando Andaya Jr says emergency response and rebuilding after natural disasters would be much faster under federalism.

He says that under the current system of seeking approval for fund disbursals from Manila delays response time and strips local agencies of authority.

Such advocacy still has little legal grounding in any of the proposed draft constitutions, all of which remain vague on how funding for the states would work in practice. Nor is it immediately clear how federalism would promote poverty alleviation, another favored point of pro-federalists.

The concentration of economic power in Manila is a widely acknowledged problem. But experts on the issue doubt allowing states to engineer their own programs would necessarily make a meaningful difference.

In a recent opinion piece in local media site Rappler, JC Punongbayan, a doctoral student of development at the University of the Philippines, argued that federalism will not necessarily act as an incentive to increase productivity in poorer regions.

The poorer regions, especially the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and Eastern Visayas, do not have the capacity to attract investment or increase taxation on the already poor population and would likely remain reliant on funding from Manila even under a federal structure, he wrote.

Federalism may or may not help to redistribute wealth in the Philippines. Photo: iStock

He also argued the devolution of economic power from the center to the periphery would erode centralized corruption oversight. Other analysts note in comparison that neighboring Indonesia’s decentralization drive merely transplanted central level corruption with more local level graft.

It’s a concern held by Filipino voters. Polling shows federalism, or indeed any move to amend the 1987 Constitution, is unpopular among the populace. When then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo first floated federalism in 2009, a Pulse Asia poll showed 42% of Filipinos were opposed, while just a third were in favor with the remainder undecided.

Nearly a decade later, the same polling agency recently showed that 62% of Filipinos are against any move to federalism in the immediate future. Asia Pulse’s analysis of the poll results suggested that voters are circumspect of the true political motives behind the hard push for federalism.

Arroyo was accused of advocating federalism to extend her own term limit – a charge Duterte now faces. Under the current charter, presidents are limited to one six-year term, a legal guard against the abuses and excesses of the previous Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship.

In early July, Duterte told reporters he would not seek to overturn the current one-term limit in a new federal constitution. Yet of the three federalism proposals now on the table, only one bars a president serving beyond a single term. For his part, Duterte has repeatedly said that he will stand down after a plebiscite on constitutional change is held next year.

“It’s a bluff,” Pilpapil says, echoing many of the president’s critics who believe he aims to maintain power beyond his 2022 term limit. He predicts that Duterte, 73, is maneuvering to be president in the interim period between constitutions only to be re-elected in 2022 with an effective clean slate.

“The new constitution will give the president extra powers. If he is not barred by the constitution, it will give him a dramatic head start on campaigning,” Pilapil adds.

Then presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte raises a clenched fist during his campaign sortie in Lingayen, Pangasinan, north of Manila. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

It’s not just Duterte who voters believe are touting charter change and federalism as a means of consolidating their power. Incumbent congressional members also stand to gain personally from a shift to a federalized system.

A provision floated by the ConCom to bar the children, grandparents, grandchildren and in-laws of incumbent lawmakers from holding public office – a key measure for breaking the political hold of dynastic families on local politics – is unlikely to be included in any final constitution, analysts say.

Duterte, the patriarch of a family dynasty that still rules Davao through his daughter Sara, has called the anti-dynasty provision as “anti-democratic.” With 75% of all congressional offices in the country linked to political dynasties, moves to dilute family power will likely be stymied in Congress.

Indeed, the fight is already on. ConCom chairman Reynato Puno recently threatened to withdraw his support for federalism if the anti-dynasty provision in the proposed constitution is dumped.

“If the constituent assembly will pass this kind of constitution without the provision on political dynasty, the public can always reject the constitution – that’s the sovereignty of the people,” he said.

Those are no doubt fighting words to Duterte, who wants a shift to autonomy-devolving federalism to define his legacy. But if recent polls are an accurate indication of the popular will, he faces an uphill battle in convincing the nation that a move to federalism is chiefly in the people’s and not his and his allies’ interests.