By May Zuleika Salao and Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco

APOLINARIO MABINI believed that federalism, “besides being the most perfect among the republican forms, is best suited to the topography of our country.” Clearly, this is an endorsement of federalization that must not to be ignored.

However, a caveat not be ignored as well was raised by Raphael N. Montes in Understanding Federalism, “Designing a federal system is not a very easy task. Besides its basic principles, federalism is very customizable. The peculiarities of a country would define the different features of its own brand of federalism.”

Hence, a federal structure of government may be a good fit for the country but defining the nitty-gritty of the federal framework will be very difficult. In the words of President Rodrigo Duterte himself, this endeavor would entail “long, very contentious discussions.”

Indeed, whether the federal structure will be presidential, semi-presidential or parliamentary, bicameral or unicameral, is up for debate.

But there are three fundamental features of a federal framework which are indispensable.

These are: 1) a streamlined allocation of responsibilities between the central and state governments; 2) a state government structure that reflects a collective approach to governance; and, 3) mechanisms that foster cooperation and collaboration among the state governments in addressing national concerns.

First, the assignment of responsibilities between the federal and state governments must be clear and coherent. The distribution scheme must be formulated in such a way that the designation of accountability is unequivocal.

This prescription is very critical because the correct allocation of tax powers and other revenue-raising measures between the two levels of government hinges on it. It will also influence how the scope of federal legislative power is delineated.

Second, the current sub-national government apparatus must be replaced because it has entrenched the patronage relationship between the local executive and his constituency. An effective countermeasure against this culture of patronage in local politics is to integrate a sense of community at the state level government. Hence, the structure itself must be configured to facilitate a collective governance mind-set.

Third, mechanisms must be established to foster cooperation and collaboration among the constituent state governments in addressing national concerns. One solid truth about federalism is that it does not diminish the integrity of the nation-state. Indeed, federation is not just about the devolution of political and fiscal powers to the sub-national level, but it is also about institutionalizing coordinated efforts towards national development.

Harkening to President Duterte’s point on the gravity of transitioning to a federal system, these normative considerations surely demand discernment as to how far their requisite conditions fly in the face of current political economy realities.

Not long after the Local Government Code (LGC) was put into effect, legislators began backtracking on implementing decentralization policies they themselves have vigorously supported. Why? Local economies so weak to assert themselves vis-à-vis the central make for tenuous central-local relations. Hence, the culture of dependence on Imperial Manila pervading within the local leadership.

In this condition of dependence, political advantages may be secured by the central. Such are the ways of those politicians in the legislature, for example, who through the years have erected barriers to expanding powers to unwieldy local officials, that is, those outside their family sphere of influence. How many times have the supposed devolution of authority to local governments over expenditures and revenues been interpreted and re-interpreted? Today, 26 years after enacting the LGC, centralization of fiscal powers remains a gnawing problem as if there had been no decentralization at all.

In addition to dependence and political culture contributory to centralizing power, an economy that fails to open-up resources to secure well-being for the many cannot be relegated as an afterthought.

In these ruminations about going federal, improving levels of education and skills, health, employment, public services — these are basic aspirations that beg for significant citizen involvement in politics. And, precisely, the LGC structure has institutionalized people participation through its Local Development Council (LDC).

But studies have yet to show a clear link between decentralization, participation, and pro-poor policy outcomes.

Instead, they underscore the difference that these three factors make: first, accountability mechanisms as promoted by widespread dissemination of information to the whole constituency, second, service leadership; and third, a level of economic development so that given the two other factors, first-class cities are the most conducive to decentralization and people participation leading to pro-poor policy outcomes.

Now, the flipside of installing these LDCs without any of these three factors increases the probability of civil society-capture by government. May a federal framework put a stop to this?

How about changing power resources? It is a puzzle that decentralization through the LGC was formally instituted at all.

Decades ago as in today, a political system of feeble political parties feeds off a highly particularistic incentive structure for ensuring electoral victory. This simply means that personal appeal, dole-outs, handing-out favors and others constituting patronage politics reinforce centralization of power. Thus, even when federalized, it would hardly make a difference.

The country might just find itself among those making sense of their centralized federalism, where power and wealth concentrate at the very pointed peak of the social pyramid at both national and sub-national spheres.

Yet, as in decades ago, a political accident may repeat itself today. Power resources emanating from the executive may succeed in pushing for changing government structure amid persistence of political culture. If so, then up to what extent can structural framework take hold of cultural substance? Let not the past serve as an indication?

After that moment when a federal framework becomes legally installed, substantive conditions that may make it viable need to be there. This is when the sobering reality of historic challenges hardened by time will hit the ground.

Thus, begging the question, are we really ready for this severe disruption? Indeed, are we prepared to make the federalism shift next year? Or should we heed the advice of the President and have more “long and contentious” discussions about this envisioned historic reform?


May Zuleika Salao is an assistant professor, School of Law and Governance, at the University of Asia and the Pacific. She is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Global South Studies Center, University of Cologne.

Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a lecturer at the Institute of Law of the University of Asia and the Pacific and nonresident Research Fellow at the Ateneo School of Government.