“All politics is local,” so the saying goes. This may give the impression that only the distribution of local goods and services matter to the regular voter. However, the person this is attributed to, the late American Speaker of the House Thomas Philip “Tip” O’Neill, was animated by a larger world view — appealing to local concerns in order to advance a national economic policy agenda.
In the Philippines, this is coupled with the maxim of the pre-Martial Law Nacionalista Party leader Eulogio “Amang” Rodriguez: “politics is addition and not subtraction.” No President (or prospective President) ever reached Malacañang and stayed there without addressing local concerns — while harnessing them to a comprehensive national agenda.
Effective dialogue between local governments and the national state is vital for the pursuit of equitable development throughout the country. Indeed, a national polity with a healthy balance between national responsibility and local affinity relies on this than anything else.
In this, our history is also educative. While Jerrold Tarog’s recent film Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral, focused on the ill-fated Gregorio del Pilar, its background story also emphasizes the myriad failures of the Malolos Republic. Headlined by Emilio Aguinaldo and his largely Central Luzon-based government, it remained unable to unite sections of the nation against the American invasion.
This state of affairs continued to hound us even post-American Occupation and way into the Third Republic. Decisions that affected the entire archipelago were always determined by a Luzon-based government, only placating the desires and priorities of favored local elites.
It is perhaps because of this historical baggage that calls for decentralization (specifically devolution of powers) erupted as early as the 1986 Constitutional Convention. What became the 1987 Constitution was subject to tussling between the demands of local government officials for greater autonomy as well as the prerogative of the national government to rein in the excesses of these same local politicians.
While the Constitution ultimately retained a centralized government, it also expanded the role of local governments in delivering good governance. The content of the Constitution’s Article X delineated the role of local government units.
Their powers were further detailed through Republic Act No. 7160 or the Local Government Code of 1991. It was designed by its sponsor, then-Senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, Jr., as the basis for decentralizing governance away from Manila. It remains his basis for advocating for a federalized government to this day.
The failure of the post-EDSA presidencies to fully implement this catapulted Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency, among many other reasons. His rise also gave nationwide airing to the federalist idea — at least until it was heavily derailed by the ill-conceived campaigning of Malacañang supporters.
To assume pure decentralization and strengthening local autonomy as our panacea is an unsupported idea — despite fervent evangelizing by its partisans. Even just pursuing it as per the mandate of RA 7160 has been a massive challenge under the post-EDSA years.
A 1995 study by Perla Legaspi of the University of the Philippines, entitled “Decentralization, Autonomy and the Local Government Code” concedes that autonomy and participatory governance remain heavily uneven across differing LGUs. Uneven funding concerns and the all too human factor of local political leaders’ priorities (or neglect, in many cases) were pointed to as challenges. Even civil society engagement was seen as contentious, if not unwelcome outright. This year, a more recent study of the Local Development Council (LDC) structure in Bulacan by Yvan Ysmael Yonaha of UP-Los Baños, presented at the recent Philippine Studies Association Conference in Manila, corroborates this.
One gets a sense that while the intentions of decentralization policies were noble, they remained vulnerable to perversion by unchanged political realities on the ground. Philippine political science continues to document the continuing dominion of elite families and alliances in the Philippines.
For my part, I am conducting a closer study of the results of the 2016 elections in partnership with faculty of the Ateneo de Manila’s Mathematics Department. We have preliminary results showing that around 3 out of 5 governors and mayors elected last cycle were elected uncompetitively — that is to say, with a very high margin of victory against their competitors.
This in itself does not mean anything untoward. It does, however, suggest that local politics, precisely because of entrenched political families and alliances, renders communities under such conditions vulnerable not only to normalizing political patronage, but also of undue interference in civil service offices.
One should therefore assess the substance and credibility of the purported Bayanihan Federalism Draft Constitution on whether it accurately responds to the realities and challenges of local governance. Genuine, effective federalizing requires not only the enumeration and delineation of powers between national and local governments. It needs to foster genuine polyarchic, democratic conditions on the local level.
This can only be achieved by cultivating strong, accountable and independent local bureaucracies and political offices. More importantly, engendering genuine popular participation by community-based organizations (not mere “loyalty brigades”) is necessary.
Finally, even when decentralization occurs, we must concede that local politics will still find itself affected by national and international demands. Hence,central government needs to remain capable and authoritative enough to intervene in possible local abuses.
In this, however, the current Bayanihan charter is suspect. Despite repeatedly insisting that it seeks to develop a “federal” government, it has in fact removed and ignored the important role and reforms needed in the local government level.
The 1987 Constitution’s Article X has disappeared from the text, with no equivalent whatsoever. It seems for the federal charter, decentralization and grassroots empowerment stops at the regions — not at the lower local levels where service delivery and access to resources remains most contentious.
We should therefore asks now: was the federalism project under Duterte really about strengthening institutions and governance for the common Filipino, or did it simply use this claim as cover to give a really big carrot to political dynasties?
Hansley A. Juliano serves as a part-time lecturer to the Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University. He is also engaged in research and advocacy for various sectoral issues (such as labor rights and agrarian reform).