By Arjay L. Balinbin

DESPITE PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte’s pronouncement that he is no longer inclined to push for federalism, a representative of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) on Saturday said there is still “hope” for this campaign promise to be implemented in the remainder of the President’s term.

An analyst sought for comment opined that if the President is serious with his statement, this will be an opportunity for the newly-created Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) to grow as an institution and for both the MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to work hand in hand in Mindanao.

“It’s not a categorical [statement] that it’s a ‘no’ or there’s no hope,” MNLF legal counsel Randolph C. Parcasio told BusinessWorld in a phone interview on Saturday when sought for comment.

On Tuesday last week, Mr. Duterte said in his speech during the oath-taking of Hugpong ng Pagbabago-affiliated local officials at the Malacañang Palace: “If you do not want federalism, fine; but change the constitution that would change this nation.”

Former presidential special assistant and Senator-elect Christopher Lawrence T. Go said on June 10 that the President has already “accepted” that the shift to federalism may not happen within his term.

Mr. Parcasio said, “It’s not categorical because, obviously, there are [people with] vested interests who are opposed to federalism, and I think he foresees that as a standing block. That’s one. Another is definitely there is a need for more information campaign for the Filipino people to understand the need for a change in the Philippine basic law or fundamental law.”

Mr. Duterte and MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari agreed last March to create a panel composed of five MNLF members and five from the government to discuss the shift to federalism.

Whether the MNLF remains optimistic about this plan, Mr. Parcasio said: “In so far as what we have read and what we know about the conversations of Chairman Misuari as reflected in the media, [it] would point to the fact that the MNLF is hoping that within the President’s term, there will be a change in the system towards federalism.”

Asked for an update regarding the panel, he said: “I think they still have to convene.”

Sought for comment, Assistant Professor Dennis F. Quilala of the University of the Philippines-Diliman’s Department of Political Science said via chat on Saturday: “We need some time to see if the statement would translate into actual policies. We know that he says one thing and does another. What this means is that he might again change his mind when [Mr.] Misuari or the MNLF-Misuari faction would react negatively to that statement.”

If the President does not change his mind on the matter, Mr. Quilala said: “This might be good for the BARMM to mature as an institution. [They will have to] see if it would be the answer to the issues faced by Muslim Filipinos in Mindanao.”

He added, “It would also be an opportunity for the MILF and the MNLF to talk. Why talk to government directly if it seems that they have to sort things out among themselves first?”

Mr. Quilala also agreed that “there is much opposition” to the proposed shift to federalism.

“Surveys show that people do not understand it. Academics have been saying it is not a solution to our country’s problems and could not guarantee that it will solve our problems…. There are also a number of versions of federalism from within his own supporters,” he noted.

For his part, Marlon B. Lopez, a former Political History assistant professor at the Mindanao State University-Tawi-Tawi College of Technology and Oceanography, said: “Prof. Misuari should balance the current fragile situation. It’s a balancing act between Pres. Duterte and the MNLF leadership interests.”

He added, “Prof. Misuari should maintain the support coming from the President as this has bolstered his seemingly waning grip on the MNLF leadership. He should prove that he still has the ear of the President for the MNLF interests, even if federalism cannot be delivered so long as the MNLF can exercise considerable influence in the current MILF-dominated BARMM.”