End of the road for federalism?

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Romeo L. Bernardo-125


IN his third State of the Nation Address (SONA) in July, President Rodrigo Durterte urged Congress to work on his proposal to change the Constitution to enable the Philippines to shift from the current presidential to a federal form of government. Curiously as we observed in our brief, he did it less forcefully then what many had expected considering that federalism, along with the drug war and anti-corruption drive, had been an oft-repeated subject of his lengthy monologues. Today, a month after that speech, the drive for federalism seems to be waning.

What happened? To start with, there was never popular support for federalism, nor even awareness, of what the proposal was about. Then on the day of the SONA, the fiercest champion of federalism in Congress, the then speaker, was ousted and replaced with former President Gloria Arroyo who does not seem to share her predecessor’s enthusiasm for fast-tracking the proposal. Then, when asked, the President’s own economic team was critical of the proposal’s dire fiscal impact with the Finance Secretary telling members of the Senate that he would “absolutely” not vote for it. The economic team’s position was soon echoed by business and civil society in a rare joint statement issued by seven large business groups and 19 advocacy organizations. Too, the Supreme Court’s ruling granting local governments a larger stake in national taxes may have helped assuage some of the regional discontent with “Imperial Manila.”

And yet, the fuss over federalism is continuing with Malacañang now promoting voter education for public support. Is this another example of a strongman trying to get his way no matter what?

Those who charge the President with chiseling away at Philippine democratic institutions would readily agree, and perhaps they have grounds to believe so.

Nevertheless, there is another possibility that we find hard to refute. This view argues that for President Duterte, the federalism campaign is just a matter of keeping options open. The ultimate objective, per this line of reasoning, is effective succession planning, one that would allow him to escape Philippine democracy’s disturbing cycle of successive leaders sending their predecessors to jail. Indeed, many have observed that in the country’s post-democracy era, only President Corazon Aquino had managed her succession successfully.

If this is the case, then fate has favored him with an unequalled ally in the person of Speaker Arroyo. The former president, who had been under hospital arrest during most of her successor’s term, had tried to amend the Constitution through various means during her presidency ( though she preferred then a unitary parliamentary to a federal presidential system). From all indications, Speaker Arroyo remains committed to this vision. She has, however, only nine months remaining in her third and last congressional term and has dismissed the former speaker’s plan to cancel the 2019 mid-term elections (supposedly to give Congress time to work on federalism).

What will she do then? For one who considers politics the art of the possible, she would most likely have several cards under her sleeve and close to her chest. For now, she has put the onus of setting the President’s proposal aside on the Senate, which has refused to participate in a constituent assembly, the President’s preferred avenue for changing the Constitution. Meanwhile, she has busied herself tending to matters that the President has no appetite for, i.e., the economy, and possibly filling a vacuum in leadership. The months ahead will reveal how the stars will align for the two most powerful people in the country.

In the meantime, the success of the President’s daughter (the mayor of Davao City) in forming a formidable alliance between her regional party (Hugpong Ng Pagbabago or HNP) and nine other national and local parties has opened up another path that may allow the President to retire in peace to his hometown at the end of his term. Of course, he still has four years to go in his term and in Philippine politics, that is light years away.”


Romeo L. Bernardo was Finance Undersecretary during the Cory Aquino and Ramos administrations. He is a fellow of the Foundation for Economic Freedom and a Governor of the Management Association of the Philippines.