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Federal but not in name

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By Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco

ONE of the very first matters discussed by the 1986 Constitutional Commission was the form of government well-suited for Filipinos after two decades of authoritarian rule. A query by the sublime constitutionalist, Fr. Joaquin G. Bernas, SJ, is particularly relevant to us now, to wit:

“Should we continue a system where practically all governmental power must come from the central government, from Manila? Must we continue the overdominance of Manila over the rest of the country?” [Record of the Constitutional Commission, Volume 1, June 3, 1986, p. 25]

President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s answer to this question was to shepherd the transition of the country to a federal system of government. But the President seemed to have lost the resolve to push this agenda during his term, conceding that presently, there really is no palpable public support for federalism.

And of course, there is that deep distrust with a Congress dominated by political dynasties. Resolution of Both Houses No. 15 hastily passed under the leadership of Speaker Gloria Arroyo is clear evidence that dynastic lawmakers will exploit charter change to further entrench themselves in power.

So, if changing the 1987 Constitution cannot be the answer to Fr. Bernas’ question, is there still hope to break the “overdominance of Manila over the rest of the country”? Is there an alternative path to further decentralizing government? The answer is legislative reform.




Local autonomy is a mandatory prescription of the 1987 Constitution. As per the framers, local autonomy under the charter means “a kind of maximum decentralization, short of federalization.”

This description of how local autonomy is to be understood in the 1987 Constitution denotes that our decentralization framework can approximate a federal set-up. In fact, Article X has provisions that actually exhibit features of a federal system, giving support to the observation by federalism scholars that we already have a quasi-federal set-up under the current charter.

Furthermore, the constitutional parameters mandating for a local government code (Article X, Section 3) allow for the creation of a decentralization framework that could actually function like a federal system, to wit:

“The Congress shall enact a local government code which shall provide for a more responsive and accountable local government structure instituted through a system of decentralization with effective mechanisms of recall, initiative, and referendum, allocate among the different local government units their powers, responsibilities, and resources, and provide for the qualifications, election, appointment and removal, term, salaries, powers and functions and duties of local officials, and all other matters relating to the organization and operation of the local units.”

However, amending the Local Government Code of 1991, the Administrative Code and possibly other special laws would clearly be tedious work for our lawmakers. A more viable, albeit audacious, option is to just enact a new Local Autonomy Law to supplant the current decentralization apparatus.

This new law can approximate a federal set-up by incorporating these three features in the new decentralization system:

1. Regional governance framework.

2. Clear power sharing between the local government and the national government as well as amongst the different levels of local governments.

3. Intergovernmental Relations (IGR) mechanisms.

Notably, this new omnibus local autonomy legislation does not have to be created from scratch. Indeed, the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) can be a good starting point. For reference, these specific provisions of the BOL can be used as benchmarks:

1. Article VII on the Bangsamoro Government for the regional governance framework. For example, the new law can create a Regional Development Authority comprised of all provincial governors in the region. This body shall be exclusively and primarily responsible for development planning for the region with national government agencies having only support roles.

2. Article V on the Powers of Government for the clear allocation of powers between the different levels of government. The point to remember here is that the division of functions must be formulated in such a way that the assignment of accountability is unequivocal.

3. Article VI on Intergovernmental Relations, specifically the creation of an Intergovernmental Fiscal Board to govern an enhanced fiscal decentralization arrangement.

However, precisely because of this substantial devolution of public functions and funds, it is imperative that the new law must have measures to ensure the sustained and significant involvement of the people in local governance. Therefore, it is critical that civil society organizations must have mandatory participation in the regional governance body and in all IGR platforms. Keeping in mind, of course, that the genuine engagement of the community in subnational-level governance is crucial to the success of the new local autonomy regime itself.

Many Filipinos today are utterly exasperated at the fact that despite the mandatory prescription of local autonomy in the 1987 Constitution, the national government still has an omnipresent role in the management of state affairs. This anomaly must be addressed by Congress now even if the administration decides to postpone charter change.

But enacting a brand-new local autonomy law that would approximate a federal structure is but one proposal to address Fr. Bernas’ plea made in 1986. Correspondingly, our lawmakers must make overhauling the current decentralization framework a top priority this year so that other suggestions can be properly heard.

For the 18th Congress to doggedly pursue this particular legislative reform will not only appease the 16 million Duterte voters, but also an entire nation growing ever more impatient with its over centralized government.

And if in the next two and half years our lawmakers do nothing to change the status quo, then we have no choice but to elect more dynasty slayers in Congress 2022. We need lawmakers who will not be afraid to dismantle Imperial Manila.

 

Michael Henry LI. Yusingco, LL.M is a non-resident research fellow at the Ateneo Policy Center of the Ateneo School of Government.

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