THE SHIFT to federalism is now unlikely to move ahead within President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s term, but its significance as a continuing public issue remains, analysts sought for comment said.
The answer to the viability of federalism may also be gleaned from recent statements on this subject by two of the country’s top officials, one of them being Mr. Duterte himself.
Mr. Duterte used to warn about the urgency of transitioning toward federalism, saying the alternative is war. But there was none of that bleak forecast in his State of the Nation Address on July 23, when he still pitched his advocacy of federalism but this time merely saying in part that it was “a distinct honor and privilege to have received earlier from the Consultative Committee (Con-Com) that I created, the draft Federal Constitution that will truly embody the ideals and aspirations of all the Filipino people.”
“I am confident that the Filipino people will stand behind us as we introduce this new fundamental law that will not only strengthen our democratic institutions, but will also create an environment where every Filipino — regardless of social status, religion, or ideology — will have an equal opportunity to grow and create a future that he or she can proudly bequeath to the succeeding generations,” Mr. Duterte also said.
Mr. Duterte’s report to the nation followed on the heels of a rating update on July 20 by credit-watcher Moody’s Investor Services, which also flagged the Philippines’ shift to federalism as a potential “downside risk to the country’s institutional and fiscal profile.”
By this time too, federalism as a government agenda fared poorly in the surveys by both Pulse Asia and the Social Weather Stations, besides encountering resistance in the Senate.
The other top official on which the fate of federalism depends is former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was installed Speaker of the House of Representatives on the day of Mr. Duterte’s report to the Nation.
Soon after being elected House Speaker, Ms. Arroyo continued to pitch federalism and subsequently filed a resolution that deferred to the Senate on the matter of separate voting on charter change by the two chambers of Congress.
But in an exclusive interview with ABS-CBN last Thursday, Ms. Arroyo now said that “it (charter change) might not probably be completed in my remaining time in office, especially (since) there will still be a plebiscite.”
“I hope to move it forward as far as I can during my time as speaker,” Ms. Arroyo also said in that interview. “I hope those who follow after will pick up from where we left off in this Congress.”
Ms. Arroyo’s remarks follow in the wake of Mr. Duterte’s own economic managers flagging the costs of federalism, as well as statements by business groups reaffirming their concern over that agenda.
Finance Carlos G. Dominguez III, testifying on Aug. 8 at a national budget briefing by the Senate, said the draft federal constitution could lead to “irreversible economic consequences” such as a widened budget deficit, downgraded credit ratings, reduced funds for the administration’s Build, Build, Build program, and massive job cuts in the government sector.
Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto M. Pernia, who was also at that briefing, reaffirmed his earlier remarks last month about the economic cost of federalism, but was contradicted at the time by the Palace.
“It’s possible to change. But when? It’s not now. But…what is the best time to talk about federalism? It’s today. Because if you go around the country, nobody even knows exactly the basic technicalities of federalism,” University of Santo Tomas (UST) political science professor Marlon M. Villarin said in a phone interview last Friday when sought for comment.
In an e-mail reply to questions, Ateneo Policy Center research fellow Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco said: “It may not be moving along as planned, but they cannot just give up. Remember, federalism is a campaign promise of President Duterte.”
As of last Wednesday, Aug. 15, Mr. Duterte continued to pitch his advocacy, urging stalwarts of the ruling PDP–Laban to unite in “advancing federalism.” His spokesperson, Harry L. Roque, Jr. also said in a press briefing last week that the President is “exploring all options” in his federalism agenda.
“The way I look at it, what (Mr.) Duterte really meant is that within his term he wants the people to start talking about the possibility of shifting to federalism,” Mr. Villarin said. “Because if we will only understand how the Duterte administration takes the discourses pertaining to federalism, it seems that they keep on saying ‘I want this now.’ But the ‘now’ condition should not be literally understood. [He is saying that] we need to have a drastic change in our system now, but he just wants to open popular discourses.”
“We don’t take the statement of (Mr.) Duterte literally, but somehow we need to take it seriously,” he also said.
Also sought for comment, Consultative Committee (ConCom) Senior Technical and Media Officer Conrado I. Generoso said, “The process is going to happen within the term. You have to set up the foundations. You have to set up the minimum mechanisms for it to take place by 2022.”
Mr. Yusingco said: “It is not just the apprehensions expressed by our top economic officials. We are not ready for federalism because we really started seriously talking about this idea just last year. We are, in fact, in the thick of sifting through the nitty-gritty of this system of government. I think we need a couple more years to get a strong grip of what federalism truly means.”
Political science professor and ConCom member Edmund S. Tayao said in a phone interview when sought for comment, “If it’s a question of timing, what would be your indicators that it’s not [yet] time to change the form of government? Maybe you have indicators to suggest that some preparations are needed or some levels of development are needed before the shift of government to federalism.”
He added: “In fact, the more important consideration is why do you even have to change the form of government when you have already achieved some changes or some improvements in the way things are?”
But Mr. Tayao also said, “How can you expect entirely different results using the same setup?”
In a mobile message, Asian Institute of Management economics professor Emmanuel A. Leyco said: “I think the building storm against federalism coming from the business sector, the government’s own economic team and now an international credit rating agency should be enough for the President to rethink the shift to federalism.”
For Mr. Yusingco, the “challenge now for federalism proponents, including the Puno Consultative Committee, is to address the concerns raised by our country’s economic and finance managers.”
“They have to offer another path to federalization that will not bring our country to economic ruin,” he added.
For Mr. Tayao, the ConCom has already “done” its job, and “it’s now up to Congress or whichever body later that will be formed.”
Also sought for comment, ConCom Subcommittee on Economic Reforms chair Arthur N. Aguilar said in a phone interview that the fate of the federal constitution they drafted “will depend on the composition of the Senate next year,” after the midterm elections.
But the campaign to promote federalism throughout the country “will continue,” he said.
“But as far as ConCom is concerned, our job is done. We will still continue to clarify our views. We will have to participate in any effort that would improve our draft, in filling up the gaps and clearing up what is not clear,” Mr. Aguilar added.
Also sought for comment, social science assistant professor Marlon B. Lopez of the Mindanao State University-Tawi-Tawi College of Technology and Oceanography is hopeful that federalism “will push through, given the President’s popularity.”
“Yes, given his popularity among the masses, he has massive support. He also has enough support at the House of Representatives but I doubt at the Senate, which can be very critical of this move,” Mr. Lopez said in a phone interview.
“Although I doubt that the masses really understand the concept of federalism,” he also pointed out. “But, still, given his popularity, it will really move forward.”
He cited the people in Tawi-Tawi, for one, “are not yet aware of what federalism is.”
“The federalism literacy is not yet incorporated in the curriculum. The academe, as of now, is not yet moving towards federalism literacy….But whether it will push through, I believe it will really happen,” Mr. Lopez said.
He added, “What’s marketable here (in Tawi-Tawi) is not really the federalism itself, but the President. He is very vocal about federalism, and he is pushing for it. Hence, it will push through even though they do not understand what it is.”
Mr. Villarin, for his part, said: “Education is a key. When we speak of education, we don’t only speak of how the people should be knowledgeable about these changes in the system but rather it will also involve how we should include the major stakeholders in our country when it comes to shifting to federalism,…even the indigenous members of the society. Because we have to remember that any changes in the Constitution affect the political, economic and social culture of the people.”
On the concerns of the President’s economic team, ConCom member Mr. Tayao said: “It is the prevailing setup that you are going to change. So, how can you say that this is going to be detrimental when your basis is the prevailing setup? When you do economic analysis, you should be able to do prospective economic analysis…”
He added, “From the very start, we have been recognizing the importance of the economy and the fiscal part of federalism. It’s, in fact, the heart and soul of federalism that requires substantial studies. It’s not something that we had to guess. We really had to intensively study it and factor in so many different conditions… In the whole process, we were consulting the economic managers. Sadly, they barely responded. Let’s say for the sake of argument that the criticisms of the economic managers are well and sound, but it could have been averted if they at least assisted with all our requests with them….But that did not happen.”
It is Congress that will now determine the fate of federalism, with this agenda now in its hands.
Sought for comment last Saturday, House Majority Leader Rep. Rolando G. Andaya, Jr. pointed out, “The resolution calling for a voting of both houses be done separately is still in the period of debate.”
But he also said, “Together with the Senate stand and the initial PR stunt of Ms. (Mocha) Uson, (Communications assistant secretary), I think it is safe to conclude that House Speaker Gloria M. Arroyo’s sentiment will come to fruition.” — Arjay L. Balinbin, with Gillian M. Cortez and Charmaine A. Tadalan