By Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco

WHEN Spanish explorers landed here centuries ago they had initially observed that the aboriginal people of these islands were of one ethnic stock. Later on however, they would realize that despite the apparent homogeneity in the population, the native inhabitants were actually divided into sub-ethnic groups with each having their own language, traditions, and rituals.

Interestingly, such diversity still exists in the Philippines today. Different indigenous identities are still evident among Filipinos despite other peoples’ view that as a people we have become too Hispanized, Americanized, or Westernized. The reality is centuries of colonization, the onslaught of globalization, and even the internet have all failed to homogenize Filipino identity.

The Duterte administration’s push to shift to a federal form of government has cast a different light on these differences. Specifically, parties who are opposed to undertaking this fundamental reform have persistently warned against the possibility of the Philippine polity fragmenting along ethnic, religious, and even economic divides under a federal setup.

According to former Supreme Court Justice, Vicente V. Mendoza, federalism will “magnify or encourage regional differences.” Consequently, constituent states of the proposed federal republic “may become so focused on local development and security that they neglect national concerns and issues.”

Furthermore, Atty. Christian Monsod, a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission, warns that federalization may not lead “to unifying communities, but to their unravelling.” Seemingly hinting here of a situation where political subdivisions of the state compete against each other for rapid economic gains. Potentially creating more disparity amongst cities, between urban centers and rural areas and between Imperial Manila and the regions.

Certainly, these are caveats that cannot be ignored.

But while it can be argued that federalization, national unity, and the recognition of diversity within the state are not inherently mutually exclusive realities, mechanisms that directly address the concerns raised by these legal scholars must nevertheless be self-evident in the federal constitution itself.

In this regard, the United Nations Human Development report for 2004 entitled “Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World” is helpful, specifically:

“The solution could be to create institutions and polices that allow for both self-rule that creates a sense of belonging and a pride in one’s ethnic group and for shared rule that creates attachment to a set of common institutions and symbols. An alternative to the nation state, then, is the “state nation,” where various “nations” — be they ethnic, religious, linguistic, or indigenous identities — can coexist peacefully and cooperatively in a single state polity.”

The institutional marriage of “self-rule” and “shared-rule” is an integral feature of federalism. Therefore, a federal structure can accommodate both the need for national cohesion and the duty to respect diversity within the polity. However, for this to eventuate the new federal constitution must establish a governance framework that foster cooperation and collaboration among the subnational governments representing these diverse communities, particularly in addressing national concerns.

For example, the governing body of the current National Economic and Development Authority could be reorganized to be comprised of representatives from each constituent state. However, for this office to effectively function as the national congregation of the various communities in the country, it should not be a mere advisory council. It should be designed to have substantive policy-making functions as well.

Additionally, the League of Provinces organized by the Local Government Code (see Sections 502-504) can be redesigned to have the same function as the Council of Australian Governments (CoAG) or Canada’s Council of the Federation (CoF).

The role of CoAG is to promote policy reforms that are of national significance or those which need coordinated action by all state and territory governments of the Australian federation. On the other hand, the CoF is a national platform to sustain meaningful relations between subnational governments based on recognition of the diversity within the federation and to enable the leaders of these governments (Premiers) to work collaboratively to strengthen the Canadian federation.

Similarly, a regular summit convening all the Panlalawigang Pederasyon ng mga Sangguniang Kabataan organized by Section 21 (3) of the Sangguniang Kabataan Reform Act of 2015 can be mandated.

The purpose of this forum will be to give Filipino youths from all over the country the opportunity to address national leaders from all three branches of government. This reform measure is particularly vital because young Filipinos comprise a significant segment of the Philippine electorate.

And as clearly demonstrated in the recent presidential election, getting them actively involved in politics is no longer a problem. This is just one way of harnessing their energy and enthusiasm and hopefully prevent them from ever feeling disenfranchised and disillusioned.

The fact is the shift to a federal structure of government should be conceived as merely a feature of a broader political reform undertaking. Revising the constitution is in a sense a reset button because it is an opportunity to address pathologies in the current political system such as the domination of dynastic families in the electoral process or the substandard political party system that allows these traditional political elites to skew elections in their favor.

Therefore, the new charter should contain a whole set of reform measures. The ones suggested here are specifically aimed to facilitate national solidarity and to ensure a more inclusive economic regime. These institutions are designed to make national development planning in the federal context more consistent and responsive to the sociocultural reality in the country. The notion of “unity in diversity” lies at the very core of the federalism movement after all.

The offices proposed here are specially intended for issues that require a cohesive nationwide effort. Their primary goal is to ensure that important national policies are formulated through a deliberative process whereby the views and insights of the regions are duly considered.

Because more than anything else, the federation of the Philippines should be about all Filipinos further internalizing a shared responsibility for shaping the future of the whole country. Indeed, for federalism to succeed here, “Para sa Bayan!” must become the national ethos.

Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a lecturer at the Institute of Law of the University of Asia and the Pacific and nonresident Research Fellow at the Ateneo School of Government.