The historical basis of federalism

If the extent of the drug problem—which now turns out to have existed for the past many years—caught most of us by surprise, there are a number of revelations culled from Philippine history about federalism that could astonish us even more.

Since President Rodrigo R. Duterte started talking about federalism,  using it as a campaign platform and reiterating it in his first State of the Nation Address, people have begun asking what federalism is, anyway. Without so much as giving it enough study, some have condemned it outright as an alien concept not suited to the Philippine setting. But what federalism’s detractors may not know is that even before the president started saying that there is a need to shift our form of government to federalism, history reveals that federalism has long been desired by our forebears and that many regions and provinces have been clamoring for it for years now. 

Last week, for instance, when I was invited to speak on the subject of federalism along with Lito Lorenzana, the president of the Centrist Democracy Political Institute, in Puerto Princesa, I thought we would try to explain federalism as a concept to get the Palawenyos thinking on whether it would be good for their province or not and to prepare them to make an informed vote should Congress propose a Constitution federalizing the Philippines. I was awe-struck to realize that the Palawenyos who attended the forum fully understood what federalism was. In fact, it turned out that there has been a Federal State of Palawan Movement for years now. We were even presented with a paper titled, Palawan as a self-sufficient state, showing that with Palawan’s tourism, agriculture, mineral, oil and gas resources, it can well stand as an autonomous territory, able to raise revenues of its own. 

But, one significant fact that could surprise many Filipinos, especially those who say that federalism is alien to the Philippines, is that no less than our national hero, Jose P. Rizal, had advocated in his time that the Philippine should be a federal republic. He prophesied that after liberation, the Philippines would probably adopt a federal republic, in his essay “Las Filipinas Dentro de Cien Anos (The Philippines a Century Hence)” published in La Solidaridad in 1889 to 1990. Historian and professor of law, Pablo Trillana III said that when Rizal died, Emilio Aguinaldo pursued the federalist idea. He said that Aguinaldo directed the Ilonggos to set up a federal state for the Visayas, and to invite the Muslims of Maguindanao and Sulu, to join the revolution and establish a similar state organization. Aguinaldo was pursuing Rizal’s 1890 idea of a federal republic covering the archipelago, which explains why the flag of the Revolution and the First Republic had the three stars within the triangle, representing Aguinaldo’s image of the major island groups constituting the archipelago as a federation.

However, Trillana wrote, the 1898 Malolos Congress decided, in a time of war, that the more pressing concern then was to present a united front against the American enemy. Thus, the Malolos Congress adopted a unitary form of government with powers firmly exercised at the center. However, the US wrested away the independence the Filipinos declared in 1898. Then, when US President McKinley created the First Philippine Commission headed by Jacob Shurman to study the conditions in the Philippine Islands and make recommendations, two proposals for a federal form of government were crafted and offered to the Shurman Commission in 1899-1900. The first draft constitution for a federal republic was made by prominent Filipinos while the second one was by Isabelo de los Reyes. Expectedly, the American colonizers rejected both; decentralization would make it difficult for them to control the islands they seized for their own benefit.

The 1935 Constitution, the Commonwealth and the 1946 independence saw the institutionalization of a highly centralized unitary government patterned after the American Constitution, minus its significant federal foundations, Trillana wrote. Another author and historian, Erwin S. Fernandez, said that while the unitary system of government we now have was necessary in 1896 as we were then at war, it no longer works in this day and age. The unitary system has benefited only the center and it became the template for controlling regions outside the capital.  The 1935 up to the 1987 Constitutions have paved the way for control by selfish elites residing in the enclaves of Manila while the regions wallow in poverty and destitution, Fernandez wrote.

These revelations are grounded on fact and history. The too-centralized unitary system we now have favors the oligarchic elites as it perpetrates poverty and destitution in the regions. It makes the effort to understand and support federalism easy. 

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Topics: Rita Linda Jimeno , federalism
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