In his study of the failed attempt to shift to Federalism during President Arroyo’s time, Agustin Martin Rodriguez, former executive director of the Ateneo Center for Social Policy, cautions advocates to make haste slowly in any future attempt to push for system change.
“Federal autonomy any time soon will only condemn most local governments to languish in underdevelopment and bad governance. It may even spell the end of local democracy,” he writes in “Rethinking Federalism in the Light of Social Justice.”
“The first task is to make local governance work and stabilize beyond the experimental state before we push it to its next level. Perhaps some will argue that this is overly cautious, but such a change of form of government without any clear basis in experience and without any clear support from the political culture is bound to fail.”
Rodriguez points out that local autonomy as conceived by its framers more than 25 years ago has not realized its full potential.
In a presentation during the Ayala-UP School Economics Forum last September, Dr. Jorge Tigno of the Ateneo School of Government, noted that Congress had not undertaken the mandated review of the Code since its adoption in 1992.
The law provides that a review should be made “at least once in five years and as often as it deems necessary, with the primary objective of providing a more responsive and accountable local government structure.”
A congressional oversight committee did conduct consultations on possible amendments to the code and submitted an omnibus bill for consideration by both Houses towards the end of the term of President Ramos.
Tigno says improving the current centralized set-up is “better and more cost-effective” and would save the country from “uncertainty and unintended consequences.”
Two years ago, the Asian Development Bank approved a $250 million to the Philippines, with additional funding of $150 million from the Agence Francaise de Developpement for the conduct of the first comprehensive review of the Code.
The ADB said that “weak local tax bases and flaws in the design of transfers make it hard for poorer local governments to deliver the services their constituencies require. As a result, regional disparities in living standards remain wide. This could be efficiently addressed with a review of the Local Government code.”
The ADB has not come out with the results of the review.
Options on the table
The Abueva, Araneta, and PDU30 Core proposals all recognize the need for a transition period in implementing federalism at the regional/state level. They differ only in the length of the transition, the manner by which autonomy is to be adopted by the regions and the number of regions that will be established.
The PDU30 Core proposal hews closely to the Spanish assymetrical autonomy process, drawing up four stages culminating in the establishment of a federal republic without fixing a time frame.
The Abueva proposal has a five- to 10-year transition period but leaves the specific conditions for the formation of the individual states to be provided for by the framers of the charter in the transitory provisions.
The Araneta draft projects a 10- to 20-year transition period for the adoption of the Bayanikasan constitution.
The role of the judiciary needs fleshing out as Abueva and Araneta both propose the creation of a Constitutional Tribunal distinct from the Supreme Court. PDU30 CORE’s presentation is silent on the matter.
Key issues are the division of powers between the central and state governments and the equalization fund which will ensure that less-developed regional states are taken care of until they become financially viable.
What is singularly clear, however, is the intention by the current federalist advocates for an immediate shift to a parliamentary government with a president and a prime minister which will manage the transition to a Federal Republic.
Apart from the mode of amending or overhauling the Constitution, the proposal to lift term limits, the opening up of closed sectors to foreign investments and ownership, and even the subject of country’s territory are expected to generate heated debates within and without the halls of Congress.
Bangsamoro autonomy and agreements with the communist-led National Democratic Front which may require amendment of the charter will also come into play during deliberations in Congress.
If the draft charter does pass Congress, it will have to hurdle a plebiscite to be held at the same time as the mid-term elections in 2019. This will effectively be a referendum on Duterte’s presidency.
The question in many people’s minds is whether President Duterte’s mass support at that time will be as strong as it is today, for him to be able to win over or steamroller the opposition who will dare stand in the way of Federalism.
There is no denying that it will only be President Duterte’s political will and capital which will determine whether federalism will grow to be as strong as the molave or remain as the tikbalang in the collective imagination of its proponents.