Federalism Will Entrench the Oligarchy

The proposal for a federal system will further entrench the power of the oligarchs and, being divisive, would leave the country more fragmented.

Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CENPEG)
Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VIII, No. 26, August 3-9, 2008

More than a year after the move to have a new constitution was thumbed down by a high court ruling and mass protests the proposal for amending the charter has resurfaced. The latest proposal comes from Sen. Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. with his federal system that would replace the present unitary and presidential structure. Pimentel’s proposal comes very closely with Jose V. Abueva’s federalism concept which he championed in recent charter change movements that fell off course.

Last May, Pimentel filed Resolution No. 10 in the Senate seeking to convene Congress into a constituent assembly to amend the 1987 Constitution and establish a federal system. Fifteen senators backed the resolution with reservations along with some leaders in the House led by Speaker Prospero Nograles (Davao City). The target is to hold the referendum on a new charter simultaneously with the 2010 elections. If Pimentel’s move gains some ground, Abueva, who was involved in the drafting of two constitutions in 1971 and 1986, is expected to be once more a key figure in this new constitutional project.

The revival of constitutional reform has surfaced amid the country’s political crisis and creeping intra-elite rivalry now aggravated by an economy that is pulled down by the rice, fuel, and inflationary crisis. Advocates of charter reform point to the flaws of the political system and the institutional gridlock in government that, according to them, can be removed by changing the constitution.

Pimentel says that the establishment of the federal system will not only overhaul the political structure of government but will also lead to a dramatic change in the system of apportioning the nation’s wealth between the central government and the local government units (LGUs) or federal states. The senator believes that the over-centralization of presidential powers under a unitary system has made countries like the Philippines fragmented while those that have federalized have made “quantum leaps in economic development.” He is confident that federalism will put an end to the secessionist movement in Mindanao and, for that matter, all other insurgencies.

Federalism grabbed the headlines once more in late July in the light of claimed breakthroughs in the peace talks between government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Charter change, the government panel said, would be inevitable in order to affirm a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE) as an autonomous state under a new federal system. Critics see the fast-tracking of a peace accord with the Bangsamoro leaders as a ploy to justify charter change allowing Arroyo to remain in power in a federal system.

Presidential powers

The federal system proposals of Pimentel and Abueva converge on a set of objectives: To cut the powers of the chief executive, make accountability effective as well as public administration and the delivery of services in the regions workable, and to put to rest the centuries-old Bangsamoro struggle for self-determination. The presidential system, according to them, is a deterrent to the country’s effective governance but in Pimentel’s own words, its “days are numbered.”

Abueva, in addition, decries that the 1987 Constitution “has not empowered citizens to check or mitigate our pervasive problems of mass poverty, unemployment, corruption, social inequality, injustice, rebellion, and the environment.” He also notes that the restored adversarial separation of powers “creates conflict and gridlock between the President and Congress,” an assertion which finds sympathy in another federalism advocate, ex-congressman and former Arroyo official Florencio Abad. Abueva again: The “outmoded form of government and dysfunctional political parties sustain our politics of personality, patronage, cronyism, and corruption and without transparency and public accountability.”

The antidote to these institutional drawbacks is replacing the presidential system with federalism. Under the Abueva proposal, federalism will redistribute powers by establishing self-rule among 11 constituent states or regional governments, with the federal republic responsible for national security and defense, foreign relations, currency and monetary policy, immigration, and the higher courts. National legislative and executive powers shall be exercised by a bicameral Parliament consisting of the House of the People with members elected in parliamentary districts and others by proportional representation; and the House of the States with members elected by the state assemblies. The Parliament elects as prime minister whoever is the head of the majority party or coalition as well as the President who shall serve as ceremonial head of state. The parliamentary set up will bring about a “party government” fusing both legislative and executive powers.

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