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Federalism as a grand bargain

First of 2 parts
THE ruling Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Laban ng Bayan (PDP-Laban) recently submitted to the House of Representatives its proposal for constitutional amendments. There has been a lot of apprehensions regarding our shift to a federal form of government. For example, Winnie Monsod fears that federalism will lead to the strengthening of political dynasties and more corruption in the regions. Sen. Ralph Recto is concerned that there will be more layers of bureaucracy and red tape and hence more taxes. Former senator Edgardo Angara Sr. has expressed some concern over the potential break-up of the country if, for example, one region discovers huge oil and gas reserves and no longer needs transfers from the national government.
Professors at the University of the Philippines rhetorically ask: “If federalism is the answer, then what is the question?” What would happen to the party list? What about the administrative capacity of the regions? Businessmen and investors are rightly worried how federalism, especially taxes, would impact their businesses. Would the shift to federalism slow down our growth momentum? Would a presidential, parliamentary or a hybrid form of government be suitable for Philippine-style federalism? Why do we need to change the Constitution and why not just amend the Local Government Code to give more powers to the regions?


The PDP Laban draft constitution—drafted by experts under the guidance of Senate President Koko Pimentel, the PDP-Laban president—recognizes these concerns as valid. The draft constitution in fact proposes the shift to federalism as a grand bargain, a package of reforms. These reforms include: 1) constitutional restrictions on political dynasties; 2) shift to a dual executive or semi-presidential form of government; 3) banning of political butterflies; 4) strengthening of political parties; 5) shift to proportional representation; 6) strengthening of constitutional bodies in the regions, particularly the commissions on civil service and audit; 7) reducing the duplication of work between the Senate and the House of Representatives; and 8) judicial reforms, including strengthening of the Sandigan Bayan, appellate courts and Ombudsman at the regional levels.


Tinkering with the Local Government Code alone would not be sufficient.


From political dynasties to political parties
One of the main apprehensions about federalism is that the transfer of significant powers to the regions will only perpetuate political dynasties. Not all political dynasties are the same, however. Some contribute more to the public good than others. Some political dynasties are fat-tailed—with many members of clans simultaneously occupying positions of power—while others are thin-tailed. Political dynasties themselves are not to blame. The proliferation and durability of political dynasties came about, in large part, because of the failure of the 1987 Constitution to pass a self-enforcing provision regulating these dynasties. This mistake has to be corrected. We need a self-enforcing constitutional provision regulating political dynasties, without which the transfer of more powers to the regions would be at risk of political capture.


But why do we need to regulate political dynasties? Why not just let the voters decide? There is a problem with this argument. First, voters decide based on what choices are available to them. If the only options are familiar names of political dynasties, then naturally voters choose the candidates they like most. Candidates do not have incentives to differentiate themselves on the basis of policies and programs. The solution to this is to give voters choices in terms of policies and programs and not just familiar names. This way they can hold political parties accountable. At present, politicians cannot be held accountable for failed promises because their policy positions are unclear. For this, we need to shift from elections based on personalities to one based on political parties with distinctive policies and programs. For this reason, we need to strengthen our political party system.


Most successful federal systems of the world depend on strong political parties and not families or personalities. To have strong political parties, we need to 1) shift to a semi-presidential form of government; 2) ban party switching or balimbing; 3) provide state subsidy for political parties as they do in Europe; and 4) ensure party discipline as they do in all parliamentary systems. What happened to the confirmation hearings of the appointees of President Duterte – Gina Lopez, Rafael Mariano and Judy Taguiwalo – is an instructive example. Members of the ruling coalition voted against them while members of the opposition supported them.


Semi-presidential form of government
Why would a semi-presidential form of government be better than a purely presidential or parliamentary system if we are to shift to a federal structure?
A presidential system of government is most familiar to Filipinos. It reduces uncertainties in the transition to federalism. Its main disadvantage is the over-centralization of powers, such as what we have now, the difficulty of removing the president if he becomes corrupt or abusive and the potential for gridlock with the parliament. The problem with gridlock has been partly solved via the pork barrel mechanism and a system of patronage with local governments.


A parliamentary system of government is more efficient in terms of lawmaking and policy implementation. There is no problem of gridlock and unfunded mandates because members of the cabinet come from the parliament. It also has strong mechanisms of accountability via vote of no confidence and question time. Indeed, most federal systems in the world have parliamentary governments—except, for example, the US, Russia and Mexico where they have popularly elected presidents. Its main disadvantages include the following: 1) strong parliaments rely on strong political parties which we currently do not have now; 2) most likely in the initial years of transition to federalism there will be a proliferation of political parties along regional, ethnic and ideological lines; therefore, parliaments can be unstable, especially if the ruling party comprise a coalition of parties. As a result, we could have a weak and unstable ruling government.


A semi-presidential form of government brings together the pros and cons of both presidential and parliamentary systems. In my view, this is the best system if we are to shift to a federal form of government. Let me explain why. First and foremost, the transition to federalism will be challenging and therefore, ironically, we would need a strong national leadership. There will be inherent resistance from national government agencies which will lose their powers and budgets. There is a need to strengthen the capacities of the regions—the middle government—to assume these powers. There will be many implementation issues to be sorted out. A decisive president is needed to ensure a successful transition to federalism.


Second, it is better to have a collective leadership with more horses pulling the wagon together—the president, prime minister, the cabinet, regional governors and local governments—compared to the current highly centralized presidential system. Collective and cohesive leadership has proven to be an effective arrangement for the rapid growth of highly decentralized developing countries such as Vietnam and China. Both countries have a president as the head of state and who looks after national security and foreign affairs, a prime minister and cabinet which looks after economic and social policy, and governors who execute policy on the ground.
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