Political reforms, then federalism HERALD EXPRESS

Political reforms, then federalism Featured

THE Ateneo Policy Center under the tutelage of Dr. Ronald Mendoza sponsored a recent forum in Davao on federalism. Dr. Alex Brillantes and Prof. Gene Pilapil admirably enriched the discourse. I must however agree although reluctantly with Prof. Gene on his thesis that the institutional designs of the Presidential Consultative Committee (ConCom) and the PDP Laban draft constitution are utterly defective.

I have argued that federalism in the Philippine context is a process that must start first with basic political reforms, then a shift to parliamentary government, and then final conversion to a federal system in due time. The last two require constitutional revisions.

My appreciation of the whole debate are telescoped into three propositions.

1. As currently structured, federalism will not be realized within President Duterte’s watch, as he steps down in 2022;

2. The mode of constitutional revision under the 1987 Constitution is prohibitive unless drastic political and electoral reforms are done under the President’s watch, before he steps down in 2022; and

3. The citizens’ grasp of the intricacies of edferalism itself is not a necessary prior condition to shifting from unitary to federalism.

I will start with the third point. Most Filipinos appear to have very little understanding of the issue of federalism. This is certainly true.

As I wrote in my July 18 column: “…Federalism and Charter change’s rabid opponents have always used as an excuse that this concept is alien to our culture. Accordingly, majority of Filipinos don’t understand federalism and the constitutional revisions it entails. But this was also true then for the 1987 Cory Constitution (written by a chosen elite), 1973 Marcos Constitution (written by shameless politicians) and even the original 1935 Constitution.”

For one, the first Philippine basic law, the Malolos Constitution of 1899 was never implemented across the land. Written by the elite, it was patterned after the Spanish Constitution and heavily borrowed from existing European Constitutions at that time and called for a unicameral assembly, biased more toward parliamentary than presidential form of government. The Filipinos in 1899 I must assume were barely informed then about the Malolos Constitution and the form of government it was endorsing.

Also true of the Kapisanan sa Paglilingkod ng Bagong Pilipinas (KALIBAPI) constitution under the Japanese occupation that was ratified in 1943. I doubt a handful of Filipinos were informed of this constitution.

As a US colony, we were ruled by American organic acts. But the 1935 Constitution was a perverted version of the US federal system with a president elected separately from the vice president and a bicameral Congress with senators elected universally. This enshrined the unitary-presidential system of government. I doubt there were concerted efforts to make the public understand these nuances before a plebiscite was conducted.

Unlike today where advances in information technology have contributed much to the dissemination of ideas. And on the ground several groups, notably from Davao, have been expounding federalism to the grassroots these past few years; the Citizens Movement for a Federal Philippines (CMFP), Lihok Pederal, CDP/CDPI Centrist Groups, Hugpong Federal etc. These commendable initiatives have contributed to a wider appreciation of issues. According to the latest poll, fully 33 percent to 48 percent of Filipinos understand what federalism is about and support constitutional revisions.

And if explained well that federalism allows those in the regions to decide for themselves the course of their lives, more will adhere to Federalism – for this simply is what federalism is: that the lower echelons of governance, the barrios, the municipalities and local governments with their people, are the decision makers of their political lives. Not the people from the centralized authority in Manila.

“What we need to understand about the Filipino is for the past 300 years of colonialism, they trust their patrons and put their faith in their leaders to do the right thing by them. They will take federalism and the Charter change on faith. And you can’t sell them short. They are a magnificently discerning race.” (Manila Times, July 18, 2018)

So enough of this anti-federalist arguments that Filipinos are not informed enough, therefore let’s stick to the status quo, unitary-presidential. This is hogwash!

Back to my first proposition: As structured, federalism will not be realized within President Duterte’s watch, as he steps down in 2022.

Federalism is a process that must entail the revision of the 1987 Constitution. The shift from the perverted unitary-presidential system requires a dismantling of the underlying institutions that reinforced it. This can’t be achieved overnight or even in the remaining three years of Duterte’s term after the midterm elections. The oligarchy and the political elite of this country have over the generations entrenched themselves in the upper echelons of governance from the centralized power based in Malacañang to the governors’ mansions, to the city, municipal and even barrio level. The proliferation of political dynasties backed up by the financial clout of the oligarchy has created a powerful grip on the body politic.

The President still needs to lay the groundwork for these changes. He has not been doing serious work on the dismantling of these influences except for the perpetuation of a meaningless federalism slogan. He is running out of time. And this brings me to the last proposition: The method of constitutional revision under the 1987 Constitution is prohibitive unless drastic political and electoral reforms are done under the President’s watch.

The primary tools for the oligarchy to influence governance and their subsidiary hold on power are through the political parties, the electoral process and the political dynasties. The drastic changes needed to correct these anomalies do not yet entail changing the 1987 Constitution. With the President presumably on top of his game, the party in power at his behest, plus his vaunted political will, he can very well persuade, negotiate and intimidate the senators and congressmen into passing these critical reform measures archived in the two houses of congress these past years: the political party and government subsidy act; electoral reforms; the freedom of information bill; and the ban on political dynasties.

These reforms can change the profile of the elected congress especially that of the Senate that refuses to constitute itself into a constituent assembly.

These four bills need only the concurrence of the two houses of Congress to become law. Then the revision of the Constitution and introduction of the federalism concept can follow. Hopefully these can be achieved towards the end of the Deegong’s term.

Let me conclude by summarizing the Centrist Proposals roadmap in our draft constitution (www.cdpi.asia).

It will take the rest of President Duterte’s remaining administration to put in place the four priority political reforms by 2022. Only then can we start revising the Constitution; after which we transition first to a parliamentary system. The subsequent steps then are for parliament to guide the formation of autonomous territories towards a Federal Republic. This process should continue by 2028 and beyond.000
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