By J. Art D. Brion (ret.)
(Third of a Series)
As I did with the 2nd article of this series, I shall raise the question of need and justification in considering the current proposals on constitutional change: Do we need federalism and a parliamentary system of government?
Our history shows that we have always lived with a unitary structure of government. Under Spain, the whole Philippines was governed through the representative of the Spanish Crown, the Governor-General. When the Americans took over as our colonizer, they governed the whole Philippines through an Insular Government with a civilian governor-general as head of government. Significant Filipino governance did not take place until the 1935 Commonwealth arrangements that preceded the grant of full Philippine independence in 1946.
During all these times, the Philippines was governed as one political unit – a nation-archipelago with provincial, municipal, and barrio governments as local subdivisions under a central government. This arrangement did not change when Philippine independence came. Through three Constitutions, Filipinos only knew a country structured as one from which central governance emanated.
Is there any special reason now – a compelling need – to change our present unitary structure?
A hundred years ago, a good case could have been made to change our structure from unitary to federal, given our geography and the difficulty then of travel and communications; arguably, governance from Manila of the whole archipelago could not be very effective and could result in prejudice to the outlying southern islands of the country.
But the time to make this argument has long been past. In this age of readily available means of travel and instant communications, no part of the Philippines is so isolated to justify its governance through a federal system that divides the powers of government between a central and regional units.
If at all, such separate governance can only be justified by unique needs and circumstances other than the demands of effective governance. Only Muslim Mindanao – the present Muslim autonomous region – can rightfully claim these justifications as our Muslim brothers, through the years, have steadfastly maintained an identity and a culture distinct from the rest of the country, while fully manifesting their aspirations for self-governance by word and deed. As a result, the country recognized their distinctiveness through the ARMM – the autonomous administrative region for Muslim Mindanao, a self-governance structure from which the national government withheld only the judicial, prosecutory, police, military and foreign relations functions.
Granting that federalism is justified for the Muslim areas, is there a need to similarly apply this structure to the rest of the Philippines? In the absence of a compelling need for change in these areas, would it not be prudent and wise to simply follow the commonsensical rule “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
Even assuming that structural adjustments are needed for the rest of the country, can’t these needs be accommodated through adjustments within the present unitary structure?
After considering Philippine history, culture, aspirations, and current societal and political needs, I believe that a change to federalism outside of the Muslim areas is a move that is way beyond the needs of the country; in the long run, such change may only prove disadvantageous and prejudicial to the interest of the country and its people.
The concept of federalism, in the first place, is not part of our history and culture. The Philippines has always existed as a “single unit” country; except for Muslim Philippines, no part of the country and no ethnic group has ever taken the view that it is not part of one whole country. No sufficient ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity likewise exists that would require bridging efforts to make the country a unified whole.
To be sure, except for Muslim Mindanao, no region of the country has undertaken overt efforts to separate from the rest of the country. I am not aware of such political aspirations or moves from the Ilocanos of the North, the Tagalogs or Kapampangans of Southern and Central Luzon, the Bicolanos of the Bicol Peninsula, the Cebuanos or the Warays of Eastern Central Philippines, the Ilonggos of Western Central Philippines, nor from the Christian and lumad areas of Mindanao.
Federalism thus appears foreign to our thinking as a people, unlike in the US where the states struggled as states for their independence from England and later federated into one country while keeping the separate identities of the federating states. The move to adopt a federal structure – a novel approach then – came as a compromise; the colonies who fought for independence wanted the strength of a collective whole without giving up their identities as separate states. Thus, they agreed on a federal structure with identified separate powers for the federal government and for the states. In this light, federalism in the US was dictated by history from which the present American system evolved.
In contrast with this US background, the Philippines has always recognized itself as one people and one country in resisting colonial rule and in governing itself as an independent country. We revolted against the Spaniards and established our 1898 Constitution as one people; we resisted the intervening Americans and the invading Japanese as one people. Except for the Muslims of Mindanao who have always joined with some reservation because of differences in religion, laws, and culture, unity as a people has been the Filipino historical and cultural identity.
There thus exists no historical or cultural framework for us to adopt a federal system that could only encourage division rather than the unity of the whole country; we would only invite weakness if we, on our own, divide ourselves into separate regions without any previous aspirations towards this kind of existence and identity. Interestingly, the proponents of federalism can only claim that we should convert to bring peace to Muslim Mindanao and to better allocate resources away from “imperial” Manila.
If indeed we should recognize Muslim Mindanao as a federal region, why do we have to include the rest of the country in this move?
This basic consideration leads me to the view that if we shall amend our Constitution, the amendment should only allow Muslim Mindanao to be a federal region; we should maintain our unitary structure for the rest of the country while allowing greater autonomy, where and when needed, in order to diffuse the concentration of resources at the center and to bring greater development to local areas.
Significantly, the 1987 Constitution has started the steps towards greater autonomy and decentralization under a unitary structure when it provided for Local Government Units under its Article X and the government passed the Local Government Code thereafter. I see no major downsides in introducing further enhancements to these terms through greater decentralization and devolution.
Substantial downsides, on the other hand, may face the country if we undertake the unwarranted move to federalize the whole country. Let us not forget that in amending our Constitution, we shall not simply be engaged in playful political tinkering; we could be undertaking an irreversible step affecting the life of the nation and the future of our children. Humpty Dumpty and his great fall reminds us of what can happen:
All the king’s horses
and all the king’s men;
Couldn’t put Humpty
I shall continue with my questions and discussions at the next installments of this series. Readers may contact me at [email protected]