Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 3 August 2016


(Part II)

Aside from waging the war against illegal drugs in the country, President Duterte made big promises that he backs up with committed and concrete action programs in his first SONA.

If a big part of these reforms could be achieved within the next six years, then we can look forward to a bright, peaceful and progressive future. Today, I focus on three significant non-economic reforms that have big consequences on the country’s economic future.

There is, however, the danger that imperfect or poor designs in the remedies applied could cause unforeseen outcomes. Therefore, great care is needed in the handling and design of these major reforms.

The devil will be in the details. Space does not allow the discussion of these details here. But details are precisely going to be the hard part of the reform process.

For instance, the design of the right federal system of government is still a topic that needs full and careful study. There are many models of federal governments to choose from, but do they fit or approximate our special circumstances? All political systems evolve uniquely with the country and the people.

Peace agreement with the communists. The first of these political reforms is to end the communist rebellion. Here the outcome depends on coming to terms with the rebels.

Negotiations imply some give and take. The main objective is to restore peace and give rebels a new chance to participate in the nation’s efforts to achieve development and nation-building.

The communist rebellion has failed to produce a revolution. However, from the viewpoint of legitimate government, the rebellion has been a continuing festering distraction in the efforts to pursue national economic development.

Thus, by putting the peace process with the communist rebellion at a high level of effort from the government, the president wants to strengthen and sustain the development effort across the land.

The prospects are high that an agreement with the communists could be concluded, but it is not a sure thing. It is an auspicious moment, however, that President Duterte takes strong interest in settling this problem with the communist rebels

President Duterte ordered a unilateral ceasefire for the military in the war against the communist rebels, only to withdraw it when the latter conducted operations. Despite this, there are strong signals that negotiations for a peace deal would be conducted.

The Bangsamoro entity. The second major political reform attempts to correct the Muslim rebellion in Mindanao. This is an issue dating back long before the republic was born.

The previous government of Benigno Aquino III found a solution in the form of the creation of a Bangsamoro autonomous region to be carved out of Muslim Mindanao. The Duterte government has accepted the territorial parameters agreed upon by the government.

The Mamasapano incident (in which a contingent of soldiers was massacred by the Moro rebels) in 2015 diminished the chances of final passage of the Bangsamoro legislation in the last Senate. Moreover, constitutional infirmities associated with the draft agreement were observed to damage the new proposal.

President Duterte favors the creation of the Bangsa Moro entity. He however wishes to correct the constitutional issues by proposing a new constitution that would create a federal system of government.

The federal structure of government. The federal government proposal is the third and most important political reform of all. The idea is to replace and transform the present unitary, centralized government with a federal union made up of separate states.

Adopting the federal structure of government would represent a grand bargain within the political framework. This is the thinking of President Duterte.

Carving out the Bangsamoro entity and giving it different powers of government alien to those enjoyed by all other local governments in our unitary state would create more demands from local governments for autonomy. It would, therefore, be better to improve the autonomy of other subnational units.

The federal structure provides this option. If the Bangsamoro entity were to find a place as a separate state within the Philippine nation, then all other autonomous states that are formed as a result of regrouped islands and provinces must enjoy similar autonomous powers of government given to the Bangsa Moro entity.

Thinking of further details, President Duterte expounds in the SONA a further characteristic of the federal structure. He wants it to be headed by a president who is popularly elected, like in France.

He is inclined to favor the parliamentary system for legistaion. Thus, it could then take the form of a presidential-parliamentary system. Such a system was in place during the 1980s, but this was scuttled by the Corazon Aquino Constitution of 1987, minus the federal design of government.

Even as there are significant economic reforms also proposed in the SONA (not discussed today) which are also part of the program of the administration, these three political reforms or initiatives occupy central stage.

All three reforms will have an indelible imprint on the course of the economy.

Likelihood of change is high. President Duterte’s government has a solid backing in the reconstituted Congress and Senate. His decisive electoral victory in May made possible a realignment of political loyalties among the elected members of both Congress and the Senate in favor of leaders aligned to him.

As a result, he has a clear command of the legislature that is supportive of his program of government.

Therefore, the chance is high that both the Bangsamoro solution and the adoption of a federal form of government will become reality. The recent decision of the political leadership that the constitutional changes will be undertaken through the mechanism of a constitutional assembly made out of the current memberships of the legislative body will speed up the process of changing the Constitution.

As to the peace agreement with the communist rebellion, that is less certain. It depends more on how President Duterte is able to get the communist leadership to agree to a lasting peace. This process is highly dependent on the persuasive powers of the new leadership and on the longing of the rebels for a peaceful country, finally, where political battles are fought in the parliament and through the vote.