Crossroads (Towards Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 24 January 2018


The second major constitutional reform that appears urgent (in answer to the five questions posed by the Senate Committee on Constitutional Reforms) is the demand to restructure the country’s political system from the present unitary system to a federal system.

In the unitary, or centralized, form of government, all political power resides in the central authority. In the federal form, the national government and the self-governing states have their own defined powers of government.

Urgent basis: parity with a Bangsamoro state.  The urgency of this proposal comes from the need to provide a firm basis for enabling a Bangsamoro state to be set up as part and parcel of the Republic of the Philippines.

The most vocal proponents of this constitutional amendment are regions from Mindanao who view the creation of a Bangsamoro entity, with defined powers of self-government, as unfairness to all other local governments in the nation. Also, constitutionalists see the problem as one of necessity.

To prevent any constitutional challenge to the Bangsamoro project, an amendment making the country into a federal political structure would give all self-governing local units similar powers and rights.

No magic wand for effective government. There is no magic wand in the choice of form of government. Effective governance results from the actions of leaders to adopt the appropriate policies and to make the right choices of actions to respond to the challenges they face.

Examples of unitary governments include, from Europe – the United Kingdom; France; Spain; and Italy. From Asia, we have Japan; China; South Korea; Thailand; and Indonesia. [Indonesia was once federal but switched to a unitary government, fearing that the federal system could create conditions that would divide the country.]

Examples of federal governments include the  United States; Russia; Brazil; and Mexico. In Asia, India and Malaysia are federal governments.

In all the above cases, there are unique variations in the way their leadership structures are formed, whether they are monarchies or republics, presidential or parliamentary, dictatorships or democracies.

Even among unitary forms of government, varying degrees of local autonomies are observed. In the context of the unitary government of France, Charles de Gaulle once lamented, “How do you govern in a country with 500 cheeses?”

Our long experience with the unitary, centralized system of government. Since independence or for about eight decades now, the Philippine government has been operating under a unitary structure.

Constitutional reform efforts in the past have been designed to alter the relationships of the country’s president with the legislature, but never has the country adopted a federal structure.

Are we to throw away all that experience in the past and move on toward a different structure, with all the potential mistakes that could be committed? There are likely traps to be avoided,

A potential mistake we can commit is to create a country with extremely greater inequality of income and wealth. I know that the present model of the economy finds us a country suffering from great inequities in income.

If the country had lagged behind economically in relation with our neighbors, the reason was the deficiency of economic policies and the nature of the political instability during the 1980s to the 1990s.

However, divide the country into many states and the country is likely to fragment into some very prosperous states and many poor and incapable states. There is need for some central authority to regulate, to distribute, as well as to support those governments that are unable to govern themselves viably.

Current proposals: federal structure. There are many variants of proposals for a federal government.

A fear often expressed is that small, autonomous states are likely to be captured by political dynasties in the running of their governments. Our national experience indeed shows that many local governments are controlled by political family dynasties.

Within a larger political community, such monopoly of power cannot be exercised too long. There is more leadership competition at the larger political community than in the smaller political unit.

Bigger government units have a greater chance of promoting greater competition among electoral groups. In short, the lesser the number of states, the greater is the chance to encourage competition for electoral positions from a wider group of contestants for leadership.

It would, thus, be best if, in dividing the country into states, the most important criterion for creating a self-governing entity is that the region is already economically viable.

With that as the main criterion, we can redistribute economic and political power within the nation more competitively. Such a setup also encourages greater competition within a state and among the existing states for superior economic performance.

One such possibility is the division of the country’s regions into four major states, along the lines of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. These three new, competing big regional governments will exist side by side with the Bangsamoro state, which, in its early beginnings must be helped to raise its economic capacity over time.

With three strong, self-governing states, the nation could be energized. Competition among the states would be encouraged. Since each region will have their own economic resources and income and wealth, their capability to develop would be reinforced.

Senate question 3. Should the amendments or revisions be proposed by a Constitutional Convention or by the Congress itself acting as a constituent assembly? Why?

Answer: Since we are not starting anew but mainly amending an existing constitution, the best, fastest and, perhaps, wisest route toward accomplishing the task is through a constituent assembly.

Senate question 4. If Congress convenes as a constituent assembly for the purpose of amending or revising the Constitution, should the Senate and the House of Representatives vote jointly or separately?

Answer. If “Congress” (please note, the constitutional provision referred to did not say “Congress and the Senate”) is to convene as a constituent assembly, it is but proper that they deliberate the issues together as one assembly. The wisdom of the senators should be able to contribute and modulate the discussions on the issues of constitutional change by the more numerous congressmen.

Senate question 5. Can Congress pass a resolution limiting the power of the Constituent Assembly or Constitutional Convention or are there powers of plenary?

Answer. It is up to Congress to limit or expand the question of the constituent assembly, so long as this is related to the question of amending the constitution.