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What’s with federalism?

H. Marcos Mordeno

MALAYBALAY City – It is touted by its proponents, including President Rodrigo Duterte no less, to be a decisive step toward curing the country’s social, economic and political ills. But the type of federalism that the administration envisions remains nebulous at this stage. It has yet to present a model that would serve as talking point for a public discourse that must take place before the nation decides to accept or reject the proposed change in polity.

The proponents [of federalism] argue that the current unitary form of government has hindered economic progress and political advancement.

To be clear, a unitary Constitution, such as the Philippine 1987 Constitution, does not mean the absence of subsidiary lawmaking bodies or even autonomy. Note that the present Charter (Article X: Local Government) provides for the creation of two autonomous regions – Muslim Mindanao and the Cordillera, although the latter has remained an administrative region. Moreover, Republic Act 7160 (Local Government Code of 1991) grants local governments wider powers than they used to enjoy in the pre-Edsa period. The President, however, still exercises disciplinary powers over local officials.

The weakness of a unitary constitution lies in the fact that such autonomy may be abolished, or at least watered-down to the point of inefficacy, if the central authority so wishes. On the other hand, under a federal constitution, which is considered a contract, the powers granted to states are more secure.

A federal constitution contains a clear division of powers between the central and federal governments, which cannot be changed or taken back unilaterally. There are powers reserved for the central authority (for example, defense, foreign policy, judiciary and currency), powers vested in the federal states, as well as powers shared between the two tiers of government.

The above refers to the general structure and functioning of a federal system. But whether changing the structure would improve the people’s economic conditions and alter power relations in a way that will address political dynasty and concentration of wealth in a few families, among others, is another matter.

For one thing, changing the Constitution is needed for a shift from a unitary to a federal form of government. But it remains doubtful that the would-be framers of a new Constitution (read: the lawmakers who want to convene Congress into a Constituent Assembly) would ban political dynasties. Nor would they retain the provision on term limits of elective officials. In other words, like the past attempts to change the Constitution the push for federalism could be laden with devious motives.

And what happens to the progressive provisions on human rights (Article III)? Given the administration’s cavalier attitude toward civil liberties and due process, will the new Charter retain such provisions? The same question applies to the provisions on Social Justice and Human Rights (Article XIII), which, while wanting in legislative action for their full flowering, remain a good basis for pushing equity in the social, economic and cultural spheres.

Federalism will solve our current ills? Think again, the cure could be worse than the disease. We could just be mistaking faith healing for surgery.

 

(H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached through hmcmordeno@gmail.com – Mindanews)

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