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Empowering the locals

Renato Tibon .

“We are ready for Federalism, which is the logical destination of the journey that we started with decentralization and devolution. If we truly want to empower the regions, we must federalize!” – Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, speech at Manila International Conference 206

AMONG the principles that stood prominently as a pillar of centrist democracy towards promotion of human dignity, protection of human rights and development of the common good is subsidiarity. In essence, it’s a support system such that society thrives under a wealth of initiatives by its people, performing and making decisions on matters of concern closest to them while government is ready and willing to sustain the effort where it has the capacity and wherewithal.

Does subsidiarity work under present Philippine realities? If the experience of the cooperative movement is anything to go by, I would say subsidiarity as an empowering dynamic for mutual participative cooperation bodes well for the country. The Cooperative Code of Philippines declares it a policy for cooperatives to be “a practical vehicle for promotion of self-reliance and harnessing people power,” recognizing the principle of subsidiarity under which the sector “will initiate and regulate within its own ranks the promotion and organization, xxx relating to cooperatives with government assistance where necessary.”

Government assistance takes the form of decentralization with the passage of RA 7160 or the Local Government Code (LGC) of 1991. After decades of failed decentralization and local autonomy policies, the LGC was enacted empowering LGUs as “front-line governments to address critical gaps in the delivery of services in habitually neglected areas, particularly in aspects of poverty alleviation and in stimulating development activities.” Decentralization hopes to streamline and improve government efficiency with focus on stimulating the “creation of a stable basis for economic development in local and national levels.”

On paper, the LGC looks good covering a “vast and bulky enumeration of policies and mandates,” devolving political, fiscal and administrative powers “to transform local government units into self-reliant communities.” Were the instrumentalities successful in the implementation of this mandate? Chief among the challenges is the problem of LGUs not having matched the demands and responsibilities entrusted to them, many persistently dependent on their shares of the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) and disregarding responsibility towards developing their financial capacities. Seemingly, these LGUs are focused on buffering their political stock, while the agenda on poverty alleviation and effective delivery of social services were practically neglected.

There were recommendations of review of many provisions in the LGC but which were hampered by unwillingness of many lawmakers to “shake the establishment” and risk confrontation with LGU leaders potentially holding the key towards their political survival. Herein lies perhaps the greatest obstacle to LGU’s development: a pervasive political patronage system that relies on the support of clannish families heavily indebted to patrons and dynasts. I say, why not make the grassroots leaders more accountable by devolving political and fiscal powers directly to them? This way, they don’t have to be unmitigatedly dependent on their accustomed patrons for financial support. Or why not eliminate them altogether and create appointive positions in the barangay level instead, under a higher local government unit? These local officials are beholden to the LGU executives despite the non-partisan character of barangay polls and elections being generally divisive, it creates a rift in family relationships difficult to mend.

Despite this impasse, a major agenda is taking hold in the continuing efforts for greater decentralization – the installation of a federal system of government in the Philippines. An initiative that the present dispensation haphazardly imprinted into the consciousness of the electorate who put them to power and now fading fast across the horizon with the impending end of their terms, federalism continues to inspire as a beacon of hope that will usher real progress in the country. This, despite the stubborn resistance put up by opposing political forces, mainly “centralists,” who can only come up with unsubstantive and theoretical arguments against it.

Unlike the process of decentralization provided under RA 7160, in which powers devolved to LGUs can be unilaterally taken away anytime, powers granted under a federal constitution are more constant and exclusive and could trigger a constitutional crisis if removed sans legislation. Of course, this can’t be done without revisions in the 1987 Constitution.

The real issues however that prevent the expected “bandwagon effect,” riding on the popularity of the President and his federal agenda, are what centrist democrats described as critical conditions which should be in place while amending the Constitution: First, is political party reform through the Political Party Development and Financing Act (bill still pending in Congress), a law which will penalize turncoatism or switching of political parties, regulate campaign spending and establish a state subsidy to professionalize political parties by supporting their political education and campaign initiatives. Second, is the enactment of anti-political dynasty law, still sailing roughly under a largely dynastic Congress which, if it can’t pass, should be written in the revised constitution as self-executory. Third condition is the passage of the Freedom on Information (FOI) bill, also languishing in Congress, which will allow access to information pertaining to official acts, transactions or decisions and compel transparency and accountability in public service. Fourth, is electoral reforms which should ensure clean, orderly and honest elections under a reformed Comelec whose quasi-judicial work and handling of electoral contests should be transferred to the judiciary.

We have hit the middle of the road and there’s no turning back. To again borrow a phrase enunciated by former Senate President “Koko” Pimentel, “At no other time in our history has our dreams of a Federal Republic been closer to reality.” The President will finish his term soon and I hope the good Senator and his party, the PDP-laban still have the fire in their belly and take a serious look-see on their ideology, political ascendancy and capitalizing on their strength and number, push for genuine reforms using the concept of subsidiarity, decentralization, genuine autonomy and ultimately of federalism which would revert back the power of governance to the people, democracy’s real benefactors.

(Renato Gica Tibon is a fellow of the Fellowship of the 300, an elite organization under Centrist Democracy Political Institute with focus on political technocracy. He  holds both position as political action officer and program manager of the Institute. He is the former regional chairman for Region 10 and vice president for Mindanao of the Centrist Democratic Party of the Philippines.)

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TREND MAKER. Mindanao Gold Star Daily was established in 1989 to set ablaze a new meaning & flame to the local newspaper business. Throughout the years it continued its focus and interest in the rural areas & pioneered the growth of countryside journalism.

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