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Federalism must start from below

Manny Valdehuesa .

THE federal system started with people who viewed their role as citizens seriously and acted accordingly. They were already used to self-government, enjoying a modicum of autonomy, experienced in governing themselves, and were active participants in the governing process. Such was the case in America’s original 13 colonies.

In Indonesia, after they gained their independence, they adopted the federal system but, a year later, they realized that they did not have the necessary experience of self-government. So they reverted to the unitary system, abandoning federalism. The same happened in most of Latin America.

Unless federalism is anchored upon the spirit and practice of autonomy, national stability and progress cannot be assured. Its processes must already be familiar to the people, making of every community and political unit a bulwark of democracy and people power.

Any move towards establishing the federal system, therefore, must be preceded by awareness among our barangay constituents of their power as sovereign citizens and by knowledge of how to wield it for the common good. It is in wielding this power that they govern and exemplify autonomy.

Experience in self-governance teaches the importance of intelligent and honest citizen participation in government. It is the best guarantee that the programs and policies of government will benefit everyone and not just a few. It is important that the federal system be founded on the good sense of participative, responsible constituents and not on the say so of leaders with vested interests.

The incentive for a person to become a responsible citizen lies in his conscious awareness of being the source of state sovereignty and government authority. This awareness is what induces the realization that a) it is he who establishes government, and b) that it is his decision (through his vote) that determines who shall govern every level of the Republic. In other words, he is the one that establishes the legitimacy of government and defines how it shall conduct itself.

Seeing the cause-and-effect implications of the way they vote, their sense of power over the results of elections drive them to be more circumspect and discriminating in their choices, thus affirming their sense of responsibility. It doesn’t take a leap for them to realize that an illegitimate vote elects illegitimate officials and that illegitimate officials establish illegitimate government.

It is at that point that it becomes truly desirable to establish the federal system of government. It must be founded on the power of the people below, not dictated by presumptuous officials above.

Federalism must be the result of the “pinatubo” approach (grown from below), not “pinatulo” or trickled down.

Viewed from this perspective, it is premature to introduce the federal system today. The element of citizen participation is missing, still unappreciated, and autocratic officials exacerbate it by their imperious ways. If our officials were the type who empower people, promoting a people-powered democracy, the stage would be set for the dynamics of federalism to operate.

What passes for people-participation today are unfounded claims of attendance in contrived gatherings. And the trapos take liberties with the democratic process by rigging or buying elections, manipulating results, declaring same as the voice of citizen sovereignty.

Their manipulation of their constituents through patronage hinders free expression. It prevents a genuine popular will from crystallizing, muffling the same in the process. This muffled state of citizen sovereignty does not conduce to the spirit of federalism.

At the least, federalism must be founded on a general compliance with the Local Government Code starting at barangay level. Autonomy must characterize governance at the primary level of government.

There must be a palpable sense of sovereignty among the grassroots and Filipinos must have a modicum of control over their community.

But the reality is, it’s their public servants who are in control. Worse, the public servants manipulate and exploit communal resources for their own purposes.

Until our people learn to govern themselves and their community, turning their barangay into a virtual republic—and thus acquire experience in autonomy—how can they be entrusted with governing a large entity such as a State Government?


(Manny Valdehuesa Jr. is a former Unesco regional director for Asia-Pacific; secretary-general, Southeast Asia Publishers Association; director, development academy of Philippines; member, Philippine Mission to the UN;  vice chair, Local Government Academy; member, Cory government’s Peace Panel; awardee, PPI-Unicef outstanding columnist. An author of books on governance, he is chairman/convenor ofGising Barangay Movement Inc. E-mail:


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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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