Federalism 101: Positives and pitfalls

ariel nepomuceno_1The basic definition of federalism makes reference to a mixed form of government where there is a central government and side by side, regional governments, such as provinces or states, in one political infrastructure or system. It is dual sovereignty in action.

Specifically, Prof. Jose Abueva, quoting Mr. Ronald Watts, characterizes some of the common characteristics of federal governments as: 1) two kinds of governments each in direct contact with citizens; 2) sharing of legislative, executive powers and sources of revenue ; 3) designated representation of distinct regional interests and rights; 4) a constitution that is not modifiable and which requires consent of federation members; 5) use of courts or a referendum to resolve intergovernmental disputes; and 6) institutions which facilitate collaboration among government agencies when there are shared jurisdictions or responsibilities. Examples of countries with this type of government structure are Mexico, India, Canada, Germany, Malaysia, Brazil and the United States. Based on statistics, only 11 out of around 200 countries are federated.

On the other hand, a unitary system is one where all powers are centralized in the hands of the central government and is the source of all state power. Although there are political subdivisions like states, the latter are administrative and are always under the control and supervision of the central government. Most countries around the world follow the unitary model. The debate whether to transform our political system into federal is currently raging, as President Duterte and most of his supporters in the present administration, including some members of the Senate and the House, are vouching for the Philippines as a country that is best fit to adopt the federal model.

End the centralized form of government

Several arguments have been put forward by political scientists, sociologists and economists in favor of federalism. Core reasons are that decentralization of powers will result to greater empowerment on the part of the states or regions. Central government ceases to be the sole dominant force and the states will not be considered to be inferior, subordinate or over-dependent. It is believed that popular sovereignty becomes real and visible in federalism. Self rule is actualized with the regions being able to manage its own resources and finances, and take charge of their economic agenda. Furthermore, the common tao and their leaders can solve problems at their level without bothering the central government. The result? More cooperation, smoother and stable relationships between the two units. And we may probably have an added bonus of decongesting Imperial Manila.

No to federalism

But some of the challenges hurled by unitary government advocates are valid, as well. They range from more divisiveness resulting from traditionally fragmented and sometimes myopic regional interests and institutionalization of reigning political families and dynasties. Distribution of revenues may not necessarily be equalized because there may be some provinces that will eventually end up wealthier than the others, depending on how good their respective governance methodology works. More wealth in some quarters mean bigger dissonance at the regional level.

The most striking point against federalism is the reality that it may actually be more costly to rule and govern at the local level with the variety and number of functions that shall be performed—taxation, basic services, law making, etc. Sen. Ralph G. Recto, when interviewed, stated that “the mathematics for federalism are wrong and ugly because there will be a bigger bureaucracy, which would entail larger expenditure.”

Moreover, there is no assurance that this will solve civil unrest and separatist movements in the rest of the country. Truth is, there are some political movements, ideologically inspired or not, that will never be happy no matter how or what kind of power is shared.

Moving forward with the discourse

Both current Senate President Aquilino L. Pimentel III and Rep. Monico Puentevella filed bills proposing an amendment of the Constitution to establish a federal form of government way back in 2008. These bills are now being revisited in light of President Duterte’s open preference for federalism.

The robust conversations and exchange of ideas about this subject matter manifest that democracy is well and thriving in the country. A change in the form of government is an issue so pivotal to the fundamentals of a democratic state. Let us listen and talk about it. Then, soon, we shall decide as a nation.


For comments and suggestions: arielnepo.businessmirror@gmail.com



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