The Philippine Senate led by its President Manny Villar and Minority Floor Leader Nene Pimentel recently filed a resolution seeking to convene Congress into a constituent assembly to change the form of government from unitary to federal.
I have always advocated charter change as the 1987 Constitution is not perfect. But for any constitutional reform not to be used to prolong this administration’s hold onto power, it should be made only after Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s resignation, ouster and/or, which is the worst scenario for me, after her term.
Aside from that, two of the most important phrases of the resolution is problematic; the terms “constituent assembly” and “federal government.”
It is somehow ironic that the resolution blabbers about decentralizing the powers as a pretext for federalism but the process itself is too centralized. For the process (and even the product) of any charter change effort to be relevant to the people, the people should be made part of it. In that case, I maintain that a constitutional convention is still the best method to effect constitutional reform. Best because it is better not just to constituent assembly but also when compared to the people’s initiative, which is a misnomer given the fact that its implementation in the present Philippine context requires a lot of traditional politicians’ intervention.
The most substantial problem of the Senate resolution is that it banners federalism. Federalism is not a panacea and not even a band-aid. For a system to truly work, we must take into consideration everything that will affect the system.
Federalism in the Philippines is being equated to decentralization, a term which is somehow nice to hear as it connotes that something is being too concentrated and it should be scattered. In Pimentel’s mind, one of the most staunch advocate of federalism in the country, this is about power and resources. This is where the phrase Imperialist Manila comes in.
We can’t argue about the fact that for long years already, our national government has been Metro Manila-centric due to its vast base of electoral votes. It is a political culture that tends to prevent the development of the provinces, federalists would say.
But “decentralizing” the power from the national government to the local governments could not be equated to an automatic development of the provinces. Given the situation of local politics in the Philippines, it is just like decentralizing the powers of the Arroyo’s, Marcoses, Cayetano’s and Estrada’s to the Ortega’s, Singson’s, Osmeña’s and more surnames of political clans.
Aside from this problem of political dynasties, most of the local governments in the Philippines is too populist in the negative way. I must agree that for some instances, populism could be positive as it could be tantamount to just doing what the masses want.
Because statistics is not a barometer for socio-political righteousness, populism has its negative side and it is having decisions that may be popular but is not right. It is like buying a hundred boxes of Biogesics because it is very much in demand in your locality than purchasing a medical equipment to cure or prevent a more dangerous disease. It is prioritizing building a basketball court in a barangay that has a voting population of 10, 000 than paving a concrete farm-to-market road where only 500 people could see.
This is the power and resources they want to decentralize. And this could go from bad to worse as we count years of federalism if charter change will push through.
Just like parliamentary compared to presidential, a federal system could really be better than a unitary one. But given the situation that we have here in the Philippines, we should think twice.