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Will the shift to federalism really bring about a true lasting solution to the Mindanao problem?

The ongoing war between government and Muslim rebels in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao has fueled calls for a shift from the country's present unitary system to a federal form of government.

Last month, three senators hailing from the south filed a resolution calling for a constitutional convention meant to propose changes in the country's system of government.

Earlier, Mindanao-based nongovernmental organizations rallying under the banner of Lihuk Pederal Mindanao (LPM) began a campaign to educate the public about the benefits of shifting to a federal form of government.

Calls for a change in the form of government are premised on the notion that a shift to federalism would be a lasting solution to the so-called Mindanao problem. But would a change in government inaugurate peace and development in Mindanao? If so, how should we go about shifting to federalism? Is it, as proponents claim, a change that could be completed in five years time or less?

Federalism, as a number of politicians cautioned, is something new to Filipinos, thus nothing to toy with. Perhaps in recognition of this fact, proponents of a shift to federalism launched an information campaign about the merits and demerits of such a change in government. To be sure, a common definition of federalism evades even academics.


In his book Federalism: The Politics of Intergovernmental Relations, David Nice defines it as "a system of government that includes a national government and at least one level of subnational governments, and that enables each level to make some significant decisions independent of the others." Subnational governments may include different levels from states to provinces to local governments. But independent decision making is not absolute, said Mr. Nice, adding that one level of government influences another in many ways. Federal states could best be viewed as being at the midpoint of a continuum with unitary systems at one end and confederations at the other, said the American academic. A unitary system is a form of government wherein all powers reside in the central government, which in turn has the option of devolving a limited set of functions to lower political units, such as provinces or cities. A confederation, on the other hand, is a group of autonomous political units wherein power resides solely in the regional governments, each of which is equal in stature, and where the central government (if it exists at all) performs a mere symbolic function. An example of a unitary system would be the Philippines, while that of a confederation would be pre-1800 Italy.

Considered an authority on the subject, K. C. Wheare, in his book Federalism, refers to federalism as a "method of dividing powers so that the general and regional governments are each, within a sphere, coordinate and independent." A workable federalism for the British academic is one wherein no level of government is able "to override the terms of agreement about the power and status which each is to enjoy." Distribution of powers between and among the different levels is the domain of the constitution.

In this regard, Mr. Wheare considered the United States as embodying the modern concept of federalism, wherein the constitution provides that the national and state governments "are not subordinate to one another, but coordinate with each other."

In his book The New Federalism, Michael Reagan lists down the following characteristics of a federal system:

The constitution defines the division of powers between different levels of government in such a way as to afford each level a measure of autonomy in at least one sphere of action;

Decisions of each government in its legally defined area is considered final and supreme;

Citizens are subject to the authority of all levels from the national all the way down to the local governments;

Each level of government derives its powers from either the people or the constitution;

Neither level of government could change on its own its relationship with the others;

The regional divisions--be they according to states or provinces--exist as a matter of right. The distribution of powers between the different levels of government, said Mr. Nice, could end up in three ways: one, the national government emerges as very powerful; two, the regional governments emerge as more powerful than the center; or three, both levels enjoy equal division of powers.


The American academic cites several models of federations, to include competitive, interdependent and functional models. Competitive models are premised on the notion that federalism is a zero-sum game wherein one level gains power at the expense of the other. Competitive models include nation-centered federalism, state-centered federalism, and dual or layer-cake federalism, the last referring to an arrangement wherein a clear distinction can be made between the areas of responsibility assigned to each level. Interdependent models, which assumes the possibility of sharing power and responsibilities among the different levels of government, include cooperative federalism and two modified versions of the first, namely, creative federalism, new federalism, and rowboat federalism.

Creative federalism is an arrangement wherein cooperation includes not only the different levels of government but also the private sector. New federalism as practiced, albeit in different ways, by the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations in the US, refers to a cooperative model that emphasized local innovation over national intervention in domestic (read: regional level) affairs. Lastly, rowboat federalism is referred to as the "purest interdependent model."

Functional models classify existing federal systems according to the way they divide responsibility along governmental functional lines, such as education, health, among other public services. Under this classification, there are two alternate arrangements: picket-fence federalism or bamboo-fence federalism.


Whichever model finds its way into any law that would redefine the country's political system, federalism, as compared to the unitary system, obviously affords a greater measure of autonomy to local governments. NGO proponents of the shift to federalism point to the likelihood of an increase in economic resources available to local governments owing to such a change in government. Pro-federalists foresee an 80%-20% swap in the mix of resource allocation in favor of the local governments, said Paul Paraguya, representative of the LPM who presented his organization's case during a forum on the Mindanao problem organized weeks ago by the Institute of Popular Democracy.

Apart from the perceived economic benefits, American academic Nice outlines the following benefits accruing from a shift to a federal form of government:

Allows localities to adapt national policy according to their peculiar needs; Prevents the abuse of power by the national as well as a regional government owing to the existence of other autonomous units that countercheck such abuses;

Encourages innovation as far as the multiplicity of autonomous governments affords experimentation of different social policies at the same time;

Encourages citizens to demand more efficient and responsive government;

Enables governments to manage a growing set of demands from their constituents;

Relieves central or national government from public resentment owing to the dispersal of tension across different jurisdictions; Fosters greater participation by citizens in governance;

Encourages self-reliance on the part of local governments;

Strengthens the state's military and diplomatic front given the larger resource pool afforded by autonomous and self-reliant local governments. But along with these benefits, there are costs to adopting a federal form of government, said Mr. Nice. For one, regional governments may unduly neglect externalities, as decisions made in one state may have an impact on a neighboring state, whose citizens obviously have no say on the former's policy. A localistic bias may even develop at the expense of national interest. Equal stature may result in problems of coordination among different autonomous governments, and possibly to delays in terms of program implementation. If a model of cooperative federalism is adopted, citizens may be hard put pinning responsibility for failures in policy. Thus, liable parties could easily evade responsibility for their "shared" actions.


Of course, the opportunity for each state to do its own way may lead some states to failed policies, thus to uneven development between states. Inequality may result not only between states but also within jurisdictions. The drive to attract investors may lead states to favor policies biased for the rich who bring with them higher tax revenues and investments.

Indeed, the variety of arrangements and the complexity of issues that falls under the rubric of federalism highlight the need for further study before changing the country's form of government, according to academics.

"There are so many things to understand. We should not do it overnight, even if we wanted (to change the system of government)," said Jose Abueva, professor of public administration at the University of the Philippines in Diliman.

Invited to testify before the Senate committee that is hearing proposals for the shift to federalism, Mr. Abueva cautioned against regarding federalism as a "panacea" to the Mindanao problem--an attitude apparent from proponents of the change in government, judging from their allusion to federalism as a "lasting solution" to the Muslim campaign for autonomy.

While echoing the viewpoint of fellow Filipino academics who believed that the Philippines could adopt a federal form of government, Mr. Abueva is wary about the short timeframe stipulated by proponents of a shift to federalism. By his own estimates, the Philippines would take a period of no less than 10 years to make a successful transition to federalism, involving a period of consolidation of several regions and intensive socioeconomic development in each of the consolidated regions (see sidebar The Abueva Proposal).

"Federalism is not a status that could just be conferred; it has to be demonstrated first," he said, citing the experience of the US and Malaysia, both of which went through a phase of independent states living alongside each other before making the shift to a federal system.

Even under a federal system, the US political system underwent several shifts--at least four periods, according to academic George Blair--throughout its more than a century of existence.

Federalism requires a measure of economic development and fiscal autonomy on the part of individual states that would form part of the federal system.

Indeed, British academic Wheare specifically singled out the following prerequisite of federalism, to wit: constituent units "must possess sufficient economic resources to support both an independent general (or central or national) government and the independent regional governments" For him, "it is not enough that the general government should be able to finance itself; it is essential also that the regional governments should be able to do likewise."

As it stands, only Metro Manila, Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog have the economic wherewithal to make it as autonomous states under a federal system, said Mr. Abueva. Worse, local governments have been averse to raising their taxes.

"The acid test is taxing oneself. If you want self-rule, take responsibility and be self-reliant," said the UP professor.

Source Reference:

Publisher: Businessworld
Copyright Date: 23 June 2000
URL: http://www.codewan.com.ph/peoplespower/resources/debate_0705.htm