CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/17 February) — The Local Government Code (R.A. 7160) must be among our least apprehended pieces of legislation, especially as regards its provisions for governing the barangay, the primary level of our government.
For one, very few Filipinos seem aware that there’s a difference in the way a barangay is supposed to be governed, as distinguished from way the upper levels (municipal to national) are governed.
Everyone knows about representative democracy and the presidential system that has been in place since the outset of our statehood. But who is aware that the Code prescribes direct democracy with a parliamentary system for the barangay?
In fact, the Code had reconfigured the old unitary, monolithic structure of our government and turned it into a dual system—presidential above, parliamentary below. There are serious implications to this duality in the way our Republic is governed.
Our Founding Fathers thought they had given our Republic—the First Democracy in Asia—a pyramid-shaped structure. In fact, it turned out to be an inverted pyramid: top heavy, with political power bunched at the upper levels—overcrowded with big-time politicians at the top, while their small-time operatives manipulate the people and the community below.
The Local Government Code redesigned that ungainly structure so that the inverted pyramid was repositioned right-side up—giving it a broad base anchored on the sovereignty of every citizen. Then it introduced features and processes that held the promise of transforming the system into a genuine democracy by making every community a bastion of People Power.
First, the Code elevated the barangay into a full-fledged government—the basic political unit of the Republic serving as “the primary planning and implementing unit of government.” It vested the barangay with powers and resources that used to lodge only at the upper levels: executive, legislative, judicial—including police or regulatory power, taxing power, and power of eminent domain, with requisite facilities and resources.
Second, in ordaining the barangay as the primary unit of government, the Code transformed the structure into three levels, namely: primary (barangay), intermediate (municipal, provincial, regional), and national.
It used to consist of only two layers: local and national—and local referred to the municipal and provincial governments only since the barangay was merely a quasi-municipal entity with minimal powers and resources and no corporate standing.
The Code also boosted the primary and intermediate levels with added powers and resources devolved from the national government, decentralizing the system (although this isn’t always clear from the way the traditional politicians run the bureaucracy.)
When direct democracy with a parliamentary government was prescribed for the barangay, it signaled a radical departure from the unitary-presidential system that everyone is familiar with. Unfortunately, such changes were not properly pointed out or explained, so they largely escaped everyone’s notice.
Even today, many people don’t realize that our governmental structure is no longer unitary, not monolithic anymore. They’re unaware that the presidential and representative mode of governance no longer applies to the primary level because the Code had done away with the old monolith, the aloof and unyielding structure that debased Philippine democracy by its excesses and inefficiencies.
To balance the formidable powers of the barangay chairman (head of the government’s three branches), the Code created the Barangay Assembly—its Parliament except in name—to serve as the oversight body to keep the chairman and kagawads accountable and under the community’s scrutiny.
The creation of this Assembly-Parliament in every barangay is one of the Code’s unique contributions to the advancement of Philippine democracy—and potentially the most important. Its all-inclusive membership enfranchised and empowered every Filipino as never before: his membership in it gives him a voice and an influence over government affairs that have long been denied him.
In other words, over and above the right to be represented by elected proxies at upper levels, every Filipino today has access to his local government and influence over it because the Code ordained him as an officer thereof—a member of parliament in small letters.
It is time people know that from the time the Code was promulgated, representative government applied to the upper levels only—where elected officials are vested with the tasks of governance. But in the barangay, in the words of Congressman Antonio Cuenco in his sponsorship of the Code, Filipinos “govern themselves, exercise democratic processes according to their wishes and skills, and take their destiny in their own hands.”
It would have been so good if that declaration had been pursued and attained these past years (already 23 years since the Code was enacted in 1991). But sad to say, the primary level of government remains dysfunctional to this day. For lack of understanding of the Code’s intents perhaps, or because the implementing agencies, particularly the department of the interior and local government (DILG), have done a very poor job of explaining and propagating the changes it ordained, the people think local governance can be left on auto-pilot and without their attention and intervention.
So is anyone surprised that to this day barangay citizens remain unempowered, voiceless, unassertive, and without a substantive role in local governance? Shame!
Manny is 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 Govt’s Peace Panel; awardee, PPI-UNICEF outstanding columnist. He is chairman/convenor, Gising Barangay Movement Inc. and author of books on governance. firstname.lastname@example.org