THE WORM’S EYEVIEW: Autonomy must underpin a federal system

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 6 May) – When I first came upon Republic Act 7160 (The Local Government Code of 1991), I was impressed with its empowering provisions and its potentials for awakening People Power at the grassroots.

For instance, it enfranchised the people as never before, giving them an official role in the governing process—a role that flows from their membership in the Barangay Assembly, which is the local legislative governing body or parliament.

The Code also granted the powers of Initiative and Referendum to constituents, whereby they can propose, enact, or amend any ordinance directly (Section 120-127). Thus, they not only influence legislation and official decisions, they can actually contribute or make some themselves. Or even reject them if unacceptable or undesirable.

Not only that, the people also have the power of Recall—to take back the power they delegate to officials at election time, to remove and replace those who prove to be undesirable, to kick out unworthy public servants (for loss of confidence).

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The problem is, wielding such powers does not come naturally to Filipinos. Traditional politicos (trapos) have conditioned them since long ago into thinking that governing is something that only officials do, and plain people have no business interfering.

This conditioning has accustomed our citizens to believe they are mere subjects and followers, led by the nose like carabaos or beasts of burden without discretion or initiative or zombies with no will of their own. And so, despite their fondness for the song “My Way” Filipinos are wont to let someone else govern the community THEIR WAY.

They don’t seem keen about their Power of Recall.

Thus, it has been exercised in only a very few instances—once in Bataan where a governor was successfully removed and replaced during the last decade, once in Taguig later (which failed), then in Palawan’s Puerto Princesa City lately (outcome unknown), and half-heartedly invoked in two or three other places.

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Recall is a potent disciplinary tool but no community or constituency seems keen on using it, or maybe they’re unaware of its uses to induce good, efficient governance. Even in the barangay, where 50 signatures can trigger a Recall to remove a corrupt, abusive, or incompetent official or set of officials, it has not been exercised.

The constituency’s failure to exercise this power even in the most egregious cases has enabled countless officials on all levels to get away with corruption and abuse. It reflects a basic lack of concern or resolve to assure good governance for the community.

It also reflects failure to apprehend what autonomy is all about, that it is meant to enable constituents fulfill the policy of self-government at their level, the level of the community—which is the grassroots and the base of the Republic.

As a result of these failures, democracy in our country is basically an oligarchy—government in which power is exercised by only a few who are in office, but not by the many from whom the real power flows.

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In other words, if sovereignty indeed resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them, then there is a serious case of power failure in our democracy. It is underpinned by a weak and non-performing constituency.

Such a constituency makes for a very poor foundation for a federal system, which requires that the people be active participants in government, not just observers and absorbers of its acts and decisions, nor passive recipients of its services and projects.

A federal system must be rooted on local autonomy, in which people are serious about self-government and conscientious in performing their role in it. Otherwise, local issues cannot be addressed adequately, necessitating external intervention or interference by the upper levels.

If the issues are left unresolved, they grow to unmanageable proportions, accumulating and becoming serious or generalized problems. That’s why people must be conditioned for autonomy and self-government; otherwise political stability would be an elusive goal as society remains leader-oriented and, thus, vulnerable to manipulation and political abuse.

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Unfortunately, although we have what was trumpeted at the outset as THE AUTONOMY LAW (The Local Government Code of 1991), self-government remains unfulfilled. Our government—and we—have done a poor job of making it operative.

The power which belongs to the people is still monopolized by officeholders. Filipinos still have little or no sense of being empowered, still without real influence or a say in the way government conducts itself. Even at the primary level, barangay officials monopolize the power; their constituents are just passive recipients of goods and services, and the poor remain victims of patronage.

This has been very frustrating for the thinking citizen. They see the officeholders (people in power) exercise their powers—and getting more empowered as they’re provisioned with resources and undergo training seminars and Lakbay Aral junkets.

But they who are not in power get nothing except the crumbs of patronage and pork-barrel-type assistance. It is a state of disempowerment that augurs very badly for the Federal System.

[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 Government’s Peace Panel; awardee, PPI-UNICEF outstanding columnist. Author of books on governance, he is chairman/convenor of the Gising Barangay Movement Inc. [email protected] ]