COMMENTARY: What “Imperial Manila” really means

MELBOURNE, Australia (MindaNews/19 August) — Federalism is the mighty weapon that will destroy Imperial Manila!

Federalists actually treat this rallying call as self-evident. No wonder then that they never bother to provide the specifics of this “empire” in Metro Manila. Interestingly however, three decisions by the Supreme Court provide some enlightenment on the extent of its dominion.

First, the landmark case of Marcos vs. Manglapus where it was ruled that the executive authority of the President is all-encompassing and absolute:

“The powers of the President are not limited to what are expressly enumerated in the article on the Executive Department and in scattered provisions of the Constitution. This is so, notwithstanding the avowed intent of the members of the Constitutional Commission of 1986 to limit the powers of the President as a reaction to the abuses under the regime of Mr. Marcos, for the result was a limitation of specific power of the President, particularly those relating to the commander-in-chief clause, but not a diminution of the general grant of executive power.” [G.R. No. 88211 (October 27, 1989)]

Second, the case of Carpio vs. Executive Secretary where the Doctrine of Qualified Political Agency or the “alter-ego of the President” principle was explained and the notion of a “single executive” was further affirmed:

“Under this doctrine, which recognizes the establishment of a single executive, all executive and administrative organizations are adjuncts of the Executive Department, the heads of the various executive departments are assistants and agents of the Chief Executive, and, except in cases where the Chief Executive is required by the Constitution or law to act in person or the exigencies of the situation demand that he act personally, the multifarious executive and administrative functions of the Chief Executive are performed by and through the executive departments, and the acts of the Secretaries of such departments, performed and promulgated in the regular course of business, are, unless disapproved or reprobated by the Chief Executive presumptively the acts of the Chief Executive.” [G.R. No. 96409 (February 14, 1992)]

Third, the case of Pimentel vs. Aquirre which confirmed the enduring practice of top-down economic development planning despite its obvious inconsistency to the constitutional prescription of local autonomy, and thus further entrenching the supremacy of the central apparatus in the overall management of government:

“But to enable the country to develop as a whole, the programs and policies effected locally must be integrated and coordinated towards a common national goal. Thus, policy-setting for the entire country still lies in the President and Congress.” [G.R. No. 132988 (July 19, 2000)]

These rulings all sum up to the reality that practically all public service mandates intersect at the Office of the President. Consequently, we continue to be burdened with an over-centralized government structure.

Indeed, the imperial character of Metro Manila is but a manifestation of the fact that since colonial times we have placed our collective fate on the skills and caprices of the official occupant of Malacañang Palace.

I am fairly certain therefore that its current lord, President Rodrigo Duterte, street-wise as he is, is now realizing how the office can make tyrants, both for the good and the bad. He is now beginning to be aware how a president can begin his term as a patriot brimming with noble intentions but then end it with a slew of secret bank accounts and a plunder indictment.

Since the federalization of the Philippines is essentially a nation-rebuilding effort, it should, at the very least, entail a redesigning of executive power. This means moving away from the notion of a “single” and “all-compassing” Chief Executive. Accordingly, the duties covered by this state authority should be clearly allocated between the central and local bureaucracies.

The point to remember here is that the division of functions has to be formulated in such a way that the assignment of accountability is unequivocal. We do not want a distribution scheme that leaves everybody clueless as to which government office can be held answerable for our dissatisfaction. Neither do we want overlapping designations that allow government agents to pass the blame for failure to deliver public services to our satisfaction.

Furthermore, to shed the President’s “supreme emperor” image, his general supervision power over local government should no longer be retained. The conventional view that local governments are mere “agents” of the national government is already outdated. The more appropriate civil law analogy to characterize relations between the two levels of government is that in the pursuit of national development, they both actually should form a partnership.

It cannot be overemphasized enough that one solid truth about federalism is that it does not diminish the integrity of the nation-state. This undertaking is not just about the devolution of political and fiscal powers to the sub-national level, but it is also about a shared responsibility of shaping the future of the whole country.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in its May 2014 report, All on board: making inclusive growth happen:

“Yet, effective decentralisation for inclusive growth requires a solid whole-of-government coordination and a clear division of responsibilities for the actions taken at the different levels of government.”

To conclude, diffusing or de-centralizing executive authority should be a main component in any proposed federal design. Fortunately, the man at the helm, President Duterte, is a proven firebrand that can successfully break Malacañang’s firm and long-held chokehold on the powers of the state.

Indeed, his obvious disdain for the trappings of the office and the ruthlessness he has displayed in governing the nation will enable him to ignore the bloody trail of dynastic politicos (his allies included) left behind by the deconstruction of the imperial throne in Manila.

Of course, the Duterte administration is only a few months into a 6-year term. Therefore, we can only be cautiously optimistic. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a practicing lawyer, is the author of the book “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.”)