COMMENTARY: Remembering the pre-colonial local governance structure

MELBOURNE, Australia (MindaNews/17 January) — During the pre-colonial era, the notion of governance was premised on the preservation of the community. The datu was expected to protect his people from their enemies and safeguard their way of life. More importantly, a datu’s ability to retain his position as head of the barangay depended highly on his performance as a leader.

This tradition of responsible rule however was completely destroyed during the Spanish colonial period. Under the encomienda system the tribal ruling class were utilized by the colonial government as their lackeys (i.e. tribute collectors). Those who embraced their new role became the first among the indigenous population to be Hispanized and were rewarded for their loyal servitude with wealth and limited authority. This was a fundamental transformation because the cabeza, unlike their previous incarnation as datu, functioned less as a community leader and more as the servant of the town’s parish priest and constabulary officer. The underpinning obligation to protect the barangay was now gone. From a mandate to be earned, authority to govern the community became a commodity that can be bargained for.

Not surprisingly, many from the Filipino ruling elite immediately and willingly collaborated with the Americans because this was the only way to preserve their local power. Sadly, their almost child-like acceptance of the new colonizer’s ideas of modernity and statehood proved to be the seed out of which grew the political dynasties we see today. According to noted scholar Michael Cullinane in his seminal work, Ilustrado Politics Filipino Elite Responses to American Rule, 1898-1908—“the structure and operation of Filipino national politics had its origins in the municipal and provincial elections of 1901-1902 and in the proliferation of political networks and alliances that came into being as local elites competed for political power through the electoral process.”

Since then political dynasties have made local governance a family enterprise. Father is governor; mother is congresswoman; brother is mayor; son is councilor; niece is SK; cousin is barangay captain; kinakapatid is vice-mayor, and so forth. This phenomenon is summed up perfectly by respected Mindanao civil society activist, Guiamel Alim, asclan-inclusive government.

I submit that an effective countermeasure against the domination of political dynasties in local governance is to recapture the bayanihan spirit in the administration of the kapitolyo and the munisipyo. Indeed, the local government structure itself must be configured to facilitate this community-oriented governance mindset. Unfortunately however, the current model established by the Local Government Code (LGC) facilitates the exact opposite. Local politicos have exploited the system to ensure the fate of the local government is highly dependent on the person holding the gubernatorial or mayoral office. Thereby, entrenching further the patronage relationship between the local executive and his constituency as well as allowing their unhealthy prominence in local governance.

But a way of reversing this aberration is to remember how pre-colonial rulers practiced collective governance over the tribe. The datu was the head but there was always a council of elders beside him to help him govern. The alternative local governance structure can therefore be configured to reflect this pre-colonial tradition. So instead of a mayor governing in opposition to a legislative council, he can be mandated to govern in collaboration with the council. There are two changes involved here. First, the position of vice-mayor must now be removed. And second, the adoption of a parliamentary type of structure for local governance similar to the “leader-and-cabinet model” used in the United Kingdom. The end result is local governance at the city and municipal level becomes a collective and collaborative effort of the mayor and the council with executive and legislative functions now merged.

This pre-colonial tradition of collective governance can also be applied at the provincial level. According to esteemed historian Fr. Horacio de la Costa, S.J. in his book, Asia and the Philippines, strong datus ruled with the collaboration of other chiefs who gave support to one another. Indeed, important decisions were always made by consensus amongst the datus. So again instead of the governor governing the province in opposition to a provincial legislative council and institutionally disconnected to the mayors of the component municipalities and cities of the province, he can be mandated to govern in collaboration with this latter group. Two changes again in this regard. First, the position of vice-governor and provincial board members are eliminated. And second, the governance of the province becomes parliamentary in nature with the governor as head and the council of mayors as his cabinet. Governance of the province also becomes a collective effort with executive and legislative functions now merged.

As a corollary to this restructuring, the mechanism of sectoral representation can be further enhanced in the “cabinet” to widen and deepen community participation in policy formulation and implementation. Moreover, an extremely important component of this alternative local governance structure is that there should be no overlapping designation of functions. It must provide a clear and unequivocal allocation of responsibilities between the different levels of local government.

More detailed study on this alternative local governance model is still needed. Nonetheless, it should interest lawmakers to amend the LGC forthwith because of these foreseeable benefits. First, the removal of the vice positions and the provincial board members could amount to significant savings in the national budget. Second, streamlining the available political positions makes electoral competition tougher. This could potentially disturb political dynasties in their comfortable status. And finally, because local governance is underpinned by a sense of community collectivism, development planning at the local level can be more coordinated and coherent. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Atty. Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a practicing lawyer. He is the author of the book, Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective. He researches on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism)