THE WORM’S EYEVIEW: Passive citizens make federalism an oligarchy

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 25 Feb) – Advocates of the federal system of government had better be sure about how they define it, how it is implemented, what role the people will play in its dynamics, and how they are to be initiated into the system so it will really perform as intended.

It’s important to be clear about these because, like most utopian ideas, federalism is easier said than done. And it can end up a captive of vested interests—especially by traditional politicians (trapos) with feudal sensibilities and habits.

Consider for example the long-standing and much-extolled ideal of local autonomy. It’s supposed to empower citizens and enable them to exemplify self-government in administering the affairs of their immediate community.

To institutionalize local autonomy or self-government, the Local Government Code was enacted in 1991 (R.A. 7160). It streamlined the political structure and established appropriate mechanisms at the grassroots for the exercise of People Power in every barangay—which it transformed into a full-fledged government where its constituents play a direct role in its operation.


Today, already 23 years since the Code went into effect, the people of the barangay are still powerless, without effective voice or influence in respect of their own government. And no one in the upper-level governments does anything to remedy their state of powerlessness.

As a result, with People Power asleep, the trapos are having the time of their lives living off the fat of the community while fattening their dynasties.

And because autonomy remains a pipe-dream, still to become reality, governance is dysfunctional because of its failure to kick in especially at the primal level of our system.

This dismal lack of autonomy and failure of people empowerment places the chances of success for federalism in serious doubt.


The essence of federalism is autonomy, which is a less complicated concept and easier to grasp. If 23 years cannot implant autonomy into the people’s consciousness effectively to enable them to govern the small community of the barangay, what are the chances that they can govern a federal in the foreseeable future?

True autonomy can only sprout from the involvement, energy, and inputs of the people—and not just the run-of-the-mill type of people, but people with some sense of their being sovereign citizens, and who will brook no abuse or manipulation of their inherent power.

Any call for a shift to federalism must be built upon citizens with a commitment to democracy, people who know more or less how to govern, and who are ready, willing, and able to participate in the governing process—doing so with a passion for citizen responsibility and good governance.

To build a federal system upon the tenuous assurance of leaders with a knack for autocratic or presumptuous leadership would be to start a delicate balancing act with the wrong foot.


It will only plant the seeds of oligarchy and dynastic rule, and more surely entrench the already powerful. It will give more power to those in power, but none for the people.

Thus, advocacy for the federal system at this time should be accompanied by a campaign to empower the people, ushering them into the processes of governance in their community or barangay.

It would not be a difficult campaign to launch, as it would merely entail leadership in complying with the Local Government Code, propagating knowledge of its empowering provisions, and sense that only an active citizenry can assure good governance, prevent corruption, and induce equal opportunity for all.

But where people prefer a strongman type of leader, federalism will only create conditions for oligarchs and martinets to takeover, be firmly in control, and let political dynasties crowd out the democrats.


Democracy is not served by autocratic or bullying styles of governing. To enthrone such leaders within the framework of a federal system will only serve the purposes of scofflaws and shameless political monopolists.

It’s not wise to change a system and unwittingly indulge the spoiled attitudes and habits of imperious leaders, who then develop a messianic complex, thinking themselves God’s Gift to society. It will embolden them all the more to exploit the system, to indulge their penchant for pushing around hapless constituents, to employ intimidation to browbeat people into toeing their line, and to say or do things as it they’re above the law or exempt from due process. In which case, federalism will sire a resurgent feudalism.

The success of a federal system lies in the extent to which people at the grassroots participate in government. Unless they’re actively engaged at their level, a federal system would merely create additional layers of bureaucrats and politicians, entrenching family dynasties more solidly.

Thus, a passive citizenry does not augur well for a federal form of government. To advocate for it, one must start with promoting the spirit, substance, and motions of autonomy. And the Local Government Code, with its prescriptions for the primary government of the barangay, is a perfect framework to start with.

[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. An author of books on governance, he is chairman/convenor ofGising Barangay Movement [email protected]]