TURNING POINT: Federalism: Potential and Pitfalls

NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews / 13 May) – What are the problems obtaining in our current government system that may be addressed to and hopefully solved by adopting federalism? And what problems are likely to worsen under federalism?

Federalism Solves

Inefficiency. The existing highly centralized mode of governance is very inefficient. The national government attends to the many if not all the problems besetting the country, for instance, from the sizzling trouble at West Philippines Sea to an environmental disaster in a mining community down to the crazy traffic situation in Metropolitan Manila. The many and sometimes conflicting layers of decision making in the current system makes the fulfillment of these expectations and delivery of services wanting and ineffectual at best.

Instead of digging into and unleashing their very own resources and talents in solving the problems that directly affect them, the local government units generally invoke and wait for the intervention of the central government where the bulk of the treasury for governance is held. This develops a dependency governance culture and stunts the growth, strengths and capacities of the LGUs. Moreover, in expecting a national solution to all problems one ends up with solutions that would be effective in some areas but are unworkable in others.

In adopting federalism, more powers of government is responsibly dispersed to member states via the federal constitution giving them the right to solve some problems that distinctly and directly affect them. To allow states to create solutions to their own problems, using policies and laws that work best in their state, means that each state can come up with its own solutions, making government more efficient and responsive in the exercise of its functions.

Tyranny. A centralized government can be a breeding ground for tyrants. A CEO riding on his popularity may use his power and authority to act beyond what is allowed by the Constitution supposedly for the benefit of the people but in reality for his selfish interest to remain and entrench himself in power. The unbridled use of executive power could destroy the legal system and would hurl the country back to the justice system of the dark ages.

Under a federal government, an emerging tyrant will reckon with the restrains readied for such hazard by the federal government as well as by the constituent states. The CEO of a federal government is under constant check by other branches of the government and has lesser or no opportunity at all to run berserk.

Lack of Participation in Governance. In a democracy where most of determining power is exercised by the national government, the participation of the people in governance, say, in planning and policy making and other matters affecting them is almost non-existent. At best they can only protest, albeit unproductively, to what is imposed on them. Responsible federalism may solve this problem through the constituent states.

The state brings the government closer to the people. There could be more avenues for participation at the state level both at the initiative of the state government and concerned citizens, making the government more responsive to the needs of the people. Moreover, with greater citizen participation in the affairs of the state, transparency and accountability in governance will be enshrined. Corruption which often plagues the central government will be given focus and extra attention at the state level and may likely reduce or curtail it.

Historical and Cultural Conflicts. Conflicts arising from the accident of history and culture have wasted the lives of armed combatants and innocent civilians, depriving certain regions to live in peace and prosperity.

In a federal system, people with common customs and traditions may form into a constituent federal state. As may be allowed by the federal constitution they may establish institutions and systems to carry out legitimate goals and purposes through their own policy and law-making to solve area problems and meet their needs and aspirations. Particularly in the south of the country, allowing people with irreconcilable differences to live separately in different states may yet put to an end the recurring armed conflicts and the vicious bloodletting resulting from endless disagreements.

Federalism Worsens

On the other hand, what are the problems obtaining in the present order that may yet worsen under federalism?

The highly imbalance political and economic development among provinces, cities and regions does not augur well at the moment for the adoption of federalism. Naturally such imbalance will carry over into the formation of constituent federal states. There would, therefore be, in this regard, strong and weak states. How each would operate, especially the weaker ones, with the burden of underdevelopment and its accompanying problems, would define the stability and survival of the entire federal government. Nonetheless, if the country has to change then it should be ready for the inevitable. There is no virtue in waiting for the right time because the right time may never come.

Again, there are virulent problems now obtaining in the country that may further worsen in adopting federalism.

Consider this. In constituent states the territory of which were once held or dominated by strong political and economic elite, political dynasties instead of being dismantled by the new system may in fact get entrenched and defeat the very purpose of the democratic change towards a more participatory governance. Once this happens mega life-draining corruption will no longer be concentrated just in the central government as obtaining in the present structure but will instead flourish and disperse across politically weak states. Political dynasties subvert the whole gamut of governance and spawns inefficiency, injustice and wasteful development-obstructing conflicts.

Moreover, in family or clan-oriented communities with private armies, the state that may be formed in the area may yet become an arena for violent political engagements that could wreck its development and progress and push its people down deep into the quagmire of poverty and suffering. The turmoil and havocs in such states may sprawl to neighboring states and will ruin the peace and development of the entire archipelago.

Will the Bangsamoro people secessionist struggle finally end once they are given more power and authority to govern themselves as a constituent federal state?

The prospect is high but only if they succeed in harmonizing their inter-tribal differences and unite and work together as one people. Federalism will allow them to develop productively under their very own direction and control the rich resources in their territory. The major proceeds of the development may now be used directly to meet the needs of the people, reduce inequality and free them from the clutches of poverty. Otherwise, the atavistic competition for power and dominance may worsen and will continue to divide them and revive secessionist aspirations – away from the constituent state and out from the federal republic.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan, Ph.D., is retired professor and former chancellor of Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental, Philippines.)