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Does federalism in the Philippines make sense?


Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian

By Richard Javad Heydarian

(Part I)

“Better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions, than ruined by too confident a security,” British philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke warned in his seminal word Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Ever the pragmatic conservative, Burke correctly predicted the disastrous result of France’s revolutionary zeal, which brought about the Reign of Terror and, years later, an even more autocratic rule under Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Nonetheless, the British philosopher was far from a reactionary, who held onto the status no matter what.

Burke emphasized how “state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.” He believed in gradual and deliberate reforms, which systematically overhaul a system towards a more calibrated form of change that brings about positive change rather than disruptive anarchy.

Above all, he emphasized how politics is a social contract, a “partnership” between the state and society, thus the necessity to grow and prosper in synchronicity.

In Observations on a Late Publication on the Present State of the Nation (1769), Burke warned against the “general popular error to suppose the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare.”

And this brings me to the earthshaking topic of charter change in the Philippines. Do we really need it? Will it bring about transformative change? Is this the path forward to a genuine democracy and a prosperous economy?

On one hand, the more overzealous elements in the pro-federalist camp are more than eager to claim that charter change is the only way forward to address the country’s socio-economic woes and political conundrum.

Theirs is effectively mono-causal explanations, which reduce very complex problems into a one of direct causality: namely, that A (charter change) will either automatically or along the way somehow create B (a prosperous and democratic country).

Then there are the anti-federalists, those who deeply believe in the 1987 Constitution and fear that any charter change process will be hijacked by traditional politicians, vested interests and, even worse, dictators-in-the-making, who are eager to remove constitutional safeguards against autocratic rule.

For them, what is at stake is one of the “world’s best constitutions,” which, at least on paper, ensures, basic political and economic freedom of ordinary Filipinos.

As former Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. put it in quite graphic language, any “shift to federalism is a lethal experiment. A fatal leap. A plunge to death. A leap to hell.”

Reality, however, is much more complicated with its thousand shades of gray. Neither mono-causal explanations nor doomsday predictions provide a reliable guide to understanding what is precisely at stake.

First of all, it behooves us to understand that what is under consideration is not a change in our political “system,” but rather “form” of government. This is a crucial distinction that any basic political science textbook (Andrew Heywood, Politics) would underscore.

A political system, in simplest terms, is the relationship between the ruling class and the society. The feedback loop is either more democratic, meaning ordinary citizens have a say in public affairs and can hold leaders accountable, or, conversely, more autocratic, where one or few individuals decide the collective fate of a nation.

It’s essentially the difference between a country like Switzerland, where leaders are highly accountable to voters, and North Korea, when a single healthy-looking individual presides over the lives of millions of malnourished citizens.

As Greek philosopher Aristotle explained in Politics almost two millennia ago, political systems could be either the rule of one, few, or majority, and they can be either good or bad.

The form of government, however, could be either federal/unitary in structure and take a presidential/parliamentary shape, with various permutations in between.

Anyone with a functioning cognition would realize that the Philippines is what Aristotle would describe as an oligarchy, meaning the inept rule of the few to the detriment of the majority.

More than 70% of legislators hail from political dynasties, with 178 political dynasties exercising de facto control over 73 out of 81 provinces in the country. The top 40 richest families swallowed up 76% of newly created growth in recent years.

By every single metric, this heavy concentration of wealth and power has not translated into better lives for the majority of Filipinos. So we live in an oligarchy-disguised-as-democracy. That is our fundamental challenge as a nation that aspires to bring genuine democracy for ordinary citizens.

The question, therefore, is: Will a change in our “form” of government bring about a transformation in our political “system,” namely from a feckless oligarchy into a functioning democracy?

(To be continued)

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