No better time than never

Former Chief Justice Reynato Puno

Former Chief Justice Reynato Puno says this is the “better time” to shift to a federal form of government. He didn’t say what he was comparing today with (a better time than when?). But he did claim that it’s because there’s enough public support to realize it.

Puno didn’t say this because the public opinion polls say so. No survey on what people think of federalism has so far established if there is indeed widespread support for it. The former chief justice instead based this assessment on the results of the 2016 presidential elections, which Rodrigo Duterte won with 16 million votes.

Since Duterte the candidate made the shift to a federal government from the present unitary form one of the planks of what passed for his campaign platform, Puno concludes that his victory indicates popular support for federalism.

That conclusion assumes that the electorate chooses officials on the basis of what they stand for rather than how they speak and act in public, how well they sing and dance, or pander to popular prejudices. If Puno is correct, one could conclude as well that there’s popular support for the country’s parting ways with the United States, or even for socialism. Mr. Duterte did promise the first, and after all described himself, though falsely, as partial to the second.

The more likely reason why Mr. Duterte won is because there’s a substantial number of voters who think cursing and incoherence in the English language are presidential virtues, and that killing a hundred thousand drug addicts and pushers is the solution to the country’s supposedly huge drug problem. Few of Mr. Duterte’s supporters are likely to have even weighed the advantages and disadvantages of a federal form of government compared to a unitary one, or can even tell what each means and what the difference is between them.

But Puno’s belief that they support federalism is understandable. Puno, whom Mr. Duterte appointed last January to head the consultative committee to review the 1987 Constitution, obviously favors it — which, however, raises the question of whether his committee intends to find out whether federalism is what the people want, or if it simply assumes that there is, indeed, a “clamor” for the change, as other Duterte regime partisans have been saying.

In any case, the question remains: is this at all the best, or even the “better” time to shift to federalism? Should Filipinos even be considering it?

Puno’s argument for the change is two-fold. He believes that the Philippines is a failed democracy because of the unitary form of government, which supposedly concentrates power in the hands of the central administration. During the February 17 pro-federalism demonstration in Quezon City, he also mentioned the Bangsamoro demand for autonomy as a compelling reason for making the shift.

Regional autonomy, however, can be realized through such special legislation as the Bangsamoro Basic Law, and without dividing the country into separate, autonomous states, with the powers of the federal government being limited only to the conduct of foreign relations and national defense. And it’s not the unitary form of government that has made a mockery of democracy; it’s the people who have been running it.

Nevertheless, a federal form of government’s enabling its constituent-states to raise and utilize their own resources, and to pass their own laws appropriate to their needs and problems, are compelling arguments. But whether that form of government, in the current Philippine context, will result in further dividing an already fragmented country by encouraging the more affluent states to shut their borders and keep their advantages for themselves is certainly something to consider. Of even more urgency is the possibility of federalism’s further strengthening the political dynasties that control entire provinces and even regions.

One indication of the latter is the demand by the League of Provinces of the Philippines to convert each of the country’s 81 provinces into an independent state under a federal form of government. The idea is apparently for the dynasties to retain and even strengthen their hold on power.

One of the Puno committee’s members has brushed aside that demand, on the argument that in a federal form of government, provinces have to be grouped into states precisely to curb dynastic power and encourage economic development. But the reality is that, as the cacique leadership of the House of Representatives pointedly declared last January when the Puno committee was constituted, that body is “only consultative.”

The final decisions on the manner through which the shift to federalism will be achieved, as well as on the specific amendments to the Constitution, will be made by the constituent assembly into which the current members of Congress will convene themselves. Puno’s own view that amendments to the Constitution should be through a constitutional convention is from the beginning already in conflict with the House “supermajority’s” insistence that it be done through a constituent assembly.

That fact alone contradicts Puno’s “better time” argument. It’s an indication of the House and its dynastic membership’s focus on preserving their power at the local level, where it really matters to them. Under a federal form of government, the dynasties in control of the states — and their number can be whatever suits the constituent assembly of self-serving dynasts — can after all raise their own taxes, pass their own laws, and pretty much do what they please in concealment and without being checked.

There is of course the press, the mandate of which is to monitor government and hold it to account. But the bad news is that the states under the control of local tyrants can pass laws to restrict and silence the press consistent with the proposal of the current House majority to emasculate Article III Section 4 of the 1987 Constitution, which protects free expression and press freedom as well as freedom of assembly. The crypto-fascists dominant in Congress will make a mockery of those rights by inserting the phrase “the responsible exercise of” in that particular provision. (It would then read thus: “No law shall be passed abridging the responsible exercise of the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”)

Journalists are already being killed, mostly in the rural communities. Four were slain during the 19 months of the Duterte regime. In at least 61 of the 156 cases of journalists killed since 1986 for reporting and commenting on corruption, criminal syndicates, the despoliation of the environment and other issues, local and provincial officials including governors and mayors have been tagged as the masterminds.

This is specially apparent in the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre — the worst incident of its kind in history — in which 58 men and women including 32 journalists and media workers were brutally murdered. Several members of the powerful Ampatuan political clan are accused of masterminding the massacre, and of using the military, paramilitary and police personnel under their pay and currently being tried with them to do the killings.

Imagine a situation in which warlords are in control of states that they can run as their exclusive feudal domains with even more powers. Imagine how their command over the police, paramilitary groups and even military units will enable them to violate human rights even more, and to curtail press freedom.

If only because of that even more horrific certainty, this is not the “better time” to shift to a federal form of government. And there can never be even a good enough time to do it as long as the political dynasties are in control of government and the provincial and local fiefdoms that inflicted them on this sorry land.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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