The Explainer: The Resurrection of Federalism

I. That Federal urge


I’d suppose an image like this one, is what most of us associate with the word Federalism and Federal. But when these worthies –the gentlemen here immortalized as the signers of America’s declaration of independence- put pen to paper, whatever association they had in mind was different from the kind of association America actually became.

This painting commemorates 1776, but the Continental Congress this independence declaration produced had to work through two constitutions before the United States of America became a truly Federal Republic in 1789. And they had to go through a Civil War to really settle issues between the states, left over from the birth of the North American Union.

I’ve been enjoying this book, “American Creation,” which chronicles the main issues that hounded America’s founding fathers. But even as it’s delightful to ponder what Washington, Jefferson, Adams and others were quarreling over in the 18th century, why is Federalism appealing to us?

The conquest of the territories that now compose the Philippines was undertaken by the Spanish on a kingdom-by-kingdom basis. And upon getting local royalty to accept Spanish sovereignty, the Spanish then reorganized territory into provinces. At first, the nerve center of these territories was Cebu, and then, it became Manila.

The Americans, in conquering the Philippines, built on what the Spanish had established and created new provinces of their own –Rizal Province is a good example. They formalized local and provincial governments, taking away the participation of the Catholic Church. Again, everything was administered from Manila.

When we successfully negotiated the restoration of our independence, the writers of the 1935 Constitution were concerned with keeping the country together, since the issue of independence would soon be an accomplished fact. They decided they preferred a strong state.

And so, our development has led us to being classified as a unitary state, one where there is a strong central government.

Perhaps the greatest innovation to the way our country’s been organized was the creation of regions by President Marcos.

This was a way to neutralize the tendency of provincial leaders to resist national interference: or put another way, to force inwardly-looking local leaders to somehow work together, at least on a regional basis. Since then, we’ve adopted the concept of autonomous areas, of which the ARMM is a prime example.

But this doesn’t address Federalism. The Spanish never thought of it; the Americans who lived by it didn’t transplant it here, so where did it come from?

Our revolution began with eight provinces placed under martial law. It spread. We had three wars of independence. First was the Katipunan-led revolution, from 1896-1897. Then there was the Aguinaldo dictatorship from 1898-1899. Both against Spain. And then there was our First Republic’s resistance to American conquest.

It was during the third war of independence, when the Malolos Republic ruled much of Luzon, that President Aguinaldo had to try to find a way to include the rest of the archipelago. The Visayan Federal Republic was constituted in Iloilo and had to be convinced to recognize the government in Malolos, which it did. Aguinaldo was less successful in courting the cooperation of the Sultan of Sulu.

With the defeat of the First Republic, and with the creation of a strong central government in 1935, thinkers and leaders like Salvador Araneta remained dissatisfied with the setup, and, looking back to what might have been in the 1890s, revived Federalism as a way to organize our country in the 1960s and 1970s.

The idea has remained interesting to some in the Visayas and of increasing interest to some in Mindanao.

President Arroyo, for one, has been moderately interested in Federalism and in 2005 and 2006, expressed support for it.

But her past and present allies, have been more interested in parliamentary government than a Federal system. Former President Ramos, for one, has been ambivalent about federalism. Former Speaker de Venecia, in 2006, tried to engineer a shift to parliamentary government but nearly sparked People Power.

So what might be President Arroyo’s own preferences, her own devout wish? We might find out in July, when she delivers her state of the nation address. But what’s interesting is that the Senate, which fought constitutional change in 2006, has taken the lead in reviving Federalism.

What that proposal is, is what we’ll tackle when we return.


II. Pimentel’s Proposal


The Senate proposal, per news reports, is as follows. The country will be subdivided into eleven federal states. Let’s take a look at these states, since you and I might wake up one day finding ourselves residents of one of them. Here they are, with their state capitals, too.

1.     The State of Northern Luzon;

2.     The State of Central Luzon ;

3.     The State of Southern Tagalog;

4.     The State of Bicol ;

5.     The State of Minparom;

6.     The State of Eastern Visayas ;

7.     The State of Central Visayas ;

8.     The State of Western Visayas ;

9.     The State of Northern Mindanao ;

10. The State of Southern Mindanao ; and

11. The State of BangsaMoro

12. The Federal Administrative Region, Metro-Manila.


The executive department, that is, the presidency, will remain in Metro Manila. Congress, however, will be in Tagbilaran City, out of sight and perhaps, out of mind.

Where do these proposals leave our regions (17 at present)? Shouldn’t they have provided a basis for new Federal States? After all, provinces have evolved a relationship with each other based on the present regions.

One obstacle is that forming new states –a case of consolidating territory and resources- clashes with the tendency of provincial politicians to protect themselves by gerrymandering smaller and smaller provinces. We have gone from 52 provinces in 1951 to 81 provinces as of 2007.  Indonesia and Malaysia haven’t gerrymandered on this scale; Thailand has actually reduced the number of its provinces (see my column, “Gerrymandering,” 08/06/07). Federalism ignores this reality altogether.

Returning to the proposed states, each state will elect six senators. Filipinos overseas will elect nine senators. The Senate would thus go from the 24 members it’s had since 1916, to a membership of 75. As an appetizer for the House, which would have a maximum of 350 members, the term limit (currently three terms) would be raised to a maximum of four terms, still at three years per term for representatives (Senators will stay at a maximum of two terms of six years per term).

And finally, since we should all follow the money, one big reason Federalism is attractive, is that provinces think it’s a way to guarantee they keep more money for themselves.

Here’s a couple of slides from Senator Pimentel’s proposal, which details how the distribution of our taxes would take place.

Take a look.

But you may have noticed that as former national treasurer Liling Briones recently put it, what these proposals do is add a new layer to our government. We’ve had to live with national and local governments; you’d now have state governments, since existing provinces will be retained within the proposed Federal States.

And the implications of adding and not reducing our government costs, is what we’ll tackle when we return.


My view


Even as the House is poised to begin discussions with the Senate on Senator Pimentel’s Federalism proposal, the public has a lot of catching up to do, beginning with getting its hands on the actual text of the Senate’s resolution and then dissecting it. The public needs to do this, because once the House starts haggling with the Senate over Federalism, the public could end up squeezed out of the discussion.

Since the Senate has put Federalism back on the table, revisiting the issue will be useful. At present, the concept of Federalism is still too alien and abstract for the public at large to really get excited about it, even as quite a few people have gotten obsessed with the idea. Reintroducing the idea to the public will help focus attention on the many proposals being put forward to improve our political system and foster development and democratization in the country.

But let’s talk.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.