Duterte’s Federalism: False Promise

As a Brit with an interest in Philippine history, I am struck by the similarity of the demand for Brexit with the call for a Federal system for the Philippines.

Both are ill-conceived, emotional responses to the real or alleged failures of the existing system to tackle problems of governance. In the case of Brexit, a majority was induced to vote for an exit from the European Union without a plan as to what to do next. The reason for lack of plan was partly that much of the Brexit case had been based on lies, and partly that its supporters ranged from those wanting fewer trade rules and those expecting Brexit would bring more trade and job protection, regardless of economic cost.

In the case of the Philippines, there is now a rush to join the Duterte bandwagon, of which Federalism is a part. The tendency of politicians to abandon their parties and supposed principles and head for the new trough is a long-established local tradition. That in itself explains a lot about the general failure of governments in the Philippines to develop the economy and society as successfully as most of their once poorer neighbors.

This rush to the central source of patronage may reasonably be considered a reflection of what is called “imperial Manila.” Yet one must wonder how any federal system would of itself change that attitude. The fault lies not with Manila holding the purse strings but in the weakness of the bureaucracy. It is the bureaucracy, operating under transparent rules, that should be responsible for actual allocation of disbursements of funds. Politicians in democratic societies exist to make laws and lay down broad policies, not implementation.

It has been widely suggested that the Philippines could benefit from decentralization in the same way as Indonesia after the fall of Suharto. However, there is no analogy here. Indonesia was reacting against a system that was both highly centralized and undemocratic. President Suharto ruled through an army and a central bureaucracy. Local dynasties barely existed.

The late strongman Ferdinand Marcos might have wanted to do the same but lacked an army and a bureaucracy independent enough to ignore local elites. He was a political wheeler-dealer, not a military man commanding an army. Indonesian de-centralization led to much inefficiency and decentralization, not elimination of corruption.

However, devolution of power was primarily to the kabupaten level – a unit of government smaller than a Philippine province. It has not led to divisive regionalism as could well have happened if devolution had been to the province level. (The average province has 8 million people but East, West and Central Java each have about 40 million).

It is very difficult to see how the Philippines could have a seriously decentralised revenue raising system. Smuggling is a big enough issue already without devolving trade issues to differential rules and taxes. Local retention of taxes on mining would help some states within the system, but not necessarily those who most need revenue. Anyway mining is a small part of the economy – and may well get smaller if there really is a crackdown on the environmental destruction mostly caused by small and sometimes illegal mines.

State taxes on land would favor the revenues of the most developed parts of the nation and taxes on agriculture are inconceivable when the rural sector is the major source of poverty. Creating local taxes to fund local projects in poor areas is tough.

Collection of personal and corporate incomes taxes would necessarily remain national and thus centrally administered. So politics would be a matter for the allocation of resources between the states as well as between priorities – health, education, defense, etc. Is there any reason why that in itself would make spending fairer or more effective? Nor is there much reason to expect revenues to increase. As it is, the weakness of the central government at present is partly due to the low level of revenue collection – 14 percent of GDP.

The Philippines already has, partly thanks to its fragmented geography, a highly de-centralized political system. The strength of dynastic politics at provincial level – of which the Duterte family is a prime example – is one consequence of that. The record of the Ampatuans in Maguindanao, who were responsible for one of the worst massacres of political enemies and journalists in history, is evidence enough that it is weak central administration, not “imperial Manila” that is holding the nation back.

Would re-organizing politics into, say, six states or 12 regions, really alter that? Possibly bigger units would reduce the power of provincial dynasts. But equally they could lead to fewer but bigger ones, further cementing the roles of the likes of the aristocratic families, the Osmenas. Cojuangcos, etc.

I have yet to see even a half developed federal plan. There has been mention of four states each for Luzon and the Visayas and three for Mindanao, plus the national capital region. But it is hard to find a logical breakdown based on either geography, or language or history. Possibly some tweaks to the existing constitution – such as electing senators on a regional basis – might be useful but otherwise the federalism apparently envisaged would make for more tribalism, which itself underlies dynastic politics

Indeed, problems such as those of the lumads, the indigenous peoples of Mindanao stem not so much from Manila itself, or even the actions of the military, as from the non-indigenous people, mostly from Visayas, who have moved into Mindanao for the past 150 years and are now the majority. Oppression of the indigenous has been part of that as well as fostered by local and national economic interests running roughshod over land rights.

The issue of Muslim Mindanao/Sulu is also of quite a different order so bringing the Bangsamoro Basic Law into discussion of the broader federal issue muddies both. Even less helpful is Duterte suggesting a need to satisfy the often-conflicting aspirations of the Tausugs, Samal, and Maranaos etc. by granting them their own territories. Whether these are to be little “Bantustans” subject to some big boss whether in Davao, Manila or Jolo always at odds with the wider Bangsamoro government – should such be possible under these circumstances. Mindanao, including the ARMM, is chaotic enough already without further stirring local rivalries.

As for Duterte wanting to pursue the Philippines’ claim on Sabah, the Malaysian state in north Borneo, this is simply laughable. Given 50 years of turmoil in western Mindanao/Sulu under Philippine rule, the demand for relatively well-governed and prosperous Sabah is absurd. So too is its historical justification given that the Sultan of Sulu was a nominal subject of the Sultan of Brunei, who for long also controlled half of Palawan – and the settlement it called Seludong at the mouth of the Pasig river and now known as Manila.

Federalism also raises the issue of national language. By focusing on English, the Philippines has thus far largely spared itself of language becoming politically divisive. Tagalog has been accepted as the national language if only because official use of English could readily be accepted by those speaking Visayan, Ilocano etc.

Is a federal system going to see division of the nation into three or more competing language groups – which themselves do not neatly correspond with geography? As a European I am painfully aware that language creates more petty nationalisms then geography or religion.

The Philippines needs more and better central government, not fragmentation into family or linguistic fiefdoms.