A Federal Philippines: Does it make sense? (Part I)

Richard Javad Heydarian, Non-Resident Fellow of the Stratbase ADR Institute

One of the greatest contributions of the Greek Philosopher Aristotle was his distinction between form and substance. According to him, the two are separate dimensions of our reality, yet are also fundamentally distinct in their existential character.

So far, this seems pretty common sense to us in the modern age, but the great philosopher also made a far more important argument: Namely, that form can shape the expression of substance. In short, the two are mutually constitutive, meaning they dialectically shape one another.

So what is the relevance of this profound philosophical contribution to our current debate on federalism? What does a man from the ancient Mediterranean city-state of Athens have to say about 21st century Philippines? Actually, a lot, and these questions bring me to another important distinction that has been woefully missing in our public and policy discourse over federalism.

I vividly recall my freshman and senior years in the university, particularly two courses (introduction to political science, and ancient political theory) I took under my mentor Professor Felipe Miranda, who, for those who are not familiar with him, cofounded both Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations (SWS).

I learned two crucial things in his classes. On one hand, political systems — namely, the feedback loop between the rulers and ruled — are distinct from forms of government. The two are interrelated but distinct.

Specifically, system pertains to whether a polity is democratic, meaning ordinary citizens have a say in public affairs and rulers are accountable to the citizens — and to what degree. In contrast, form pertains to whether one is speaking of a federal/unitary or presidential/parliamentary (and their many permutations) arrangement of state institutions.

The other important realization (during a recitation) from his class was that the Philippines’ political system is, to put it bluntly, an oligarchy — the feckless and extractive rule of the few, as Aristotle defined it more than two thousand years ago.

The implication for our federalism debate is two-fold: First, that we never truly had a democracy, since majority of Filipinos have almost zero say in every-day governance; arguably, the only exception is the election period, where the poorest of poor Filipinos can compel the most powerful to beg for their votes through dancing, singing, and other acts of self-mockery and, of course, vote buying.

Thus, our true national tragedy is the oligarchic nature of our political system, not necessarily how our government institutions are structured. Oligarchies can come in all different forms.

Second, and this is where I am truly frustrated, when we discuss a shift to a supposed “federal-parliamentary system,” we are actually speaking of a change in the form of government, not necessarily the entire political system.

This is why it’s extremely misleading when some claim that what is at stake is a shift in our political system. What is on the table is a far more limited type of change, which could end up as either politically transformational, destructive or irrelevant in the end.

Yet, lest I am misunderstood as directly questioning the wisdom of a shift in our form of government, let me bring back Aristotle into the discussion. Aristotle also explained that form could shape the expression of substance. So what’s the relevance to our discussion?

Well, to put translate it in simple terms: a change in our form of government (i.e., from unitary to federal) can, logically speaking, have some impact on the substance of our political system (i.e., from oligarchy to democracy).

Thus, what the ongoing debate on constitutional change should focus on is whether dispensing with our unitary-presidential form of government will usher in a more democratic system, where ordinary Filipinos have a say in every-day governance.

Will a shift to federal-parliamentary system end the vicious rule of political dynasties? Will it make our economy more dynamic and competitive? Will it create a more enabling environment for the realization of the best potentials of Filipino citizens?

To claim that federalism is a panacea, a supposed solution to all our collective problems, is, at best, intellectually deficient, and, at worse, outright misleading. The devil lies in the details, and this is where I tend to get worried when some folks reduce the whole issue to a matter of semantics and empty rhetoric.

We — I mean the conscientious Filipino citizens — are all for more autonomy and power to peripheral regions. We are all for greater prosperity and egalitarianism in the country. We are all, including in “imperial Manila,” for making sure the country grows as a whole, where the great people of Mindanao and Visayas can also enjoy the fruits of globalization, industrialization and rapid economic growth.

So the debate on charter change isn’t between the Manila-centric elitists, on one hand, and provincial parvenus, on the other. (As a probinsyano, who comes from the Cordillera mountains,

I am inherently partial to upward mobility for those outside Metro Manila.)

The debate is between those, who believe in perfecting a painfully imperfect status quo as opposed to those who see no hope in sticking to the existing constitutional order. It’s between those who want to work with what we have, believing we need to look at gradual reforms and have more patience, and those who impatiently believe in taking a leap of faith towards a whole new constitutional order.

In succeeding columns, I shall explain the pros and cons of federalism, discussing both the opportunities and perils of charter change. It’s high time for us to have an educated, deliberate, honest, and intellectually engaging debate on arguably the biggest political question facing the country today: How to get from an oligarchy-disguised-as-democracy to a genuine democracy, which will fulfill and operationalize the fundamental political and socioeconomic freedoms of ordinary Filipinos.

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