On Federalism and multilevel politics
April 05, 2017
Anne Lan K. Candelaria, Ph.D., Blueboard
Federalism has gained unprecedented traction as soon as President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office middle of last year. As a result, policy makers, think tanks as well as the academic community has engaged in a series of dialogues and debates on the operationalization of such form of government, or how best to proceed. However, there are only few discussions on the substantive aspects of federalism. This commentary attempts to discuss the tacit issues that surround this debate.
SPATIAL DIMENSIONS OF POLITICS
To appreciate federalism’s value to a nation, we must bring into the fore the spatial dimensions of politics. Political rule and policy making over a population becomes meaningful of there is a definitive way of identifying where those people live. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) formalized the importance of territory as an element of the modern state. Here, a state’s ability to rule independently, having control over institutions and groups that live within their territory. This idea of having a fixed demarcation to establish a formal centralized rule and recognition however does not intend to eliminate the importance of those institutions in the periphery.
Hence, all nation states (whether unitary or federal) are typically divided into two levels of governments exists: (1) the government of the whole country, and (2) the government of the parts. What sets a unitary system from a federal one is its constitutional features, rather than its administrative and other arrangements. This refers to the nature and location of power and ultimately where sovereignty resides. In a unitary system, power is delegated to the local governments by the central government, and therefore can be taken back. In a federal system, however, power is inherent rather than delegated, and therefore sovereignty resides in both central and subnational government.
DEVOLUTION AS A WAY OF MANAGING TENSIONS WITHIN THE STATE
Political centralization has helped many nation-states expand its economic and social responsibilities. But this did not prevent the emergence of secessionist groups and ethnic nationalism and assertiveness.
The intensification of center-periphery tensions in unitary states in the 1970s brought about many changes in the institutional design of several countries. At that time, both local and global political theaters were fragile. Local nationalism was driven by many factors: unequal economic development, historical resentments, an increased demand to preserve distinct languages and cultures, as well as the growing sentiments that political decisions are made by the distant policy makers and bureaucrats.
To assuage the tension between central and peripheral political institutions, some nation-states opted for devolution rather than federalism. Devolution, a form of decentralization, is the systematic transfer and dispersal of functions, power, authority, and responsibility away from national bodies. In devolution, the intension to expand local autonomy is fulfilled even when government remains to be organized as a unitary system. Britain passed a devolution law that gave Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland more power to manage their own affairs. France gave the regions certain economic-planning powers. Indonesia carried out decentralization as a way to prevent the establishment of another authoritarian rule as well as to make revenue and expenditure sharing more equitable.
FEDERALISM AS A ‘COMING TOGETHER’ PROJECT
The balance between center and periphery is shaped by historical, economic, political, cultural, and geographical factors. In most cases, federalism was a “coming together” project of several already strong and independent political communities who wish to preserve their identities and autonomy, but nonetheless see the value of having an equally strong central government that can represent their collective agenda in the broader political community, and protect them from external threat.
There are several reasons why nation states start a federal union. First, it is difficult for small and weak states to defend themselves from bigger more powerful aggressors and so pooling military and diplomatic resources made more sense, as in the case of Germany. Second, a federal system allows small states to collectively compete in the global market and set rules that would favor them. The United States’ dominance in the global economy today would not have been possible have they remained broken into several independent states. Third, it was a way to protect a nation’s identity and culture while joining a larger nation such as the case of India. Lastly, geographically large states such as Brazil, Canada, Argentina, and Mexico found decentralization in a unitary state very limited in scope to accommodate the diverse needs of its society. Thus, federalism proved to be a more effective way to control their vast territories.
SUBNATIONAL POLITICS IN THE PHILIPPINES
The Philippine experience is rather unique. Pre-colonial barangays functioned as independent city-states but were stripped away of their political autonomy when the Spaniards used centralization as a way to colonize the country. Barangays were reduced to barrios and the datus were demoted to cabezas de barangay. Over the next 500 years, local autonomy played a lesser role in Philippine politics because national identity was more important project for a nation whose history is reflects periods of colonialism, dictatorship, and intense nationalist sentiments in between.
The 1987 trauma brought about by Martial Law’s over-centralized power brought about the institutionalization of local autonomy as enshrined in the 1987 Constitution and Republic Act 7160 or the 1991 Local Government Code.
By design, central government devolved the delivery of some basic services and regulatory powers to the local government units. It also provided legal and institutional foundations that expanded the spaces for civil society and other stakeholders to participate in local policy making. Finally, it made financial resources more accessible to LGUs by broadening their tax powers and encouraging them to be more entrepreneurial by partnering with the private sector, among others.
As to whether decentralization was able to achieve its goals remains a debate. Over the years, there are so many good as there are horror stories on how the expansion of local powers and autonomy have been appreciated on the one hand, and abused on the other hand. There are quite a number of studies that assessed the impact of decentralization, but these are scattered and too often focus on only one aspect of the Code.
WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
First, a comprehensive review of the outcomes and impact of RA 7160 is long overdue. As in any good policy work, reliable and sound evidence is always a necessary starting point. Tinkering on an existing policy, especially our Constitution, without any systematic collection and review of evidence will most probably lead to a disastrous result. This review should look at both substantive and procedural impact, with results that are verifiable and generalizable. We do not want stories of what works -- we already have plenty of those. We want to see the bigger picture, as evidenced from the data and experiences of more typical LGUs, and make intelligent and evidence-based conclusions.
Second, federalism is not purely a governance question, but a political one. From a functionalist perspective, federalism serves two economic purposes -- localized development and redistribution. However, we need to articulate the elephant in the room -- that federalism is also shaped by the political needs of those responsible for its design, the policy elites. The fact of the matter is that we are governed by only a few families for most of our democratic life as a nation state. It is common to have uncontested local candidates, or an entire province held by only one family. Whether thin or fat, political dynasties must be kept at bay if we want to maximize federalism’s advantages.
Lastly, only the presence of strong political parties -- in both national and local level -- can prevent dynastic rule from flourishing. In a democracy, members of political parties contest in elections with the view of promoting the collective interest rather than personal gains. Many have ideological core that forms the basis of their proposed policies and programs. Thus, people vote for what the party stands for and not because of the personalities and last names of its members.
OPPOSITE OF COMING TOGETHER
Should we decide to transition into a federal system, ours will not be the case of federalism as a “coming together project,” but the opposite. Belgium is one other case where a unitary state switched to federal to give its various languages their own turf. And even then, this change in Belgium was brought about by a robust competition between strong political parties that represented these language communities.
Federalism is not simply a redefinition of territorial organization, but more importantly a revision of the relationship between the center and periphery.
In a federal system, both central and state or regional government possess a range of power that either one cannot encroach. This will require, not only a change in our current Constitution but also a change in the manner by which we as citizens seek accountability. As it is, many election-related violence occur during local rather than national elections. Federalism should not only solve economic issues, but it must also address political ones.
P. S. The unitary-federalism debate is related to, but different from, the presidential-parliamentary debate. A country may be federal-presidential (ex: United States) or unitary-parliamentary (ex: Singapore).
Anne Lan K. Candelaria, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University. She also served as consultant for various Araling Panlipunan- and Social Sciences-related matters for the K-12 program of the DepEd. Her interest is in education politics and policy making.