Promoting an awareness of federalism

| Written by KIM G Quilinguing

She has spoken countless times on TV and radio as well as other media where her expertise in political science and forms of government were shared with wider and curious audiences. But Professor Maria Ela Atienza still feels that there is a lack of understanding of what federalism is and how it can affect people.

As chairperson of the Department of Political Science at the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy (CSSP) of the University of the Philippines Diliman, Atienza teaches subjects on governance, politics, local government, gender issues, and human security.


Prof. Maria Ela Atienza, PhD. Chairperson of the Department of Political Science, UP Diliman.
Prof. Maria Ela Atienza, PhD. Chairperson of the Department of Political Science, UP Diliman.


Atienza earned her BA in Political Science, magna cum laude, in 1992 and an MA in 1993. She joined the Department of Political Science in 1993 as an instructor. She later completed an Executive Master’s degree in International and European Relations at the University of Amsterdam in 1998 and a PhD in Political Science at Kobe University in 2003. Her papers have been published in both local and international journals, earning her the recognition of academic institutions and international organizations. In 2014, she was chosen as the Achievement Awardee for Social Sciences by the National Research Council of the Philippines.

In recent years, she has also been active not only in her teaching and research engagements but also in spreading awareness of federalism. And the number of opportunities for these discussions increased after President Rodrigo Duterte, who at that time was a candidate, swore to pursue the shift to a federal form of government.


Two levels of government

Asked for a simple definition of federalism, Atienza says it is a form of government where there are two levels of government: federal or national, and states or regional governments. In theory, she says federalism is the sharing of sovereignty between two levels of local government. “The idea is the federal government and state governments are equal.”

As for the current form of government in the country, she says it is unitary with some features of governance devolved or distributed to local governments: “We have the 1991 Local Government Code, so in that case, there’s a national legislation that gives powers, some powers to local government.”

As to why some countries opt for federalism, Atienza says the structure may be more ideal for those with diverse traditions and populations. “There are reasons why some nation-states opt for federalism. Some of the reasons include preservation of identities. Identities can be in terms of ethnicity, culture, religion and other differences,” she says.


Asst. Prof. Jan Robert Go of the Department of Political Science, UP Diliman.
Asst. Prof. Jan Robert Go of the Department of Political Science, UP Diliman.


Speaking of culture, her colleague at the department, Assistant Professor Jan Robert Go, sees federalism as a structure which would be more accommodating of the varied cultural traditions of ethno-linguistic groups in the country. “Under a federal system, you can have the Bicolanos ruled by Bicolanos in a Bicolano way, if there’s such a thing. In the same way with Calabarzon, the Tagalogs, or the Cebuanos, or the Mindanaoans.” Go believes that the form of government would reflect the local communities of the country: “I think that’s one thing positive about federalism, that we highlight the regional identities, these differences that is in our context as a Philippine society, is very apparent.”

Specializing in rapid field appraisal of local government units, money politics in elections, local citizen participation, and devolution and decentralization, Go teaches courses on Philippine politics and government, and Philippine and Asian political thought in UP Diliman. He earned his political science degree in UP Manila in 2009 and his master’s degree in Diliman in 2013.

Go thinks that federalism’s promise of empowering local communities is the biggest reason why it attracts some political leaders in the country, particularly those from areas which have been struggling to develop their provinces and towns. “The main argument of federalism is to empower the lower levels of government, particularly the regional level.” Federalism, he adds, will “let these voices, if you may, be heard.”

While federalism has been touted by advocates to spur development in the regions, Go says this will only be possible with resources also coming from the federal or national government. “We will be giving more resources to the local level, to the regional level, because they will be governing, according to how they think they should be governed.”

He warns though that this positive development could also become a negative feature of federalism. “When you give more funds, it becomes vulnerable to corruption.” While the same problem also exists in the current form of government, he said federalism might enable some unscrupulous individuals to dodge accountability. “I think federalism can exacerbate the situation and corruption may even be widespread,” he adds.

For UP National College of Public Administration and Governance (NCPAG) Dean Maria Fe Villamejor-Mendoza, federalism’s most visible attribute is its recognition of the different traditions and identities of the communities in a state. “You recognize diversity in unity.” And because of this feature, she says, the autonomy of communities is preserved.

What makes federalism different from the current form of government, according to Dean Mendoza, is that the sharing of powers is provided for by the fundamental law of the state. “The sharing of power between the central government and the states is constitutionally mandated.”

Mendoza, who teaches courses on public policy, theories of administrative systems and research methodology at NCPAG, has also been a frequent speaker on federalism over the past few years.


Prof. Maria Fe Villamejor-Mendoza. Dean of the National College of Public Administration and Governance.
Prof. Maria Fe Villamejor-Mendoza, DPA. Dean of the National College of Public Administration and Governance.


Asked on her thoughts on the proposed federal constitution, Mendoza says there are some features which are noteworthy in the proposed federal Constitution. “They added to the rights, which is good, but very little is added to the powers of the regional governments.”

On July 9, the Consultative Committee for the drafting of a constitution for a federal system of government, headed by former Chief Justice Reynato Puno, submitted their draft to President Duterte at the Malacañang Palace.

Among the features of the proposed federal constitution are its emphasis on the autonomy of local government units, as well as the recognition of the importance of information and communication technology in nation-building. It also provides social and economic rights, which entitle every citizen to food, healthcare, decent housing and livelihood. Immediate relief from violations of the right to a clean environment is also provided.

As for administrative provisions, the proposed constitution provides for 16 federated regions and the Bangsamoro and Federal Region of the Cordilleras. Except for these two special regions, these federated regions will have their own: regional legislature, which will be called a Regional Assembly; a regional executive of the Regional Governor; and, a regional judiciary or Regional Supreme Court.

Under the federal system, the national or federal government will still exercise national security, foreign affairs, international trade, customs and tariffs, immigration, economic and monetary powers. The federated regions on the other hand will have exclusive power on the creation of sources of revenue, financial administration and management, tourism, land use, public utilities, culture and language development, as well as sports development, parks and recreation and the issuance of business permits and licenses.


Benefits and challenges

For Atienza, among the positive features of federalism is the flexibility it offers regions in the management of their own affairs, be it in the crafting of their budget, distribution of representation in the local assembly and even in the formulation of social and economic policies. “You can have variations in terms of electoral systems, the party system. You can also think about possible taxation schemes.” She adds that in a federal system, “There’s space for more innovation.”

Atienza sees the increased autonomy as a possible venue to enhance people’s participation in government and in the democratic processes. “Theoretically the understanding is that people can participate more directly when government is closer to them.”

While he views federalism as a possible form of government which would empower the people in the regions, Go is apprehensive when it comes to the presence of traditional political families. “You have a limited number of people controlling power, and this limited number of people is concentrated in a single or a couple of families within the area.” He believes these same political families might be able to galvanize their hold to power.

While the shift to a federal government may address some of the issues which have been confronting the country, Mendoza says it will be important to look into the different concerns from various groups regarding its adoption. “Federalism should happen for the right reasons and not just because it’s a campaign promise.”

As for Atienza, she highlights the need to spread more awareness of federalism as a form of government and the features of the proposed constitution. She laments how discussion on the proposal took a different turn from that which would have informed and educated the public. “It’s unfortunate that the campaign for federalism has been, in a sense, hijacked by trivializing the concept,” she said.

In June, the Social Weather Systems survey revealed that only 1 out of four Filipinos is aware of the proposed Federal System of Government. And of those surveyed, only 37% supported it, while 34% remain undecided and 29% oppose it. Results of a related survey conducted by Pulse Asia also released in June also showed 69% of Filipinos have low knowledge of the proposed federal system of government. The majority of those surveyed admitted little to almost no knowledge of the proposal.

To make ordinary citizens realize what’s at stake in the shift, Atienza suggests focusing more on how the change in form of government could affect their lives. “The administration should be connecting federalism and the whole proposal to change the constitution to how it relates with the daily concerns of people,” she adds.