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Federalism now dances to Cha-cha beat

/ 05:16 AM July 17, 2019

(Second of a series)

Taking its cue from President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent pronouncements, the government body tasked with pushing for federalism and constitutional reform will be dancing to a new tune in the last three years of the administration.

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Its main thrust before was to push for the rather complex idea of a federal government. But now its messaging will focus on amending the Charter, according to Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Federalism and Constitutional Reform.

The task force is headed by Interior Secretary Eduardo Año and composed of various members of the Cabinet. Its new central message, backed by “four pillars,” is to change the rotten system and push for a new constitution: “Baguhin ang bulok na sistema, isulong ang bagong konstitusyon.”

“We will relaunch a new campaign after the President’s [State of the Nation Address],” Malaya told the Inquirer. “We recalibrated the messaging because before, it was direct to federalism. Now, our approach would be, let’s look at the root of the problem, and the problem is the rotten system.”

The President himself had seemed resigned to the idea that Filipinos did not want a federal government. But he appeared determined to push Charter change (Cha-cha).

“If you do not want federalism, fine, but change the Constitution that would change this nation,” he said in June.

More flexible now

The task force’s proposed changes to the 1987 Constitution, which it intends to finalize by August, may advocate either a federal government, a quasifederal government, or some form of decentralized government under a unitary system, according to Malaya.

“Federalism is still part of the plan; it’s still there because it’s part of the President’s agenda,” he said. “But taking our cue from the President—if you don’t want it, then that’s OK—we will take the same stance.”

He said the task force was more flexible now, not solely focused on a federal government but open to proposals to strengthen regions. It may recommend smaller changes instead of a wholesale revamp of the fundamental law of the land.

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Malaya said the recommendations would be sent to the President for his approval and comments, and the final draft submitted to the House of Representatives and the Senate.

In this way, he said, the members of the executive branch will speak with one voice when they explain to and defend the proposed constitutional amendments before Congress.

The concept of federalism has been a hard sell to the general public, with surveys showing little support for a federal government, Malaya acknowledged.

“Federalism is complex governance,” he said. “It’s difficult to make people understand that; it’s easier to make them understand gut issues.”

But with a new effort pushing specific changes to the Constitution and the benefits these would bring, the task force expects the idea to be more palatable and easier to digest,” Malaya said.

“It’s easier to propose smaller changes instead of wholesale, which is very heavy,” he said. “There’s merit to choosing one provision or another.”

4 themes

To make the proposed changes easier to understand, Malaya said, the task force will group them under four themes or pillars:

  • Strengthening the regions, with the aim of enriching the provinces and decongesting the metropolis: “Payamanin ang probinsya, paluwagin ang Metro Manila.”
  • Implementing reforms in the political and electoral system, with the battle cry of a government for the people and not for traditional politicians: “Gobyerno para sa tao, hindi para sa trapo.” This will include proposed changes to ban political dynasties, reform the party list system, and strengthen political parties.
  • Liberalizing the economy, with the idea that an open economy gives hope to everyone: “Buksan ang ekonomiya, nang ang lahat ay may pag-asa.” This will include proposals to amend the economic provisions that limit foreign participation.
  • Bringing about a new charter that would benefit future generations: “Bagong konstitusyon sa bagong henerasyon.”

For the task force, the bottom line is to decentralize power and strengthen the regions.

“At the very least, we should ensure that the resources will go to the provinces,” Malaya said. “Even if we do not tweak the governance structure, at least let us ensure there will be more funds available.”

At present, the local government’s share of the funds is too small, he said.

Regional governments

Malaya said regional governments should be formed to better manage resources. Provinces in a region will be better able to map out a strategy that fits their goals and strengths, and will have the funds to do so, he said.

He pointed out that while regional development councils existed, these were mere coordinating bodies that had no powers or funds, and that local governments had to compete with each other for a share of the pie from the national government.

The Constitution does not recognize regional governments, which is why it needs to be amended, he said.

Malaya said that having served as a mayor, the President knew all these too well.

“He felt that, as a mayor, a local government official, it was difficult to deal with the national government,” Malaya said. “You have to be a member of the President’s party, you have to cozy up to the leaders when in fact, you just want to improve your jurisdiction.”

Malaya said the 1987 Constitution was designed to respond to the needs of the generation at that time, when the country had just defeated a dictatorship and was returning to democracy.

It has proved useful in allowing a peaceful transition, but things have since changed, he said.

“The challenges of the current situation, the current problems of our country, can no longer be addressed by the 1987 Constitution. We need a constitution today that addresses the needs of the current and future generation,” Malaya said.

He acknowledged that there would be opposition to any move to change the Constitution, including those claiming that it was the legacy of President Corazon Aquino.

“[But] there is no such thing as a perfect constitution. A constitution is only perfect if it addresses the needs of the people. When it no longer [functions as such], it should be amended,” he said, adding:

“And the Constitution itself has a provision of amendment and revision, which means it knows that it has to be changed.”

Unenthusiastic Senate

Malaya is optimistic about the success of Charter change moves in Congress given its composition. Presumptive House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano has begun laying out his own proposals.

But senators are less than enthusiastic, and have pointed out that the mode of amending the Charter has yet to be resolved.

If it would be through a constituent assembly, the two chambers are expected to tussle over whether they will vote jointly or separately on the proposed changes.

A constitutional convention also has its share of critics, who say it will be too time-consuming.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III,  main proponent of federalism  in the Senate, has acknowledged that it will be an uphill battle in the chamber for federalism.

Nevertheless, Pimentel has said he will file a measure to propose a shift to a federal government. He said he was sure the President would not mind if he still tried to seek support for federalism while proposed Charter amendments were being tackled.

He said he believed that people were slowly accepting the idea of federalism: “What I can say now is that support is growing stronger, but I’m not saying it’s overwhelming. People need more information about it.”

In 3 years

Charter change may be achieved in three years, Malaya said. “Many of the issues here have been debated for so long,” he said. “The 1987 Constitution is not new; it’s old. And for people to say we don’t know yet [what needs to be changed]… We know. By now we know.”

He said the plebiscite had to take place by 2021 so that Charter change could be completed before Mr. Duterte stepped down.

With a budget of P150 million for this year, the task force will visit the provinces and work with the leagues of local officials to discuss and promote the amendment of the Constitution. It will also tap services of the government media network and civil society organizations.

“This will be a bigger operation than the last one,” he said, adding that the President was committed to this idea.

“Changing the Constitution changes the fundamental law of the land. If you are able to change the Constitution, it will be the ultimate Duterte legacy,” he said.

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TAGS: 2017 Constitution, Charter change, federalism, Jonathan Malauas, Rodrigo Duterte, SONA 2019, Sona2019
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