Analysis of the Relevance of the Federal System to the Philippines

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Since the mobilization of civil society forces to undermine the authoritarian regime under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, several administrations have proposed amendments to the 1987 Freedom Constitution of the Philippines. It is only justified that there has been a constant rise in public skepticism due to the fact that most interests regarding institutional changes typically serve personal agendas, as observed in the historical dynamics of previous administrations in the country. This is best exemplified in the 1973 Marcos Constitution, which allowed the former personalist dictator to skirt the law and rule the country for two decades. Among those who proposed changes to the Freedom Constitution is Former Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who has been calling for a charter change for federalism long before he was elected into office in 2016.

As evidenced by various studies regarding the proposed transition to federalism since Duterte assumed office, literature about the transition from a unitary system to a federal system of government in the Philippine context often includes the assertion that the shift will promote more effective governance in the country on one hand, and on the other, raised viable suspicions and concerns. Notwithstanding the advocated benefits of its establishment, the shift to federalism is not met without consequences, as it is, to wit, a paradigm shift in the overall constitutional order. In view of this fact, there is room for doubt regarding the practical implications and consequences of the proposed institutional reform of federalism.

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Rationale and Features of Federalism

Foremost, it is important to identify and deliberate over the rationale of the proposed transition to a Federal Republic of the Philippines. There are many reasons as to why federations are formed. In many accounts, the transition to federalism from a unitary system has been a common response to resolve inter-ethnic or cultural conflicts that pose a threat in achieving political stability, which, in this case, is the continuous conflict in Mindanao. Some federations are formed so that internal conflict is mitigated within a constituent unit while still maintaining a central system of government (Kincaid, 1999, as cited in Móntes, 2006). In addition to conflict management, federations can also be formed by the virtue of internal security. The United States of America, as an example, was a product of self-governing communities banding together to form a government that is capable of providing defense and internal security against potential threats to the country (Móntes, 2006).

Decentralization of power is also a common theme as to why countries are considering to shift to a federal state. The concept of decentralization in a federal state is to bring the government closer to its people by dividing the distribution of powers between regional states. It is a way for smaller political units to be given more authority so that they can attend to the immediate needs of the community. The primary motivation of decentralization is rooted from the principle that dispersion of power from the central government to local authorities will yield favorable results as far as improved local governance and accountability (Araral, Hutchcroft, Llanto, Malaya, Mendoza, & Teehankee, 2017).

As such, many advocates for institutional change from a unitary system to a federal state of government agree that the Philippines has a long tradition of practicing centralized power from Metro Manila, the capital of the country. Consequently, the term ‘Imperial Manila’ grew popular among advocates for federalism. The propagation of such term refers to the overconcentration of autonomy in the national capital. As a matter of fact, it is often portrayed by most individuals that federalism is the local autonomy movement against the ‘Imperial Manila’ (Philippine Institute for Development Studies, 2017). Regardless of this fact, there have been various legislations introduced to the country in order to delegate more authority, resources, and responsibilities to empower local authorities, such as the passage of the Local Government Code in 1991. Despite this, however, most advocates for federalism maintain that there is uneven development in the country. Furthermore, there are beliefs of unequal distribution of power between different regions, such that some areas have been unable to acquire the necessary resources needed to attend to their needs, while other regions prosper.

Having discussed the reasons for the transition to a federal government, it is now necessary to study the features of federalism. Federalism is essentially decentralization in its highest degree. The principle of federalism refers to at least two dependent constituent parts of a state that makes up the government system as a whole (Gamper, 2005, as cited in Móntes, 2006). Furthermore, in federalism, sovereignty is divided between a central authority and its constituent units, such as regional governments. A federal state, at its base, can be viewed as a system of government which acts as a constituent unit that also has multiple jurisdictions. Among the highlights of federalism include the central government and the local or state government. Each of the two governments has certain duties and purviews that the other cannot infringe upon. It is worthy to note that among other federal countries, the oldest federations in the world includes the United States of America and Switzerland (Móntes, 2006). Recent discussions have prompted renewed political positions relating to federalism seeing that various federations are considered global economic giants.

In order to formulate an opinion regarding the shift to federalism, it is also imperative to emphasize that there are various types of federal government. Federalism takes several forms. Several types of federal government are distinguished from one another by virtue of the distribution of power among the central government and the local government. The three types of federal governments are written as follows: 1) cooperative federalism, 2) competitive federalism, 3) coercive federalism (Viray, 2007).

Cooperative federalism is a type of federal government in which the central government, as well as the regional or state government, interact with one another to work on solving problems instead of just one. Ethiopia, Germany, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, United States of America, Venezuela, and Yugoslavia are examples of countries who practice this type of federalism. Competitive federalism, on the other hand, refers to the concept of federalism wherein the central government has a limited role in the affairs of state or local government. This type of federalism indicates that the distribution power between the central or federal government is significantly reduced as to appoint bigger responsibilities to the local or federal government. Countries that possess this type of federal government includes Pakistan, Belgium, Australia, Brazil, Micronesia, Switzerland as well as the United Kingdom (Viray, 2007).

In contrast to the concept of competitive federalism, however, is coercive federalism. While the power of the central government is limited in competitive federalism, it is the exact opposite in coercive federalism. In coercive federalism, the power lies within the central or federal government for it can take over laws of the state of local government. A notable example is a coercive power in Nigeria (Viray, 2007). These concepts should be reviewed and further evaluated prior to the transition to a federal government. The type and structure of a federal government shall first be made clear to the entire populace. Notwithstanding the numerous accounts advocating and opposing the institutional shift, empirical studies should be conducted to further assess the quality of governance of such systems in the Philippine context.

Federalism in the Philippines

It is not is news that the history of the Philippines is beset with paradigm shifts, as clearly evidenced primarily by significant constitutional reforms such as the 1935 Commonwealth Constitution of the Philippines, the 1973 Constitution under the Marcos regime, and finally, the 1987 Freedom Constitution. At present, the Philippines has a unitary system of government. A unitary system of government refers to the country as a sovereign state that is considered and governed as a single entity.

The Resolution of Both Houses No. 15 or RBH (2018), a draft federal chapter co-authored by House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Vicente Veloso along with 20 other legislators, has been receiving criticism from the public regarding its controversial provisions. Among the major changes in the draft federal chapter are the following: 1) the removal of the anti-political dynasty provision, 2) no term limits for legislators, 3) the restoration of the two-party system, 4) 3-year term limit for the district and party-list representatives. Most notably, the draft of the federal constitution included transition provisions that has since raised much apprehension.

Mission head, Luis E. Breuer, of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an institution under the United Nations (UN), stated that the IMF respects the provisions penned by the legislators on the issue of federalism (Villanueva, 2018). He further stated that transition to a federal government can be a good opportunity, however, it is not met without risks. Such risks include fiscal responsibilities as well as the transfer of duties to the local government. It is also noteworthy to include that the staff of the Senate President of the Philippines has requested for studies and operational cost for a transition to a federal government from the UN Development Programme ('A Newsletter on United Nations Constitutional Support', 2017). The topic on federalism in the Philippines was briefly discussed in the seventh issue of the UN Constitutional, a newsletter jointly produced by the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA), UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and UN Women, although there has yet to be a clear response from the United Nations regarding the proposed federal form of government in the Philippines.

The Consultative Committee (Con-Com), tasked by President Rodrigo Duterte, had provided transitory provisions within the draft federal charter for an orderly transition to the new form of government in the Philippines. Within these changes include the banning of Duterte’s re-election under the new charter. However, the RBH transition provisions, located in Article 22, leave opportunity for our current president to run for election as the transitory president. According to the draft federal charter, there the Federal Transition Commission shall be established five days after the ratification of the Constitution. The Federal Transition Commission shall be comprised of the President, which in this case is Duterte, who will act as the Chairman of the Federal Transition Commission. As the Chairman of the Transition Commission, he has the power to appoint ten more members.

There are many details worth noting within the transitory provisions. Among these is the amount of power the Transition Commission will hold, in particular, the provision which states that the aforementioned commission is responsible in “promulgating the necessary rules, regulations, orders, decrees, implementations, and other issuance” to ensure the smooth transition to a federal state. In addition to this, the Transition Committee also has the power to “organize, reorganize, and fully establish” the federal government as well as the federated regions of the state. The Federal Transition Commission is also mandated to “exercise all powers necessary and proper” to ensure a smooth transition to a federal government.

Furthermore, the transition provision, also claimed that the Transition Commission shall complete its mandate by June 30, 2022, however, several questions immediately tail the controversial statement. For instance, which acting forces will be overseeing the progress and will be making sure that the Transition Committee will stick with the provided time frame and finish the transitory phase by June 2022 when the committee itself holds so much power? It should be noted that there should be a system of checks and balances to prohibit the abuse of power given to the Commission. Casting the worrying transitory provisions made aside, the removal of the anti-political dynasty provision in the 1987 Constitution as well as the lifting of term limits for lawmakers is also gravely alarming.

RBH 15 (2018) proposes that each of the states will be independent under a federal system of government, however, the creation of the Federal Republic of the Philippines is not met without undesirable effects. Even though the division of powers will ensure the development of each individual state, it still leaves opportunities for political dynasties to exist and thrive within the regional governments. Federalism, in its desire to focus on the development of the federated states, allows for the persistence of political dynasties, which can perpetuate poverty. It is should also be considered that there is room for tyrants to rise within the federated regions, and, to rub salt into the wound, the lifting of the anti-dynasty law shall further allow this. Moreover, should the transition to federalism fail, it is highly probable that there is no turning back to the old system. In view of this fact, there is a probability that federalism will lead to fragmentation of what was once a nation. Failure in the implementation of a federal government can cause strife throughout the land.


Thus far, arguments opposing the transition to a federal government has been established. In summary, this paper has reviewed the common reasons for federalism and has identified the features as well as the different forms of a federal government. To conclude, a federal system for the Philippines is not ideal for the development of the country such that the existence of political dynasties is still prevalent. Not to mention the worrying provisions made in the RBH 15 such as the removal of term limits for legislators as well as the overwhelming power granted to the proposed Transition Commission during the shift to federalism. Notwithstanding the advantages of a becoming a federal state, the Philippines does not need such shift in paradigm to push for decentralization, rather, what the country should focus on is to break up the concentration of power in the central government.


  1. A Newsletter on United Nations Constitutional Support. (2017). The UN Constitutional. Retrieved from
  2. Araral, E. Jr., Hutchcroft, P. D., Llanto, G. M., Malaya, J. E., Mendoza, R. U., & Teehankee, J. C. (2017). Debate on federal Philippines: A citizen’s handbook. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
  3. H. Res. 15, 17th Cong., 3rd Sess. (2018).
  4. Móntes, R. N., Jr. (2006). Federalism and multiculturalism.
  5. Philippine Institute for Development Studies. (2017). Critical perspectives on federalism for national government. Pasig City: Philippine Institute for Development Studies.
  6. Villanueva, J. (2018). IMF sees sustained growth of PH amid risks. Philippines: Philippine News Agency.
  7. Viray, J. R. (2007). Federalism: Issues, risks and disadvantages. Manila: Polytechnic University of the Philippines.
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