Siling Labuyo: Moment of truth for Federalism

The work of the Consultative Commission (Con-Com) is finished having presented the final draft to President Rudy Duterte. Other than the bits and pieces of information that the Con-Com put out before this, there was quite a bit of secrecy to their work. Some news bits were published during their consultative hearings but the finer points were not made public – until the final draft was publicly released. Naturally, folks from the opposition complained of the lack of transparency. Chief among was former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay who criticized the process by which the proposed charter was drafted. He rightfully claimed that the proposed draft has no constitutional value because the Con-Com route “is not among the authorized means of proposing changes to the Charter.” Hilbay and others missed the point of this whole exercise. The Con-Com was created by the president to provide him recommendations on how he could change the current unitary form of government to that espousing federalism. The draft proposals, is a product of the executive initiative. What happened next was Duterte endorsing the proposals in toto without much review and submitted it to Congress pronto for legislative action. And this is where the process of changing the Constitution would come in, as Hilbay was alluding to. Congress has the option of constituting itself as a Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass) or could call for a Constitutional Convention (Con-Con). As I have been saying before, this is almost a done deal because with the administration’s supermajority in Congress, the easier route of Con-Ass will be pursued and then submit the proposed charter changes to a plebiscite. Although that sounds like a difficult task to accomplish given recent polling that suggests lack of support from the citizenry, it really is not given a determined supermajority that could make it look like a walk in the park. The only thing that could slow down approval or ratification is whether the Supreme Court will entertain and prolong legal challenges. But with the recent quo warranto experience, SolGen Calida will once again win for Duterte. It is also worth to recall some of the previous conversations on this involving House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. Alvarez believes that he does not need the senators to pass the legislation. He will convene a Constituent Assembly with or without them. The senators is of the opinion, and they are right, that both bodies should vote separately but Alvarez knows that if he allows that, the measure will not pass. So, he will ram it through with a two-thirds majority of the lower house and will let the senators go to the Supreme Court for relief. Again, quid agit Supreme Court? Another possible reason for delay is the upcoming mid-term elections in 2019. Again, Alvarez thinks that priority should be given to the federalism initiative even to the point he is willing to postpone the 2019 elections. The “NoEl” scenario is rattling the opposition’s cages because they see this as a prelude to term extensions for legislators that currently holds the supermajority. But, Alvarez might surprise them with the federalism measure being a rider in the 2019 elections. So, the moment of truth is here. I think it is about time that those opposing the change to federalism to start thinking how it can contribute to the overall product. Think of it as a journey with predetermined destination. They could no longer continue to oppose for partisan reasons. This shift is a monumental one and is bound to happen. Yes, the unitary system has contributed to a stable country but it has also produced untold graft and corruption and decades of martial rule. Perhaps this could be the model that is fit for the Philippines. We will never find out until the country tries. VP Leni Robredo, the leader of the opposition does not seem to have the urgency to talk about this potential shift and would rather focus elsewhere. “Why not pay attention to important issues that affect the public such as the rising prices of commodities and spate of killings?” Will indeed, these are important issues but also the product of existing systems that allows severe poverty to strangle the ordinary Joe. Robredo must realize that the moment of truth for federalism is here and will move forward with or without her. So, if she wants to shape the direction of this new initiative, she and the opposition must get involved. I’m not a Duterte fan and to the contrary, I believe he is not qualified for the job but he is making this contribution to the future of the Philippines whether we like it or not. True that there is very little awareness nationwide about federalism and that only a small number supports the conversion but this reality can change in due time once the government machinery is put in play. Think of the supermajority being spread throughout the archipelago to convince the people to ratify it. Nothing magical about that. The federalism concept espoused by the Con-Com is one patterned before the United States where states forms a Union, are equally represented by having the same number of senators and with the congressional representation at the Lower House based on population. Senators will no longer be voted upon nationally but by the state they will represent. In plain terms, depending on what the number is agreed upon (2 per state in the U.S.), the state will always be represented. If kept, there will no longer be instances when the president and the vice president belong to different political parties. They are voted together. Some critics disagree with the idea due to fear of political dynasties dominating the local political scene. Well, as it is, political dynasties are already lording it over the region. Political dynasties can be good or bad and there is really nothing now that could stop it from happening. The new proposals would ban political dynasties under federalism but if what happened in the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), the proposal to ban political dynasties was removed by the Bicameral Committee. Some important aspects of the Con-Com proposals involve the Bill of Rights, economic provisions and the transitory provisions, among others. The Bill of Rights proposals actually contain good proposals that clarify some ambiguities in the 1987 Constitution involving human rights and the environment. The provision making the Armed Forces as protector of the people have been changed and made the government as having that role –which makes sense. Taxation and economic provisions are complex and requires the experts to wade in. Another aspect that require scrutiny are those involving foreign powers and protection of South China Sea islands belonging to the Philippines. Where does Duterte’s friendliness towards China come in? The transitory provisions contains some of the most contentious provisions where Robredo and company can really contribute. The provisions giving President Duterte vast powers between 2019 and 2022 and also allowing him to run for President in 2022 plus one reelection needs to be changed. A bipartisan approach should be pushed in exchange for support from the opposition. If not, Duterte can rule as a dictator for 3 years before a general elections can be held in 2022 to select the new president. As the caretaker, Duterte can issue decrees and proclamations much like what Marcos did, in the guise of pursuing a mandated task. It is during these three years that the Philippines will be transformed, why leave it to chance?