Federalism is really about autonomy - one of the conditions of self-government. When we look at the American model where Philippines patterned its form of government, autonomy is assured through state rights under a federal form. Each of the 50 states comprising the Union are independently governed through its own Constitution.
From the time Magellan arrived in 1521 that eventually brought about a colonial government in Manila under King Philip II of Spain, to the establishment of the first constitutional democracy in Asia in 1898 (Malolos Constitution), to the current form; the Philippines has always struggled with how to fit this form of government into practice. As a matter of fact during President Corazon Aquino’s term, mutinous RAM soldiers wanted to go back to the Malolos Constitution.
When the Philippines adopted the American system in the 1935 Constitution, it did not include federalism because Philippine leaders probably did not think of the diversity of the nation as a major factor. They looked at the whole country, instead, as one autonomous, unitary state despite the still ongoing rebellion in Mindanao. This was understandable at the time because this was a post-war government in 1946 and leaders were trying to unite a country. To talk of regional autonomy would have been very divisive and unpopular.
The Cory Constitution of 1987 pretty much kept the previous form but added a few more as a consequence of Martial Law. Again, this was another period where the country needed to heal as a nation. But as I already mentioned earlier, nationalistic fervor among the mutinous soldiers that helped install Cory Aquino as the president of a revolutionary government remained high. Technically, the post-Marcos era would have been the best time to truly establish a federal form of government.
Previous presidents tried to amend the charter but were always met with stiff resistance primarily from the oligarchy. A simple change such as making the senatorial elections more local to the region versus national, would have been a major improvement but that too didn’t go anywhere. Because of the overreaching tentacles of the oligarchy that included wealthy legislators, any charter change proposal, no matter how well-intentioned, was always stifled.
The question then that bedevils the mind is why on earth can the Philippines not have a functional democracy beyond the pro forma façade? The answer lies in many interconnected factors that all go back to the protection of the wealthy. First, they understand the complexity of informing inhabitants scatted in some 7,000 plus islands. While some form of transportation will get one to the remotest of remote places, it doesn’t follow that information follows the same route despite the advent of the internet.
The oligarchs protect their interests (i.e. wealth) by dumbing the electorate. They do this through the mass media through television or the printed one. For decades, television was a luxury that most poor households relied on transistor radios for information. Now try to recall if voter information was something you would routinely hear from various radio programming before? The majority of the voters, the poor, were conditioned instead to tune in to their favorite “Tia Dely” or Hollywoodish programming.
Same thing with television. From telenovelas to Vice Ganda’s and Eat Bulaga’s comedic routines, the poor voters who are entrusted to come up with wise choices every election time fails to rise to the occasion and continue to elect criminals, corrupts officials, and other candidates who comes to the halls of the people’s parliament without the requisite gravitas but with excess baggage instead. And the well-educated will be quick to blame the “idiotic and uneducated” voters.
The most critical aspect of self-governance is having a well-informed citizenry who will wisely exercise their right to vote every election but every election is always marred with electoral malfeasances that have been normalized such as vote buying, cheating, and other acts of election fraud.
Until the switch to federalism takes place, the current situation will continue. Those who are against adopting federalism need to think hard what’s best for the majority of the Filipinos instead of their political survival. Changing the Constitution using whatever form (Constituent Assembly, Cha-Cha, or ConCon) leaders need to be approached with an open mind because if we look at the U.S. Constitution, it has been amended 27 times since 1789 and many of the more consequential changes occurred after the Constitution was ratified.
The opposition are always the one against any charter change because of cynicism. Administrations proposing the change are automatically accused of trying to pull a fast one like monkeying with term-limits or perpetuating the president in power. The mantra is to make Constitutional amendments difficult to achieve much like in the United States.
Plainly, the nationwide referendum is the preferred route versus Congress as a constituting assembly. Because of disinformation whenever a charter change is in the offing, Filipinos are fed with confounding statements. The terms “constituent assembly,” “constitutional convention,” and “referendums” are borrowed terms from the United States Constitution but have different meanings when applied in the Philippines. And to compare these terms with those used in the Philippines are comparing apples and oranges.
The distrust probably stems from the fact that the Philippines has gone through six wholesale Constitutional changes since the beginning of time: the 1897 Constitution of Biak-na-Bato, 1899 Malolos Constitution, 1935 Constitution, 1943 Constitution, 1973 Constitution, and the 1986 Freedom Constitution. Filipinos do not know how to amend a charter.
The reason amendments are difficult to achieve in the United States especially nowadays is the fact that two-thirds of the House and Senate must approve followed by three-fourths (or 75%) of 50 states to ratify it. That’s a whopping 38 states agreeing to adopt such amendment. A classic example of a sensible amendment going by the way side is the Equal Rights Amendment.
Another option provided for in the US Constitution is through a Constitutional Convention called by legislatures of at least two thirds of the various States. Constitutional conventions can propose as many amendments as they wish but would be subject to same majority of the Union. Thus you hear as part of disinformation that a ConCon in the Philippines might do under the sun. Federalism provides the safeguard through a three fourths vote from the regional states.
Constitutions are supposed to be living documents, meaning that they can be amended. Federalism provides an opportunity to improve the lot of Filipinos. It can bring an end to political dynasties. Under the current environment, Congress is pretty much constrained to pass an enabling law to make it happen because of competing self-interest. In places like the Bicol Region where the electorate tends to make a statement through the ballot of being different from the national vote (i.e. Otso Diretso candidates got more votes, etc.), the chance of passing a state enabling law is very high under a federated state.
Leonardo da Vinci warned us before, “As every divided kingdom falls, so every mind divided between many studies confounds and saps itself.”