Peace and progress: these two words best sum up, according to the country’s longest-serving proponent of federalism and former Senate President Aquilino Q. Pimentel Jr., the main objectives for pushing fundamental change in a country long used to the presidential-bicameral system of government that it learned from its colonizers.
The proposal to adopt federalism -- a key plank of the campaign platform of then-presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte in the May 9 elections -- will unleash capacities all around for leaders at the state down to the village levels to carry out programs to better serve the people because, when this happens, they will have unprecedented access to ample resources that will be equitably distributed in a federal system, Pimentel told attendees to the BusinessMirror-European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (ECCP) forum, dubbed "Federal Philippines Rising?" on August 23 at the Marriott Hotel.
As he puts it: More people across all regions -- or states in a federal system -- share equitably in progress, the various insurgencies that have bedeviled the country for decades can also be decisively ended because the sparks of unrest -- poverty, injustice, inequity -- would be tamped down.
Pimentel, father of the incumbent Senate President Aquilino L. Pimentel III, gave a comprehensive outline of the highlights of federalism in a Philippine setting at the BusinessMirror-ECCP forum. In the same forum, ECCP External Vice President Henry Schumacher shared foreign investors’ hopes that a shift to federalism might just work for the Philippines, but invited Filipinos to study well the lessons -- especially mistakes -- of countries that have already been operating in a federal system.
Timeline for transition
If the Duterte timeline for federalism is pursued, both chambers of Congress should be ready to buckle down to work in January 2017 following one of three templates for Charter change: convening as a constituent assembly to amend the 1987 Constitution to allow the transition to federalism, according to Senate Majority Leader Vicente C. Sotto III, who also guested at the forum.
Sotto reckons that once the House submits the 2017 proposed General Appropriations Act (GAA) to the Senate by October, it could begin its own preparations for Charter change and the transition to federalism -- as its own initial steps while the Senate is tackling the budget bill.
Then, when both chambers approve the budget bill by December, they should be ready when they reconvene in January 2017 to move to form the Constituent Assembly (Con-ass) for Charter change.
In his presentation, Pimentel Jr. said the current proposal for federalism is hinged on the principle of having the national government "share power -- political and economic -- with the regional and local governments throughout the nation."
Hence, the former Senate President added, "The proposal to adopt a concrete, doable, practical plan to speed up the development of the country and our people, and dissipate the national causes of unrest by installing the federal system [with a presidential form] of government in the Republic."
Actually, Pimentel Jr. pointed out, the 34-year proposal for federalism was driven by a different motivation in 1982, the year after then-President Ferdinand E. Marcos -- whom Pimentel fought, causing his five-time detention -- lifted the martial law on paper, but continued to rule with an iron hand.
He recalled that the federal idea then was seminal in many respects. "It was proposed to serve as the basis of a viable alternative to the dictatorship, and bring about a distribution of government powers previously concentrated in the national government for so long."
Now, over three decades later, Pimentel Jr. said, the push toward federalism remains more relevant than ever, though democracy was restored with Marcos’s ouster in 1986. Why? It’s because the two fundamental goals -- progress and peace -- remain more compelling than ever.
The former Senate president noted that despite the passage of the Local Government Code (where Pimentel himself played a key role and is even dubbed the "Father of the Code”), “the system of government of the country is still highly centralized and unitary, as opposed to the federal system. "
Among the consequences of this, he said, is "an imbalance in the distribution of resources among LGUs [local government units]." Impliedly, Pimentel said, such setup "fueled the armed rebellions of the Muslim factions in parts of Mindanao and the government, and hampered the speedy development of the local communities and people residing therein."
Under the Pimentel proposal -- as currently refined to suit the emergent realities -- there will only be one Constitution, and only a single Armed Forces of the Philippines, National Police, flag, central bank, monetary system, foreign policy and public-education system.
While House Speaker Pantaleon D. Alvarez’s template is for 12 federal states, Pimentel proposes having 11 federal states "to be created basically out of the administrative regions already existing." The rationale for retaining this, he explains, is that "the identities of every federal state are already known by and large by the people."
The LGUs, as they currently stand, are 81 provinces, 145 cities, 1,489 municipalities and 42,036 barangays.
Under the Pimentel template, the 11 federal states will be broken down thus: four for Luzon, four for the Visayas and three for Mindanao.
The federal states of Luzon are:
- Federal state of Northern Luzon, with a combined total population of 9,248,726 and total land area of 6,066,348 hectares;
- Federal state of Central Luzon, with a combined total population of 9,590,223 and total land area of 2,201,490 hectares;
- Federal state of Southern Tagalog, with total population of 12,363,411 and total land area of 1,687,151 hectares; and
- Federal state of Bicol.
Visayas, Mindanao federal states
The four federal states in the Visayas under the Pimentel proposal are:
- Federal state of Eastern Visayas, with combined population of 3,860,148 and total land area of 2,325,110 hectares;
- Federal state of Central Visayas, with combined population of 6,086,872 and total land area of 2,003,775 hectares;
- Federal state of Western Visayas, with combined population of 6,165,999 and total land area of 2,079,418 hectares; and
- Federal state of “Minparom,” which Pimentel says he partly “invented,” with Minparom standing for Mindoro, Palawan, Romblon.
Pimentel floats the idea of treating the newly created Negros Island region by either creating a separate federal state of Negros; or having Negros Occidental remain a part of the federal state of Western Visayas and Negros Oriental going with the federal state of Central Visayas.
The federal states of Mindanao, under the Pimentel proposal, are:
- Federal state of Northern Mindanao, with combined population of 6,776,659 and total land area of 4,387,508 hectares;
- Federal state of Southern Mindanao, with combined population of 7,331,479 and total land area of 5,617,914 hectares; and
- Federal state of Bangsamoro, with combined population of 3,256,140 and total land area of 3,351,142 hectares.
Federal system and the BBL
The former Senate President is openly critical of the Bangsamoro basic law (BBL) crafted under the Aquino administration because, he says, it has serious flaws. But he believes a "Bangsamoro Federal State" -- transformed from the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), is vital to the nation for two reasons: a) the secessionist movements of the various Moro groups started way back the Spanish era; and b) these secessionist movements cannot be solved permanently by force.
Still, Pimentel said the BBL contains provisions that directly conflict with the 1987 Constitution, such as the establishment of separate constitutional commissions for BBL, like the Commission on Elections, Commission on Audit and the Civil Service Commission.
The BBL’s Bill of Rights is also flawed, Pimentel said, as it only provides for "freedom of speech," but omits mention of "freedom of the press."
Such constitutional flaws may be remedied by renegotiating the BBL agreement or amending the problematic provisions, but there will actually be hardly a need for a BBL if a federal system is adopted for the country, Pimentel asserted. He explained why: "As proposed, the federalization of the Republic would sufficiently address the fundamental demands of the country’s Muslim sector, the lumads, other minorities, without sacrificing the rights of non-Muslims who reside in the Bangsamoro and in other parts of the republic."
Scarborough, Kalayaan Islands
Meanwhile, a federal system could even be a platform for strengthening the Philippine position in the Scarborough Shoal and the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), two zones in perpetual risk of being completely taken over by China, as Beijing insists on claiming 90 percent of the South China Sea under its nine-dash-line claim that a UN arbitral tribunal had thrown out in a July 12, 2016, ruling.
Pimentel said the "territory of the federal republic should also unequivocally include two previously ambiguously claimed islands, reefs or shoals: the Scarborough Reefs and the Kalayaan Islands."
He explained that federal state boundaries will expand the present regional boundaries: a crucial difference, he said, as this will provide "the environment for competitiveness and sustainability rather than create them out of provinces that, in many instances, might simply be too small to survive as federal states."
Presidential form under federal republic
Under Pimentel’s proposal, the presidential system will be retained, with a president and vice president elected nationwide. He wants both officials elected as a team, for a term of six years without reelection. They must hold the same qualifications cited in the 1987 Constitution.
There will be a bicameral federal Congress, with more or less the same basic mandate as the present. The Senate’s members will be elected by State; and the House of Representatives by district.
A big departure from the current setup is Pimentel’s pitch for a bigger Senate membership, in keeping with the trend in other federalized republics. He noted that the current cap of 24 members was conceived when the national population was just 20 million. Now, at 104 million, the country should have, under his proposal, six senators for each of the 11 federal states, or 66. This, plus six members for Metro Manila and nine overseas senators, make for a total Senate membership of 81.
When his audience at the BusinessMirror-ECCP forum reacted, Pimentel cited examples of other federalized republics where the population is much smaller than the Philippines’s and yet the Senate membership is bigger:
- the United Kingdom, with 64.6 million people and 797 senators;
- Thailand, with 68.15 million and 150 senators;
- Australia, with 24.3 million and 76 senators; and
- Malaysia, with 30.57 million and 70 senators
In the Pimentel federal template, each federal state will have its own governor and vice governor. There will still be provincial governors, city or municipal mayors and other local government officials.
State legislators shall serve for no more than three consecutive terms of four years each, starting 12 noon of June 30 following their election, ending at noon of the same day after four years.
The Supreme Court is retained, including its powers, and will supervise all lower courts.
Shariah courts shall be retained in a federal system, alongside so-called tribal courts that other non-Muslim minorities may use to settle disputes in accordance with culture and tradition. But whatever it is, Pimentel stressed, all courts should be made to strictly follow deadlines, noting that delayed delivery of justice to litigants "is one of the major ills of our justice system."
Pimentel proposes to keep LGUs intact, suggesting that the powers and structures of provinces, cities, municipalities and barangays remain untouched.
"It is up to the federal states to change LGU structures and powers, subject to the approval of the voters in the areas affected in plebiscites called for the purpose," he shared in the forum.
While retaining the same qualifications for regional and local officials under the federal set-up, Pimentel suggests "it may be time to require more educational qualifications of our public officials than just the ability to read and write."
Despite the proposed increase in number of senators and members of the House, the revenue shares of the federal states and LGUs will increase, he said.
"In allocating the resources of the Republic, all revenues shall be the basis, not only taxes collected by the Bureau of Internal Revenue," Pimentel said in suggesting that the sharing percentage shall be as follows: 20 percent for the federal government and 80 percent for the states.
Pimentel proposed that sharing of the 80 percent between states and LGUs shall be 30 percent for state government and 70 percent for provinces, cities, municipalities and barangays.
He asserted that allocation of funds should ensure that vital needs not only of the majority sectors of society, but also of tribal minorities, are provided for. "Strict accounting procedures should accompany the allocation of more funds to the LGUs," Pimentel added.
Moreover, Pimentel pushed for an "Equalization Fund" to address the reality that not all the federal states are born equal in terms of resources and opportunities. He explains that the Equalization Fund can be administered by the federal government to assist states in dire need of development funds, with the federal states represented in the authority administering the Equalization Fund.
In addition, Pimentel also batted for the creation of a Loan Commission "to ensure that foreign loans of the country are faithfully paid," adding that equitable shares of the loan repayments will be borne by the states that benefited from the loans.
"The federal government and every state should be represented in this commission," he said, and "at least one-fourth of the members of the Loan Commission should come from qualified NGOs."