Autonomy and federalism

Written by Amina Rasul.

Mindanaoans and citizens who do not belong to the affluent and vote-rich Metro Manila and Central Luzon always complain about Imperial Manila’s control over government resources and services. This has been the driver of the federalism train, particularly in Mindanao.

When President Rodrigo R. Duterte campaigned, his advocacy of federalism struck a positive chord among leaders of aggrieved regions in Mindanao and the Visayas. In these regions, federalism is seen not just as a means to equalize our share of resources and services but also as the means to peace with separatist movements.

The Duterte administration has declared federalism a legislative priority, saying the current unitary presidential system has miserably failed to address the needs and aspirations of Filipinos. President Duterte, the first Mindanaoan elected President, commented during the campaign: “Kung ’di pa yan lulusot, mahihirapan na kayo.” This statement reflects the belief that national leaders who belong to the majority will never allow for a diminution of central government’s control. Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that even the leaders advocating federalism have no clear idea about what it entails.

What is federalism? It is a form of government where sovereignty is constitutionally shared between a central governing authority and constituent political units called states or regions.

In practical terms, it means a central or federal government will be responsible for programs that are national in scope such as monetary policy, foreign policy, and defense. We -- who are outside the corridors of power in Imperial Manila -- finally get to decide for ourselves based on our own situation, culture, aspirations, preferences, and peculiarities. Regions have their own unique problems, situations, geographic, cultural, social and economic contexts. Federalism allows us to create solutions to our problems instead of distant Metro Manila deciding for us.

Ah, but all hinge on what legislators will include in the draft bill that will define federalism.

On Wednesday and Thursday, international and national experts gathered at the “Global Autonomy Governance and Federalism Forum” at Dusit Thani Hotel.

Organized by the Institute for Autonomy and Governance and the Konrad Adenauer-Stiftung, the forum tracked good practices, challenges, and opportunities of autonomy and governance as an effective tool for conflict resolution. While the focus was on the situation of the Bangsamoro situation, the forum became the venue for a search for convergence of purpose and action between the Bangsamoro and the national constituency (Luzonians, Visayans, Mindanaoans, Cordillerans, et al.) on autonomy and federalism. After all, focusing on Mindanao may pose a problem vis-a-vis the rest of the country.

The forum provided an excellent opportunity for leaders and the curious to understand the concepts of autonomy and federalism as implemented in other countries, where solutions to societal divides -- like ethnic conflicts -- came via autonomy and/or federalism. President Duterte had earlier stated that federalism is the country’s “last card’’ in solving Mindanao’s separatist insurgency.

I chaired the first panel on “Autonomy and Federalism: Addressing Societal Divides.”

Wanting to stir the pot, I shared the title of a recent forum organized by the UP School of Economics: “If the answer is federalism, what is the question?” While it may be irreverent, it is not an irrelevant question.

Earlier, one of our international experts Dr. Nico Steytler had said that we should consider restructuring the levels of governance without using “F” word. The term, in itself, often raises problems. More importantly, there is a need to identify the problems first -- before using the tool (federalism) as the means to respond to these problems.

No other situation is more ripe than the state of conflict in Mindanao.

We could have had an agreement that would have paved the way for a stronger autonomous region and a more just peace if Mamasapano did not happen. If we had passed the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) then, we would have had a more robust model to work it as we prepare for the federalist movement. In surveys, majority of Mindanaoans agreed. Who disagreed? Luzon and Visayas -- people who have not suffered as we have, bystanders who heckle but are not involved. The national anti-Moro sentiment hammered the nails into the BBL coffin.

While some say that federalism will not satisfy separatists fighting for independence, in truth the creation of the state of Bangsamoro within a federalist system will address concerns of separatists who crave more autonomy over the administration of Muslim Mindanao. If you had read the peace pacts and the proposed BBL, all the powers proposed under the autonomous region are powers that are federalist in nature.

The international experts, however, were unanimous in their cautionary words.

Professor Yash Pal Ghai, the Conference Chair, noted that federalism will not end conflict. Dr. Carlos Flores Juberias of Spain noted that shifting to federalism impacts the whole nation. We may use federalism to address Muslim Mindanao issues but this may pose a problem vis-a-vis the rest of the country. We cannot federalize just because 20 million Mindanaoans want it. We must convince the 80 million non-Mindanaoans that is good for them as well.

Dr. Rekha Saxena of the University of Delhi (honorary vice-chairperson of the Centre for Multilevel Federalism and honorary senior advisor to the Forum of Federations, Canada) however provided much valuable input on India’s success in addressing its many societal divides thru autonomy within a federalist structure. She referred to the Jammu and Kashmir ethnic conflicts and peace processes, similar to the Bangsamoro armed conflict. Autonomy and federalism recognize the ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences and seek to make all these communities integral parts of the whole nation. More difficult to resolve is the divide due to caste and economic disparities.

Dr. Markku Suksi, expert on territorial and non-territorial autonomy fundamental rights, linguistic rights, and constitutional law, spoke about how federalism and autonomy can bring about new conflicts -- over share of resources, share of political power, among others. Thus, any federalist structure needs to integrate systems that can manage “latent conflicts” which will surely spring out.

We presently have a unitary form of government.

Most administrative powers and resources are with the national government based in Metro Manila. Malacañang ultimately decides how much to give local government units.

Will the Palace really support a move that will diminish its control? President Duterte may be 100% in favor, but what of all the strong political dynasties that surround him desirous of succeeding the President? As detractors say, it will further entrench political dynasties in the regions and create confusion over responsibilities.

We all need to think and rethink our positions vis-à-vis federalism.

Those of us who have been advocating for a just and lasting peace in Muslim Mindanao and self-determination for all ethnic groups know that genuine autonomy can be implemented even within the present system. Autonomy granted to the Muslims can most certainly be improved thru the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. All federalists should be looking into supporting the passage of this law (foot-in-door, if you will) because it can be a model for federalist powers to be granted to regions or states.


Amina Rasul is a democracy, peace and human rights advocate, and president of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy. Surveil is her column in BusinessWorld.

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