Negros Occidental Rep. Alfredo Benitez has started the ball rolling for a shift to the federal form of government.
Benitez, who holds the seat of Negros Occidental’s third district in the House of Representatives, has filed a resolution calling on the House and the Senate to sit as a constituent assembly (Con-ass) to introduce amendments to the 1987 Constitution that would allow the Philippines to become a federation of states.
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No counterpart resolution has been introduced in the Senate, but incoming Senate President Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III has said the shift will be a priority of the chamber in the 17th Congress.
The shift to federalism tops the legislativ priorities of President Duterte, who wants local governments to be autonomous so that they can pursue development on their own.
‘Clamor’ for change
In his House Joint Resolution No. 2, Benitez points to a “clamor” for a change to federalism as justification for amending the Constitution.
He says the Constitution, being the fundamental law of the land, should be responsive to the changing needs of the country and its people.
A shift to the federal system, he says, will allow local governments to become autonomous and able to decide their own economic policies.
Benitez proposes amending the Constitution through a Con-ass, which he says is less costly and faster than a constitutional convention (Con-con) or a people’s initiative.
He proposes that Congress create a “council of elders” that will advise the legislature in amending the Constitution.
The council, he says, will be composed of 10 members each from such sectors as the religious, private groups, urban poor, business, academia and retired justices.
He says the Con-ass should complete the amendments within one year.
The House and the Senate, voting separate, will approve the proposed amendments by a three-fourths vote of their members, he says.
Pimentel and incoming House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez prefer amendment through a Con-con.
The work of a Con-con requires approval of the people through a referendum.
Rody wants Con-con
President Duterte also prefers amendment through a Con-con.
During a visit to the Inquirer in August last year, Mr. Duterte said that if elected President, he would call a Con-con in his second year in office to amend the Constitution for a shift from the unitary to the federal form of government.
He was then going around the country promoting federalism, which he said was the only solution to corruption, crime and the Bangsamoro problem.
The Aquino administration tried to solve the Bangsamoro problem by entering into a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Muslim insurgent group in Mindanao.
The peace agreement included the creation through legislation of an autonomous region for the Bangsamoro in Mindanao.
The 16th Congress, however, failed to pass the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that would have created the autonomous region.
In a meeting with MILF leaders in February, Mr. Duterte promised to revive the BBL under a federal setup.
“I’m here to state my position that if I win, this is my proposal. I’m afraid because of the failure of the government to pass the BBL. I know that you are very, very, very disappointed,” Mr. Duterte told the MILF leaders.
“I have been proposing federalism. But your territory will not be touched,” he said.
Mr. Duterte also said that his administration would create territories for the Tausug, Sama, Iranon, Maranao and the indigenous peoples of Mindanao.
“Other groups, the other tribes who are hungry for a better life will be given their share and their chance,” Mr. Duterte said. “Through federalism, we will correct the injustice committed against the Moro people, against Mindanao.”
There have been at least two attempts to give autonomy to the provinces through legislation in the past.
In 2008, then Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr., the incoming Senate President’s father, introduced Senate Resolution No. 10 calling for a Con-ass to adopt a federal system of government.
Pimentel’s proposal would create 11 states—four each in Luzon and the Visayas and three in Mindanao—with Metropolitan Manila as the seat of power under a federal presidential bicameral form of government.
“The concept is good. The intention is good and I will fight those with bad motives while I am around,” said Pimentel, the acknowledged father of the Local Government Code and a longtime advocate of federalism.
While a federal system “isn’t the panacea for all the country’s ills,” Pimentel said, it will “dissipate the causes of unrest in the country.”
Any move, though, for constitutional amendment faced opposition from the critics of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who warned that administration allies could use Pimentel’s proposal to tinker with other provisions of the Constitution to extend her term.
In August 2008, during her first statement on the subject since the Supreme Court struck down in October 2006 as a “grand deception” a signature campaign for a “people’s initiative” to amend the Constitution, Arroyo said she was promoting federalism in a bid to resolve the Mindanao conflict.
Malacañang said the statement was nothing new and that Arroyo was simply supporting Pimentel’s proposal for a shift to the federal form of government.
Sixteen senators backed Pimentel’s proposal, but it never took off.
The Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), the political party of Pimentel, has been pushing for federalism since 1982.
In 2012, Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez filed a resolution in the House proposing at least seven amendments to the Constitution, including proposals to “shift from the unitary system of government to a federal system; return to a two-party system under a presidential form of government; and the election of senators by federal region or state.”
Rodriguez’s initiative also did not prosper.
‘Burning the house down’
At that time, Bayan Muna Representatives Neri Colmenares and Carlos Zarate described the move as a “total sellout of our country and must be stopped.”
Colmenares described Rodriguez’s Con-con proposal “like burning the house down.”
Zarate said Rodriguez’s proposal for a Con-con was nothing less than “an all-out assault to change not just the economic provisions of the Constitution but its political provisions as well.”
The proposal was a “blatant attempt to entice elected officials with term extensions,” he said.
Among the proposed amendments in Rodriguez’s proposal would give members of parliament and local officials a four-year term with no limit to the number of times they could run for reelection. - With a report from Inquirer Research