Federalism: How other countries did it (Conclusion)

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Photo by Nonie Reyes of BusinessMirror

What is federalism?

It’s word that needs to be properly defined especially with the current moves to amend the Constitution, a move that is being pushed by President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies in Congress.

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Changing the country’s form of government is a promise that the President earnestly wants to fulfill.

Federalism as a form of government emphasizes decentralization in contrast to our present form of government, which is a unitary one.

Those who support setting up a federal form of government for the Philippines emphasize that federalism and decentralization could be the “keys to sharing the fruits of the country’s economic progress with its people.”

And the way to accomplish this goal, according to its proponents, is to amend the Constitution through a constitutional assembly, which was discussed in the first installment of this article.

I already wrote about federalism in a previous issue of this magazine in 2016. Foreign dignitaries, all from countries that have some form of decentralized government, shared their experience and explained how their respective governments worked during a forum on federalism hosted by Business Mirror, the sister publication of the Philippines Graphic two years ago.

I believe it is time once again to look at what was discussed in that forum.


Advocates of federalism emphasize that the current unitary form of government this country has right now is a legacy of our colonial past. It was explained that our colonizers, Spain and the United States, instituted a centralized form of government to maintain control.

Federalism, its advocates said, “could be the key to solving” the problems caused by the country’s colonial past.

“The cornerstone of federalism is the sharing of power between the central government and the local government,” federalism’s advocates said, adding that the plan was to set up such a form of government for the country by 2019.

Under one of the proposals for federalism, the country will be made up of 12 states. “Poor provinces will be clustered with rich provinces to ensure economic fairness within each state,” the advocate said.

“This set up will create a framework of continuous improvement,” they added. “Each state will have a guaranteed number of sets in the national legislature. There will be a Prime Minister and a President.”

It was also suggested that having a federal form of government will remove the scourge of political dynasties in the country.

“Federalism will cut the central government’s ties with political dynasties,” said the advocates. “The amended Constitution will also include a definition for political dynasties. We won’t need an enabling law, unlike the provision in the 1987 Constitution.”

“The country has been training for federalism for the past 15 years since the enactment of the Local Government Code of 1991,” they added.

However, it was conceded that federalism was not a magic pill that could heal all the country’s ills.

“Federalism is just meant to provide the country with a balanced structure on which to grow and develop,” it was explained in the forum two years ago.

That’s how federalism’s Filipino proponents see things. Let’s look at how federalism and decentralization worked in other countries.


To give Filipinos a context in which to compare the idea of federalism with the one being proposed by the Duterte administration, the forum included foreigners who spoke about their country’s experience with federalism.

Among those who spoke was Benedikt, Seeman, head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Seeman said the important thing for Filipinos to do is to “collect ideas.”

“It is open mind season,” he said. “Look at the differences and find what works.”

Seeman explained how the federal system of government functioned in Germany.

“We have 16 states,” he said. “But they are not really an administrative division. There are executive powers and shared powers. Each one has a state constitution and a government.”

“The approach to government is from bottom up, not top down,” he explained. “However, federal law is supreme. Federal law cannot be in competition with state laws.”

The Federal Republic of Germany has the Bundesrat where the state governments participate in the legislation and administration of the Federation.

Seeman explained that each federal state sends delegates to the Bundesrat, anywhere from three to as many as six delegates depending on the size of a state’s population.

“These delegates are not elected,” Seeman said. “They are sent by the federal states.”

According to the official Bundesrat website, all Bundesrate members have twofold roles.

“They hold an office in their federal state, while simultaneously holding a federal office, i.e. they play a political role both in their federal state and at the level of national politics. This means that Bundesrat members assume comprehensive political responsibility. They cannot overlook the impact that political activities relating to their federal state will have on national politics, and, similarly, in their state ministries, they feel the direct impact of the federal policy they help to shape,” the German government website explained.

Seeman said taxes were shared between the Federal and state governments, depending on the type of tax.

“There is also an equalization payment scheme,” he added. “It’s a mechanism for the redistribution of financial means between the government and the members of the Federation. The sharing can either be vertical, which is between the federal government and a state government, or horizontal, which is among states. There are also supplementary grants if needed.”

“Federalism has a cost,” Seeman said. “It is not free. Federalism, in general, works best under a parliamentary system.”

(From left) Rep. Alfred Benitez, Former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel, Jr., Julian Payne, President Canadian Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines; and Laurent Le Godec, Charge d’Affaires Embassy of France to the Philippines during the Business Mirror-ECCP breakfast forum on Federalism at the Marriott Manila. Photo by: Nonie Reyes of BusinessMirror


After Seeman, Julian Payne, president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines, stood to explain how Canada’s version of federalism evolved and worked.

“There are a great variety of federal states,” Payne said.

Payne explained what constitutes federalism for Canada.

“First, there must be a split of sovereign power,” Payne said. “Second, the national government cannot overrule a state government. We differ on this point with the German system.”

“Whenever there’s a dispute between a state government and the central government, the matter is settled in a Constitutional Court,” he added. “Our system in Canada evolved over time, from a colony to a federal state. The country grew and evolved, defined by history, culture and external events.”

For Payne, this was an important point.

“What you design now may change in the future,” he said. “It must be able to accommodate distinctive religions and cultures. We have a non-elected head of state, who is Queen Elizabeth, and an elected head of government. We have provinces and territories. We have symmetry of power—some provinces have certain powers, others don’t. This includes delegation of powers.”

“We have a financial arrangement that ensures vertical and horizontal movement in the sharing of wealth between territories and provinces,” he said.

His country’s system has four important points.

“The first allows for customization of national polices,” he said. “Second is that it allows local government to be more attuned to its people; third is wealth sharing and the fourth is a provision for check and balance in government.”

“Federalism is an alternative but not the only alternative,” Payne said. “Federalism is seen as a way to ensure effective decentralization. We have a senate that is appointed by the regional parliaments. But there is also party discipline. It is the relationship between the state and the provincial government that provides the check and balance. Provincial premiers can negotiate with the Prime Minister to settle differences.”

Payne said federalism can have a big impact on business through taxes and labor laws.

“There’s the federal income tax and labor laws, which can be either under federal jurisdiction or provincial jurisdiction.”


Laurent Le Godec, the Charge d’ Affaires of the Embassy of France to the Philippines gave the French perspective on the issue of balancing a strong executive with a decentralized government.

First off, the French diplomat said that his country was not a federal country.

“France is a unitary country,” he said.

Based on the French experience, he said constitutions must be suited to the conditions prevailing at the time the charter was written.

“But it must be able to adapt,” he said. “France is unitary but decentralized. France can fit many categories.”

Two questions were considered during the evolution of the French form of government.

“The first question was the form of government at the state level and the second question was the relationship between the state and the local government,” he said. “This was the issue in 1958 with Charles de Gaulle and the loss of North Africa. There was a change of government due to the stalemate within the parliamentary system.”

A new question arose afterwards.

“There was the question of balance between a strong state power and a strong parliamentary hybrid system,” he said. “Executive power is divided between the President as head of state and the Prime Minister as head of government, who is appointed by the President. The Prime Minister is responsible to the National Assembly, yet he is also answerable to the President because he was appointed by the President, who is responsible for foreign policy and defense. This system requires flexibility and political maturity.”

“The French Constitution can adapt to what is important,” he said. “We believe that a strong executive is needed. The President sets the broad guidelines while the Prime Minister implements. France can be seen as a semi-Presidential Parliamentary system.”

“The relationship between the state government and the local government is unitary but we still have a problem of sharing economic wealth and how to tackle the problem of inclusive growth,” he added.

“France has regions,” he explained. “The objective is decentralization without federalism. We empowered the local government. Social and cultural issues are dealt with at the local government level.”

The French diplomat said their civil servants were trained at the local level, not the national level while businesses deal with the local government, not with the state government.

These are three important perspectives on how federalism and a decentralized government worked. Now all we Filipinos have to do is come up with our own version that will hopefully work.  G

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