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Federalism in three acts

Philippines Graphic editor-in-chief Joel Pablo Salud interviewing Buhay Party-list Rep. Lito Atienza (Photo by Alyssa Salen)

The Philippines Graphic begins its launching, with this issue, of a massive information campaign on Federalism and the possible directions we might consider taking as a nation.

The idea is to gather a significant number of mayors and former mayors to lend their opinion on the matter.

Mayors are known as the leaders who deal directly with the people on the ground and how the latter responds to the issue of federalism should the government push for its implementation. It’s almost expected for these opinions to differ given the diversity in cultures, geography, and level of knowledge of each community on the subject matter at hand.

The purpose of this study and information campaign is to carve a clear path by raising questions and issues most people would want to be raised. It would also help if such questions would be brought to the attention of the different offices of city mayors for the purpose of getting the pulse of the community’s leaders and their people.

Federalism, by legal definition, is “a principle of government that defines the relationship between the central government at the national level and its constituent units at the regional, state, or local levels.

“Under this principle of government, power and authority is allocated between the national and local governmental units, such that each unit is delegated a sphere of power and authority only it can exercise, while other powers must be shared.

“The term federalism is derived from the Latin root foedus, which means ‘formal agreement or covenant.’ It includes the interrelationships between the states as well as between the states and the federal government.

“Governance in the United States takes place at various levels and branches of government, which all take part in the decision-making process. From the U.S. Supreme Court to the smallest local government, a distribution of power allows all the entities of the system to work separately while still working together as a nation. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black wrote that federalism meant:

‘A proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate State governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways. (Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91S. Ct. 746, 27 L. Ed. 2d 669 [1971])’

“The Constitution lists the legislative powers of the federal government. The Tenth Amendment protects the residual powers of the states: ‘The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.’” (https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/federalism)

At this point in the debate, the government has yet to fully and clearly define the kind of federal system of government it wishes to implement. But that it’s planning to implement one is clear, given the several statements made by President Rodrigo Duterte in the two years he has sat in office and the interviews conducted by the Philippines Graphic.

The Philippines Graphic has raised the following questions to former Manila City mayor Lito Atienza, who now sits as Buhay Party-list representative and Senior Deputy Minority Leader.

For Cong. Atienza, the project must go through ‘three acts’ if it must be implemented successfully and garner the support of the people.

One, it must first be studied thoroughly. To fully educate Filipinos on what federalism is and what it entails even before we begin forming as region-states, and how local communities would stand in the scheme of things.

Second, to first try out the provisions on local autonomy now found in the Constitution. He believes there’s no reason to completely overhaul the system, or reinvent the wheel, so to speak, without even trying out what is already part of the system.

And lastly, though not the least, for the government to give its regional and local leaders ample time to ‘digest’ the meat of the project, how they will figure and participate in the implementation, and how these would affect their communities on the local level in the succeeding years.

We thank Rep. Atienza for willingly participating in the Philippines Graphic’s information campaign.

PHILIPPINES GRAPHIC: You sat as mayor before, so you know how communities in your jurisdiction feel when confronted with issues as big as, say, Federalism. Do you agree with Federalism?

REP. LITO ATIENZA: If you ask me, if we can avoid pursuing federalism today…

‘Today’—so there’s a time frame for it, in your opinion?

Yes, let’s study it first. I am keeping an open mind. Up to now, there are no definite proposals on how to federalize. It’s still up in the air. Our Constitution already has provisions for local autonomy. The Constitution assures us of that. I feel it’s better to try that first before leaping into something very different. That way, we don’t have to gamble with anything.

Let’s provide the local government units all the powers that they need. Not just the Muslim areas. All regions, all LGUs. Let’s talk about improving what we already have. Pero changing the system now may become too costly an experiment. What if we fail? What if the country breaks up? There’s no real need for a complete overhaul.

Secession can be a real problem should the government’s efforts fail, is that what you’re saying?

We cannot risk gambling our way into this. We cannot risk dividing the country further. Let’s learn from Spain. Spain has a serious internal problem. Catalonia, together with Barcelona, would like to secede. Can you imagine if that happens, what will happen to Spain?

The Philippines is already naturally separated by water. It’s so easy for the Visayan area to secede. Mindanao could do the same. Those with vested interests would sure find ways to provoke. What if Malaysia enters the picture? UK or EU for Visayas.

Many powerful countries and entities are interested in our tuna, sugar and other resources. What if America tries claiming Luzon? Bring back SBMA, Clark, we’re going to be divided. So, there is no need for a complete overhaul at this point when we do not even have a clear idea of our direction. What is the President’s idea of a Federal government? We have to ask that.

Unless there’s a clear and solid path, I believe we should continue to study our options.

Continue the debates, the discourse.

Yes, let’s not force the issue. Learning exactly what we want is crucial here. Let’s have public debates, not the ‘hearings’ they staged in Congress. Don’t believe those. Nagpunta sa Cebu, hearing na yun. At tsaka ano yung hini-hear nila?

The question of do you approve of a federalized system without explaining what that is? I tried staging my own hearing. I went to Cebu in a meeting of Eastern and Mindanao leaders. Our question: do you approve of a federalized system?

Then I deliberately asked the people if anyone in the audience knows the kind of federal system being pushed by the government.

None [laughs].

I will tell you, if the government initiates the experiment by first using local autonomy as a stepping stone towards federalism, that’s a big chance of success with no risks involved. No risks because you’re giving ways for the LGUs to think, act, and handle their own problems in their own level.

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