Thursday, December 3, 2020
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By farce of arms

Many mythologies tell stories of men, some heroic, others not, whose might and power gave them an aura of invincibility stronger than any armor. What they had in common was a vulnerability that, if exposed, made it possible to defeat them. There was the mighty Achilles, which no weapon could harm after his mother dipped him into the waters of the river Styx when he was still an infant; however, because his mother was holding him by his heel, that part of his body never touched the waters. He found a counterpart in Norse mythology in Balder, the god of light and beauty, likewise invulnerable after his mother extracted oaths from all the things and creatures of the earth that they would not harm her son; she overlooked the mistletoe, from which an arrow would be made that would eventually kill him.

The Old Testament has Samson, capable of bringing down temples with his bare hands, whose power came from his long, flowing hair, who was emasculated after his lover Delilah shaved off his locks when he was fast asleep. They were not all heroes, the giant Antaeus being a good example. The son of Poseidon and Gaea, the personification of Earth, this giant’s strength was constantly replenished by contact with the earth, his mother, and many failed to slay him until Hercules lifted him bodily then crushed him in a bear hug.

This impression, of might underpinned by a hidden weakness, came to mind after I read the draft of the Federal Constitution that President Duterte submitted to Congress for its approval. I cannot help compare this draft with the present Constitution whose framers, representing across-section of Philippine society—lawyers, artists, prominent leftists, religious, scholars—deliberated for a year before submitting the document to the people for ratification. This draft Federal Constitution, in contrast, was cobbled together by a 22-member consultative committee who spent five months to come up with a finessed document. Finessed as opposed to finished because, as Malacañang hastens to point out, the draft is only a proposal thatCongress may or may not adopt in its entirety.

This mighty document, once ratified, will augur the shift of the present form of government to federalism. What we have right now is what is called a unitary system of government. Historically, it is the only form of government we have ever known.  A unitary government consists of a strong central government exercising central authority; it, however, may delegate its powers to constituents, in our case to local government units, but even if it does so, there is no question about who is in charge.

A unitary government has its pluses and minuses, but because the system emphasizes a central authority, the latter exercises the most power and consumes the most resources, often to the detriment of those on the peripheries. This is what Rodrigo Duterte says he wants to up-end.He seeks the dismantling of “Imperial Manila” and allocating more of the nation’s resources to long-neglected regions and provinces, particularly Mindanao. This argument has a superficial appeal because no one can argue against spreading of the wealth which, to be fair, should have been done a long time ago. That hasn’t happened, which explains why our countrymen who live outside “Imperial Manila” have a legitimate gripe. So far, sounds good.

Is federalism the answer, though?

I have always been leery of Charter change, not because I have this unbreakable fidelity to the one we have. The 1987 Constitution is a very wordy document that can use a lot of editing. In my opinion, the articles on social justice, the arts and sciences, etc. can be excised without doing any harm to its substance. For all its faults, it has withstood all attempts to change it because it has worked so far. In the past, attempts to change the Constitution focused on a shift to a parliamentary government instead of the presidential one that we have.It was basically an underhanded effort to circumvent presidential term limits because in a parliamentary government, the Prime Minister (unlike a President, who is elected by direct vote of the people) retains power as long as he or she enjoys the confidence of parliament. Applied here, a parliamentary shift is ill-advised because of a weak political party system, political turncoatism and personality-based loyalty rather than adherence to party ideology.

Whatever doubts I entertained by the shift in federalism have been confirmed after reading the draft Federal Constitution. Its heart, I believe, is not the change in the form of government—it is only the facade behind which the real reason for Charter change lurks. Rather, the real targets—its weakness—are the economic provisions, i.e., those that reserve to Filipino citizens and corporations certain industries and professions and the exploitation of natural resources, limiting foreign participation to limited percentages. The old gambit was to insert a seemingly innocuous phrase, “unless otherwise provided bylaw”; the new ploy instead involves wholesale provisions that empower Congress to change, by ordinary legislation as opposed to constitutional amendment, foreign equity participation in the economic provisions.

The Philippines has never been able to solve the problem of entrenched local political dynasties and warlords gorging on resources that should have benefited their constituents. Federalism, I’m afraid, will only worsen that.

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