OP ED COLUMN: HORIZONS – Why federalism? By: Richard Heydarian

In theory, federalism aims for unity by recognizing diversity, redistributes fiscal and legislative powers to the peripheries, and encourages local government units to become captains of their own destinies.

On paper, everything looks beautiful. But reality is a completely different matter. And this is where social science, rather than law, can make more substantive contributions to the ongoing debate on Charter change in this country.

After all, the crafting of a new constitution isn’t only a legal matter. Instead, it’s primarily a leap of faith into a new realm of political economy, namely the interface of power and finite resources.


Like any other Filipino citizen, I’m hungry for political transformation. I’m sick and tired of empty slogans and the perpetuation of an unjust, extractive status quo.

As a probinsyano, born and raised in Baguio, I have carried, perhaps subconsciously, a liminal grievance against “Imperial Manila.”

Our political system is an oligarchy disguised as a democracy. Our society simply has too many poor, oppressed and marginalized citizens to deserve the label of democracy.

Yet, I can’t help but remain skeptical vis-à-vis the ongoing push for federalism, for at least five reasons.

First of all, is there a public clamor for Charter change? What’s the evidence?

According to the latest Social Weather Stations survey (March 23-27), only 14 percent of Filipinos “strongly agree” with pushing for a federal form of government. As many as 75 percent of Filipinos, or 3 out of 4, are not even aware of the mechanics and implications of it.

According to the latest Pulse Asia survey (March 23-28), almost 7 out of 10 Filipinos oppose a shift to a federal government. Clearly, there is no public clamor for it, only widespread and profound public confusion as well as skepticism.

Second, I’m astonished at how a good number of pro-federalism proponents carelessly indulge what scientists call “selection bias.” They enthusiastically cite flattering examples of federalism, such as contemporary Germany or Switzerland, which happen to have circumstances entirely different from those in the Philippines.


Few mention the brutal mid-19th century civil war in federal America, which claimed the lives of close to a million individuals, or the breakdown of federal Yugoslavia into a genocidal anarchy not long ago. Not many talk about the actual experience of federalism in fellow developing countries such as Nigeria, India, Brazil, and Iraq, which have been wracked by deep inequality, persistent ethnic-communal tensions, and uneven development throughout much of their recent history.

Third, what many proponents of federalism tend to overlook is that what they’re advocating for is, per Aristotle’s distinction, a change in “form” of government, not in the “substance” of our political system.

For example, France, Turkey and South Korea have a practically identical presidential-parliamentary “form” of government, with a dominant presidency. Yet, their actual political systems have hardly converged over the decades. Turkey has become more autocratic in recent years, while South Korea has become one of the freest nations on earth.

And this brings me to my fourth point of concern: Never trust simplistic, mono-causal explanations of development, which have been largely discredited and ridiculed in cutting-edge social science research.

Even a cursory look at the works of leading political economists of our time, ranging from Francis Fukuyama (think of “Political Order and Political Decay”) to Dani Rodrik (“One Economics, Many Recipes”) and Kamer Daron Acemoglu (“Why Nations Fail”), reveals that nations fail and succeed not because of the “form” of their government, but because of the nature of their institutions and state policies.

Finally, what proponents of federalism are yet to demonstrate is our preparedness for Charter change. It’s one thing to give more autonomy to local governments; it’s entirely another thing to ensure they can stand on their own.

Currently, we know that only few regions, mostly in the industrialized heartland of Luzon, are capable of raising enough taxes on their own. A shift to federalism means that the more prosperous regions will be able to further concentrate on their own development, thus making themselves even more competitive and attractive to capital and labor.

Yet, even in a prosperous nation like America, with two centuries of federalist experience, we are yet to see poorer Southern and Midwestern states catching up with California and New York. America still remains as one of the most unequal nations on earth.

I’m not against federalism per se. But as British philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke once memorably warned, “Better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions, than ruined by too confident a security.”

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05:07 AM July 17, 2018
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