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COMMENTARY: Filipinos ill-prepared for a federal system

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 29 Dec) – People in a hurry to do away with our unitary form of government and replace it with the federal system are being reckless and cavalier about it. They fail to take account of our society’s poor record in adjusting to change, let alone radical change. The present system has kept our archipelago and society together for over a century already. Tampering with it is a complicated matter. And it should not be entrusted to one group, not especially incumbents with dubious motives or interests and who seem bent on effecting the change by themselves through a Constituent Assembly.

It would be better if we just focus on making autonomy the standard mode of governance in our localities. Local governments are supposed to operate autonomously. Much of the powers of the upper government units are already devolved to them as per the Local Government Code of 1991 (R.A. 7160). The local autonomy it mandates applies especially to our immediate communities, the barangays. But compliance has been spotty. The Code’s intent to enfranchise and empower the grassroots has proved elusive. It’s such a pity, because having the citizenry focus on managing and maintaining their own community would improve the Filipino’s individual and collective capability to make any democratic system—including the federal form—work properly, and from the bottom up.

To go federal right away, on a large scale, and from the top down, will only replicate the dismal record of local autonomy thus far, slice our republic into possibly troublesome jurisdictions, and subdivide constituencies according to their loyalty to ruling of oligarchs and traditional politicians (trapos) who dominate the regions today.

Despite attempts over the years to establish the spirit and practice of self-governance in our society, we have made no significant gains. Local constituents remain powerless for the most part. They have little or no influence over their own government. Moreover, they seem content or resigned to being ruled by their officials. And the officials seem to take it for granted that being in office vests them with a power-of-attorney to act on everyone’s behalf. Public servants they are, but they behave more like the masters, blithely manipulating their constituents, juggling the community’s resources. So the people remain politically naïve and immature for the role of sovereign citizen in a democracy.

This is not a proper framework for a federal system. It would merely redistribute society into regional districts governed imperiously by the usual trapos and their dynasties. It will also perpetuate the culture of dependency among the masses alongside the culture of impunity among office-holders. There will all the more be a surfeit of petty oligarchies and plutocracies bent on perpetuating never-ending reign. A nominal federal system at best, with a feudal underlay.

As for the move to introduce the parliamentary form of government, does no one know that this has been prescribed long ago by the Local Government Code of 1991 at the basic level of our republic? But no one has bothered to explain it, how it works, how People Power underpins its establishment, and what dynamics are involved. So the barangay’s parliamentary government remains inoperative. The system is bastardized.

For example, the Barangay Assembly is the de facto parliament of the community, with an all-inclusive membership. But it is belittled by the national authorities and turned into a rubber stamp of Malacañang and the DILG. On the other hand, it is ignored by the major stakeholders of the barangay population. They rarely participate in it, let alone evince an interest in its agenda, processes, and proceedings.

As a result, Filipinos are deprived of a hands-on experience of self-government or autonomy. A great pity, because it’s only in the barangay that a citizen has a direct role in government—in policy making, operations, or project implementation. It’s a direct democracy, unlike the representative democracy at upper government units where acts of government are delegated to the elected representatives.

So long has this de facto disenfranchisement of the people obtained that everyone now assumes they have no serious role in government. Worse, treated patronizingly by those in office, the masses take it for granted that they are beholden to officials who are in fact their public servants. To be treated like dependents by the latter does not offend them. To them that’s the way it is in politics; to them there’s nothing wrong with it. So it’s no surprise that they are apathetic and unconcerned about governance, let alone good governance.

In consequence, their role as citizens of a democratic society becomes meaningless. They don’t appreciate what it means to be a sovereign citizen. They figure: never mind if the trapos manipulate us; that’s the way the system works. And so Filipinos remain politically immature. Their yardstick is popularity. Ideas or platforms do not figure in their political choices. They support even patently unqualified candidates. Name recognition is the main criterion.

This explains why there’s an oversupply of know-nothing or pedantic celebrities in power and an undersupply of ideas in addressing societal problems. Worst of all is the electorate’s casual attitude towards vote-buying or selling.

Will a federal system induce political maturity? Will a parliamentary system improve the caliber of our bureaucrats? Will the combination of both enable Filipinos to weed out the dishonest, the deadwood, and the incompetent?

Today’s bureaucracy is inflated with power-greedy trapos, leaders who think they are rulers rather than public servants. How will democracy and citizen sovereignty thrive under a federal system? Will it put a stop to the marginalization of the Filipino as a constituent? Will public decisions be made with due consultation?

This situation has gone on too long. It has gotten so bad that the citizen’s role is now reduced to the mere act of casting a vote every three years. The trapos say: “Vote us into office every three years, and we’ll take care of the rest. Vote as we dictate and our dynasty will see to everything in-between elections.” So the citizens—in whom sovereignty resides and from whom all government authority emanates—are effectively marginalized.

Then there’s the question of political maturity, an essential requirement for the proper functioning of a federal system, or any other system for that matter. We haven’t even learned to choose suitable candidates or weed out unsuitable ones. We haven’t learned to deal with incompetence or corruption in our own community. We are helpless, inept, and neglectful as to public accountability—an essential requirement at the primal level of governance: our own community or barangay. No one ever gets removed or penalized for being corrupt or incompetent.

Consider. Filipinos are supposedly sovereign citizens (the supreme authority in the community or barangay). But they don’t act empowered. They haven’t even learned to use their power to initiate ordinances or to rectify undesirable ones. Their Power of Initiative and Referendum require only 50 signatures expressing the desire to enact an ordinance, to repeal an existing one, or to simply amend it. A simple but very real power in the task of governance. It is People Power, but one that our citizens ignore.

Then there’s the Power of Recall. Barangay citizens can remove or replace an official for loss of confidence. Recall proceedings may be initiated by petition of at least 25 percent of the registered voters. This procedure is available to citizens who lose confidence in an official. It’s not a very difficult measure to undertake, but it is never invoked despite so many cases of corruption, incompetence, and what-have-you.

That no constituency has ever mounted a Recall initiative even in the most flagrant cases of criminality shows our society to be unprepared for a more sophisticated form of government such as a federal system. We just don’t know how to discipline erring officials. We have no demonstrated ability to make a system operate properly, let alone improve or refine its dynamics.

This indulgent sycophancy towards people in power, this attitude of dependency upon politicos, often bought with pork barrel and the pernicious practice of “EPAL,” puts in serious doubt our society’s ability to make a federal system work.

Local autonomy or self-governance is the essence of federalism. It must start with the citizen and his community, building on their capacity to manage community affairs within a democratic framework. The spirit and practice of autonomy (or self-reliance) at community level are essential for the development of political maturity and wisdom in public affairs.

Until Filipinos gain a measure of political maturity and self-assurance as sovereign citizens—enough that they will actually challenge or defy presumptuous public servants who seek to manipulate them, let them not be rushed into prematurely adopting the federal system of government.

[Manny is former UNESCO regional director for Asia-Pacific; secretary-general, Southeast Asia Publishers Association; vice chair, Local Government Academy; and awardee, PPI-UNICEF outstanding columnist. Today he is chairman and national convenor of the Gising Barangay Movement Inc. valdehuesa@gmail.com]

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