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CRUCIBLE: BBL – Entangled Anew? (2)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 07 March) – (Second part of a paper presented during the Center for People Empowerment and Governance’s (CENPEG) Forum on “Key Issues on Federalism: A Policy Action Conference” held at the Center for Integrative Development Studies, University of the Philippines on 07 February 2018. Part of this paper was also presented during the Senate Hearing on BBL on 05 February 2018).

The continuing slide of the Philippines as a “fragile state” is symptomatic of institutional problems of the country – a situation that has continued to worsen relative to other Asean countries.

The Philippines (2006: 68th/79.2 to 2017: 54th/84.4) has been consistently tailing Cambodia (47th/85 to 50th/85.7) while third to Myanmar (18th/96.5 to 35th/95.7) the latter being the most fragile state in the Asean.

Whereas Thailand (79th/74.9 to 82nd/76.2), Indonesia (32nd/89.2 to 94th/72.9), Malaysia (98th/66.1 to 116th/65.4), and Singapore (133rd/30.8 to 161st/32.5) are, comparatively, better off.

The Fragile State Index (FSI) of the Fund for Peace does not obviously take a country’s political structure as a variable in measuring the degree of its fragility. Rather, it considers security apparatus, factionalized elites, group grievance, uneven economic development, demographic pressures, and few more as variables of FSI.

What can be deduced from FSI data is that since the continuing slide of the Philippines as a fragile state is happening under the watch of unitary system, it shows that there is a failure of the latter in worsening the fragility of Philippine condition.

The Bangsamoro, being the most vulnerable minority in the country, are obviously the ones who are hit the hardest with all the ill-effects of such fragility.

Usually, a fragile state suffers with institutional malfunctions including the “entrenching of exclusionary coalition of powers” (e.g., political dynasty, warlordism, patronage politics). Fragile state is a gateway to crisis and failed state.

It is important to recall that except for President Benigno Aquino III, all past presidents after President Corazon Aquino proposed invariably a shift to federalism and parliamentary system either singly or in combination thereof which have failed successively. Thus, with close calls to reconfigure intergovernmental power relation in Moro areas the same attitude of “discordant politics” has been shown then and now.

The commonly held reason for successive opposition against system change is hardly based on understanding about merit or demerit of both federalism and parliamentary system. It is due to a widely held suspicion that a sitting president and his or her lieutenants are behind Charter change to extend his or her stay in office.

Mistrust is at the heart in today’s “discordant politics” among Filipinos. It blurs people’s ability to reason and stifles visions of reform.

Badly wanting of reform, the Bangsamoro is, like many instances, has been a hapless victim of that discord. Moros could not institute fundamental reform in their sub-political system as their political fate, as mentioned, hinges on the decision of the majority.

In 2008, many politicians who did not like the sitting president fought tooth and nail against the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MoA-AD) prodding the Supreme Court to declare it “unconstitutional.”

Yet, when another president came in and retooled and labeled the MoA-AD as the “Framework Agreement” (FAB) that later became the “Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro” (CAB), the same politicians began to sing a different tune.

As CAB metamorphosed into BBL during the Aquino administration, the main branches of government with highly partisan politicians were pitted into a gridlock like many instances in the past. Many suspected that the BBL is gateway for secession. The BBL eventually lost steam in the final days of the Aquino Administration. The tragic Mamasapano debacle reinforced it.

Finally, what struck the nail on BBL’s coffin then was neither art nor logic of legislation; it was sheer recourse to lack of quorum in Congress. It was the latest testament how “tyranny of majority” could become glaringly unscrupulous when addressing the Moro question.

Meantime, many ills of the country remained with no fundamental reforms gaining headway.  Development programs of past administrations were persistently kept in the back burner.

Many Moros could not help but ask: Is there a chance to pursue legitimate reform in Moroland without being undermined by “discordant politics” among Filipinos? What is the recourse left amid frequent gridlocks of the country’s major institutions whenever Moros and their issues are on close call for reform?

With mass of Filipinos equally disenchanted with status quo opting for a can-do local leader who, they thought, could salvage the situation from “discordant politics,” BBL has been resurrected recently and kneaded once again in Congress. It shows how decision is determined by a few people who do not even represent them let alone know the real plight of a poor Moro.

For sure, BBL could still be addressed even if a proposed shift to federalism and parliamentary system fails to materialize. But, as I maintained, it could not fully address the cause of intergovernmental instability or disjuncture in the Moroland.

Essentially, the disjuncture happens in three (3) ways:

(1) The Philippine unitary structure effaces the asymmetrical character between Filipino and Moro identities despite their separate, albeit parallel experience of history and polity formation;

(2) With “Imperial Manila” perpetually vested with the exigency to rule “over the top,” the unitary setup continues to over-concentrate powers in national government, stifles growth and development in the countryside, and promotes pseudo-democratic politics and patronage system among local officials;

(3) Despite dispersing power to local government through autonomy and decentralization in the late 1980s, the structural effects of disjuncture render futile the national government’s “political experiment” of tier-making and tier-changing in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago thereby perpetuating post-colonial order since the American period in the Philippines.

Contrary to early Filipino nationalists’ vision for a monolithic Philippine nation-state, stringent government’s policy of integration had pushed even more the Moros to embrace secession – a reason why reconfiguring power relations has to be done seriously. However, succeeding “political experiments” failed as well.

A notch higher than autonomy but lower than federalism, BBL proposes to adjust the fulcrum of power in the political system. It originally adopts a sub-state arrangement for the Bangsamoro where strong-executive mold of the national government is counter-balanced with strong legislature in Moro areas.

However, the main limitation of sub-state arrangement under a unitary setup is that it only addresses the vertical relation of power (i.e., division of powers) but not the horizontal power relation (i.e., separation of powers).

Restructuring power of mid-tiers without changing power relationship among the main branches of government (i.e., Executive, Legislature, Judiciary) would not substantially change the hegemonic character of the national government over local areas. Decision in major branches of national government continues to determine the fate of autonomous, sub-state or federal tiers.

Moreover, today’s bicameral legislature remiss with representation from the margin particularly the Bangsamoro shows how flawed the country’s presidential system has been.

For instance, why should siblings, father or mother and son can be senators at the same time, while the Bangsamoro and other indigenous people who are badly in need of representation could not have any?

With their skewed mirroring of republican democracy, today’s “national” representatives with their functions of rule-legislating, their power of the purse, power to create or supplant organic laws, power to suspend regional and local elections, and so on hegemonize over regional and local tiers.

Hence, sub-state arrangement despite its quasi-federal character cannot be expected to cure the problem of intergovernmental relation with the Moros unless national power on the horizontal level is also reconfigured, lest it worsens the disjuncture and intensifies asymmetry on both polities (i.e., National government and Bangsamoro).

I suggested during the 2015 Senate Hearing a counter-balance proposal to increase Moro representation in the National government. I also argued to strengthen the espirit de corps of the Bangsamoro as part of the national community.

These proposals were done to minimize the formation of ad hoc intergovernmental bodies that may be created when push comes to shove. When a ripening fruit sags quite heavy, old folks usually wrap and tie the fruit unto the tree’s trunk or its branches so it won’t fall prematurely.

That time, I was hesitant to propose such counter-balancing mode in stabilizing intergovernmental relation. It was simply done in keeping with the context of unitary setup in mind as there was no Charter change proposal that time.

Truth is, merely increasing representation without changing the “structure” could not guarantee stability of national-sub-national relation particularly in the Bangsamoro. In fact, mere tempering mechanism or a “patch up” approach is fraught with danger. It is not “structural” enough to merit institutional viability and efficacy.

Many instances of gridlock among the three branches of government generally involve the working of the separation of powers and dynamics of check and balances. When push comes to shove, it is often “people power” that resolves the gridlock. Frequent recourse to many “people powers” would make the country look more like a “banana republic.”

To avoid that, parliamentary system could stabilize power relation in the horizontal level. It also insulates the dynamics of government among its major branches minimizing thus the need to recourse to “people power”.

In sum, the package of BFAPS (BBL, federalism, and parliamentary system) could be fully appreciated if it is viewed as a comprehensive reform agenda of the Philippine political system beyond “discordant politics.

Short of viewing comprehensively such package lurks an unimaginable fear. With “discordant politics” on the rise again, the vision of BFAPS could just become another phase of Filipino “dream” as the nation marches toward increasing fragility with the Bangsamoro continuously tugged along as a colonial entity.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. The author is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines].

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