How not to federalise

Since his election in 2015, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has done little that supporters of liberal democracy should admire. His program of extrajudicial killings and contemptuous attitude to the judicial institutions of the Philippines demonstrates that he is in many ways a dangerous figure for the country. However, it’s true that a stopped clock is right twice a day, and one of Duterte’s more positive ideas for the country has been a consistently expressed willingness to change the country’s political system, from the existing system of unitary presidentialism to a semi-presidential federal system.

In keeping with this principle, a group of Senators have presented a specific proposal for a dramatically revised new federal constitution. Having only given it a cursory examination, I responded positively-however, a more careful examination demonstrates several substantial issues with the draft.

The proposal would divide the Philippines into eleven states, with Manila City becoming a federally administered region. Only half of Duterte’s proposal would be implemented, though, as presidentialism is kept-the most substantial change to the structure of the now federal government would be a change to the Senate, which would go from being a twenty-four member body elected using MNTV in one nationwide district for six-year terms (with staggered elections to half of the chamber every three years) to a seventy-five member body elected with states acting as districts, nine senators per state, and three senators elected per state every two years.

In general, the Philippines has not been a positive example of presidentialism. Presidents have regularly been elected in fragmented races (Fidel Ramos was elected in 1992 with 24% of the vote), and the party system for the legislature is if anything more weak and fragmented, with fluid allegiances (best demonstrated by the numbers of President Duterte’s PDP-LABAN party going from two at the election to a comfortable majority afterwards).

The federal aspect of the constitution also leaves something to be desired. Governors are elected directly, with first-past-the-post for four-year terms. Initially, and somewhat unusually, state legislators are elected by local councils. Three are elected for each province, a truly astonishing degree of malapportionment. For example, in Central Visayas State, the province of Siquijor (pop. 96,000) will have the same three seats as Cebu (pop. 4.6 million). Three further members are elected: one for farming, one for fisheries, and one for senior citizens.

Indirect election by local councils becomes variable by state legislatures after the first election. It is left unclear as to whether states are able to amend the composition of their legislatures, or whether local councils are still able to recall members of state legislatures.

Weirdly enough, states can create ‘autonomous regions’ within their own territories, the powers of which are only vaguely defined. States also have exclusive power, strangely enough, over “trade…tourism…weights and measures” as well as “pilgrimages to places outside the Republic”, which, as JD pointed out to me, could allow corrupt state officials to be spirited away from federal police on fairly spurious grounds.

None of this is to say, of course, that the principles of federalism don’t make sense for the Philippines. As a large country with clear political diversity, it makes sense to devolve power from a potentially unrepresentative core. Nonetheless, the proposal put forward by the Senators risks creating equally unrepresentative state-level governments with a somewhat esoteric mix of powers. More work is needed, and presumably the plan will be looked at more carefully through the later process of the reform process.