The difference between “Presidential or Parliamentary” systems, which we discussed in Part One of this exploration of ways to improve the way the Philippines is governed, and “Unitary or Federal” systems is that the former are systems of government, while the latter are systems of administration. In other words, both a presidential or parliamentary form of government can be organized as a unitary or federal system, and there are examples of all four combinations among the world’s democracies:
Presidential & Unitary: Philippines, France
Presidential & Federal: United States, Mexico, Brazil
Parliamentary & Unitary: Singapore, Japan, New Zealand
Parliamentary & Federal: Australia, Canada, Malaysia
In a unitary system, the nation is constitutionally governed as a single unit in a “top-down” fashion. Political power of the government might well be delegated to lower levels, as is done here in the Philippines with the country’s arrangement of regions, provinces, municipalities, and barangays, but the central government retains the ultimate authority. The particular arrangement of lower government levels, the geographic areas they cover, and their specific rights and responsibilities are not constitutionally-protected, but are defined, and can be changed by, laws made by the national legislature.
In a federal system, the lower levels of government – usually called states or provinces – have a constitutional existence, and cannot be unilaterally changed by the national government. The nation is effectively governed in a “bottom-up” fashion; whether it is explicitly stated in the nation’s constitution or not (as it is in the U.S. Constitution) the national government has rights and responsibilities delegated to it by the states or provinces, rather than the other way around as in a unitary system.
The contemporary “conventional wisdom” in the Philippines, and indeed, throughout the world in general, is that Federalism is a better alternative than a unitary government. There is no example in recent history of a democratic nation moving from a federal system to a more centralized or unitary organization. For what it’s worth, being a citizen-product of the highly-federalized United States of America I have always assumed a federal system is superior in terms of governmental efficiency and accountability, and clearly the leadership of the Philippines feels the same way: Senate Joint Resolution 10, filed on April 23, 2008 by 16 of the 24 Senators (including presumptive President-to-Be Noynoy Aquino, although he only signed on later as a co-author) called for the convening of a Constituent Assembly to amend the Constitution to provide for a Federal government and reorganizing the country into 11 states, with Metro Manila being an analog to Washington, D.C. as a Federal Administrative Region. The rationale for this, as stated in the preamble to the resolution, is that “…the federalization of the Republic would speed up the development of the entire nation and help dissipate the causes of the insurgency throughout the land, particularly, the centuries-old Moro rebellions.” The thinking behind this and all such initiatives anywhere is that Federalism reduces corruption or at least limits its scope, provides for a more efficient distribution and use of resources, and speeds the pace of tangible development in infrastructure, economy, education, health care, and other matters.
All well and good…except it may be wrong. Two different empirical studies – the first originally written in 2001 and published in the journal Economics & Politics in 2005 by Daniel Lederman and Norman Loayaza of the World Bank and Rodrigo Reis Soares of the University of Chicago, and the second presented at a meeting of the American Political Science Association in 2004 by John Gerring, S.C. Thacker, and Carola Moreno of Boston University – present powerful arguments that unitary systems of government are in general more effective than federal systems at achieving exactly the kind of aims expressed in, for example, Senate J.R. 10. Lederman, Loayaza, and Soares focused their study on corruption, while Gerring, Thacker, and Moreno studied a broad range of 15 indicators and concluded,
“Unitarism is associated (at the ninety-five percent level of confidence or better) with better telecommunications infrastructure, lower import duties, greater trade openness, higher regulatory quality, and higher levels of per capita GDP, across both full and reduced-form models. It is significant at the ninety percent confidence level in the reduced form model for investment rating.
“Results for our three measures of human development are also encouraging. Unitarism is significantly associated with lower infant mortality and illiteracy rates. Results for life expectancy are strongly significant in the reduced form but not in the full model.
“…It appears that unitary systems hold distinct advantages over federal ones across a wide range of indicators of political, economic and human development. In only one case—the full-form model for political stability—do federal structures appear to offer an advantage in good governance. Results for Unitarism are especially strong for economic and human development.” [emphasis added]
Both sets of researchers are careful to point out that their findings, while strong and able to stand up to empirical testing, are still generalizations and are not immune to the obvious exceptions that exist in the world in countries such as the United States. However, it appears that the historical origins of federal systems are the significant factor in determining whether those systems are successful, and have the additional effect of rendering a comparison with a hypothetical unitary system in those countries impossible. It’s also important to note that both studies are clear that they are done using controlled sets of variables, are based on existing or past conditions rather than possible future ones, and that as a result future research could conceivably reach different conclusions.
So does that definitely mean that a federal system is wrong for the Philippines? Not necessarily, but on the other hand, a search for studies that refute the ones cited above – with any sort of argument, let alone one of the same empirical strength – turns up nothing at all, at least so far. Furthermore, if the historical composition of the country is the determining factor in whether it can be a successful exception to the general rule that unitary systems are superior, then there is little in the Philippines’ political history to suggest that would be the case here. But on the other hand, the geographical and cultural make-up the country – in that it is a collection of islands rather than a contiguous landmass, which has led to a patchwork of language and culture – might well substitute for “historical-political composition” and provide a natural set of divisions upon which to base a federal system.
Certainly no one can argue that the current system of government in the Philippines is efficient, works to prevent corruption, and is a catalyst for development, and that in itself is a strong argument against unitarism. But federalizing simply for the sake of “trying something different,” which seems to have been the sentiment behind S.J.R. 10, would be irresponsible. I seriously doubt the Senate subjected the question to the same sort of rigor that the researchers cited above did, and that is exactly what would have to be done – taking into consideration not controlled variables but the specific, unique, naturally stochastic conditions in this country – in order to arrive at the right answer.
Next time: Does the Philippines Actually Need a Constitution?