The Philippines’ Road Ahead, Part 2: A Unitary System or a Federal System?

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?

About bkritz

I'm a writer, and I do things my own way. That might sound cool to you, unless you're one of the people who actually knows me, in which case you're probably shaking your head in exasperation at the depth of that understatement.
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6 Responses to The Philippines’ Road Ahead, Part 2: A Unitary System or a Federal System?

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  2. benign0 says:

    I’m not quite familiar with the historical details but with the U.S. and other prosperous federal democracies, didn’t the original disparate states that were to come together to form the federal union come in voluntarily? In contrast, the Philippines as far as I understand is an artificial country composed of annexed states and tribal units cobbled together for purposes of colonial administration.

    This, along with a few of the other renowned backward cultural traits of Pinoys, throws a possible spanner in the statistical works (if the sampling and analyis approach covered only the correlation between prosperity indicators (HDI, and other economic/development indices) and degree of federalisation.

    That said, I favour federalism for now (given my limited understanding of the pros and cons at this stage) only because it brings accountability closer to the average Pinoy schmoe which contributes something to my personal aspiration that the Pinoy reduce his whining about Big Bad Government, Big Bad Imperialists, Big Bad Americans, and other bogey man he has historically used as excuses for his chronic inability to prosper.

    • J.B. says:

      I read the state of Texas with their Alamo history fighting against Mexicans eventually volunteered as part of the US. Other states Lousiana for example was bought from the French. Other’s were due to expansion of existing states.

      It wasn’t totally voluntary in the sense that the Confederates wanted the south detached from the North. But the only good thing about them was they can easily UNDERSTAND what it means to be a United.

      I’m all for Federalism. I think it was Ople who’s afraid of Balkanization of Philippines that he’s against the concept. I don’t know what went wrong to the initiatives of Pimentel. Maybe he’s old enough to spearhead another effort on top of the local government code he pushed and won.

    • BenK says:

      Exactly, the original United States formed by choice; the nearest thing to a modern analog would be the European Union.

      Most of the rest of the U.S., however, was formed by breaking up larger states or territories. the state of Maine, for example, was once part of Massachusetts. The Louisiana Purchase was a huge swath of the continent, pretty much everything between the Mississippi and the Rockies (except for Texas), of which Louisiana was only a very small part. The Oregon Territory originally covered what would be the states of Oregon and Washington. And so on.

      In the case of Texas, it was a bit of a set-up between the leaders of American settlers in Texas (which was a province of Mexico) and the U.S. government. The Texans intended to become part of the U.S., but the U.S. simply could not annex a province of a neighboring country without provocation. So the Texans first declared their independence from Mexico, won their little war, and then joined the U.S. The U.S.-Mexican War which broke out just shortly afterwards was instigated by the dispute over which river should mark Texas’ southern boundary, and as a result of the comprehensive ass-whomping the U.S. laid on Mexico, the latter ceded most of what are now the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

      That sub-dividing aspect of the U.S. experience might be a practical pattern for the Philippines to follow, but it’s hard to say whether it would work as well. The reason it worked well in the U.S. is because the federal union format had already been established, and so the pattern was there to follow. This is not an insignificant point, because it had been that way since the very beginning of the British colonial presence — the colonies were always separate, each with their own charter and governor. Modern-day Philippine society, by contrast, is what it is because of the Spanish colonial experience, which was always unitary; one has to go back even further to the pre-colonial era to tribal Philippines if one wishes to federalize along ‘natural’ lines, and of course, those origins are reflected but little or not at all in 21st Philippines – you might as well take a pencil and start arbitrarily drawing lines on a map, for all the difference it would make in that respect.

      The real problem with considering federalism for the Philippines is that many people – myself included – assume that it would be a better solution, and reasonably assume so for the most part, but no one has tried to submit the question to a tough empirical test, i.e., something along the lines of the Boston U. study, but using locally-appropriate variables and other inputs. Federalism is kind of a big deal; I don’t think anyone should be satisfied with taking on something of that magnitude on a “best guess” or “yeah, that sounds about right” basis.

  3. Marcing Pin says:

    I agree with on changing the system.. I think we should include the changing of our electoral system from the current direct vote to electoral college… the recently concluded election proves that the electoral system is a failure where the top two unqualified finishers were voted by the ignorant and careless majority..

    About the system, the best example of a federalist parliamentary system is Australia… where they have state governments and federal government.. although, what I am worried about a federal system is when a certain warlord clan or political dynasty dominate one of the states and declared their freakin’ independence (e.g. ‘sort of’ U.S. Civil War).. unless, if the new constitution give huge power to the central federal government… best way, is balance of power with the states can passed laws concerning states and domestic issues while the federal government tasked to passed laws concerning national issues…

    I do prefer federal-parliamentary system than the current one… it may solve the war in Mindanao.. and we have enough population to have either “federal” (the “real” American form of democracy) or “federal-parliamentary” systems…

    About the American states, some states are not happy about forming one huge republic.. they were actually happy with the “Confederation Articles” they are using during the Revolutionary War where they form loose confederations of state republics… its the very reason that it took them ages to have a Constitution.. after the ratification of the Constitution, a lot of issues emerged such as states’ rights… the reluctance of other states leads to civil war because the pre-civil war central federal government doesn’t have enough power at that time..

    Just my two cents…

    • Miriam Quiamco says:

      Well, the ARMM is an experiment at federalism, look where it led to. Gibo’s idea of giving full autonomy to self-sustaining local government units seems to be a better alternative to federalism. In Malaysia, federalism has worked only because it is not a geographically disparate country as ours and it is culturally unified. The Philippines has always had to live with the disparities imposed on us by the Spaniards. As the colonizers focused on Luzon and the Visayas, they pretty much left Mindanao to fend for itself, the Moros fiercely resisted colonization, they were never culturally integrated and I suspect, this has a lot of ramifications for political and economic integration too. Even the mere mention of letting mncs help develop mining resources in Mindanao is controversial with those claiming ethnic rights ready to wage war with the central government. The U.S. and certainly the E.U. share common cultural heritage and the people under a federalist form of government could be persuaded to submit themselves to some form of integration under a federal government, with other units as co-federalists. There is cultural unity that precedes cultural and economic integration.

      My preference for parliamentary form of government is rooted on the political framework it could give to correcting our personality-driven politics from that of an issue-oriented one. In Japan where it is parliamentary and unitary, the oligarchy reigns supreme too, but accountability in terms of actual results of government policies is the focus because each political party has to put forward clear policies during elections on how to solve problems confronting the country. If it is an economic model that could spell a difference in moving the country forward economically, each political party should take a clear stand on what this economic model is and this will be the focus of elections, not who is the son of this and that. The last election has convinced me of the urgency to change our political system to that of a parliamentary one, and it doesn’t matter whether it is federalism or unitary. We need to end showbiz style and medieval style politics, we have to confront issues head on and find solutions to them, and these should be the focus of media attention, and not yellow journalism. . .

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