By Cielito M. Reganit
In his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) Monday before the Joint Session of Congress, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte made a fresh pitch for one of his pet advocacies — a shift to federalism, a system in which states share power with the national government.
The President is strongly advocating for federalism as a better system of governance for the Philippines, arguing that regions outside Metro Manila receive unfairly small budget allocation from the Internal Revenue Allotment.
He is also advocating federalism in order to promote lasting peace and holistic economic growth throughout the Philippines.
But even before his SONA, the House of Representatives had already started the ball rolling towards this aspiration, knowing fully well that the process involved would be a long and arduous one.
At the start of the terms of the present crop of lawmakers, Davao del Norte Rep. Pantaleon Alavarez filed the very first House Resolution of the 17th Congress calling for the immediate convening of a constitutional convention (ConCon) to amend the Constitution so as to make the form of government more responsive to the needs of the nation.
The newly-installed Speaker of the House said that “though lawmakers are amenable to revising the 1987 Constitution to pave the way to a federal system of government, the best mode is through a Constitutional Convention wherein the delegates who will propose revisions are regionally elected for that purpose.
“This process shall ensure that the people-at-large, from the very outset, shall be part of the changes that will be introduced for the fundamental structure of our society,” Alvarez said.
The move is fully supported by Davao City Rep. Karlo Alexei Nograles who said that that the groundwork for the charter change initiative should start this early because it would require a lot of studies, research and intelligent debates.
“It may sound very simple but changing a system of government is an arduous task. Going to the nitty-gritty of dividing our regions into federal states and creating new administrative positions would require long hours of serious deliberation,” he said.
It will be also a huge debate on whether or not Charter Change (ChaCha) would just cover provisions on the system of government or it would also cover other contentious provisions touching on the economy, patrimony, national security and even term limits.
“We should expect intense debates on these issues, which is why I believe that this early, we should would work with the Speaker in ensuring that this will be approved in Congress the soonest possible time,” Nograles said.
Meanwhile, Cebu City Rep. Gwendolyn Garcia filed a bill setting the parameters on the election of delegates of a Constitutional Convention, the rules of procedure of the Con-Con, and the appropriation of funds for the Con-Con operations during the amendment of relevant provisions of the 1987 Constitution.
House Bill 312 or the proposed “Constitutional Convention Act of 2016” details the composition, qualifications, appointment, and election of Constitutional Convention delegates; conduct of Con-Con delegates’ election, rules and regulations; opening session and election of the President of the Con-Con; organization of the Con-Con, the rules of procedure, the Con-Con budget; parliamentary immunity of Con-Con delegates; and Con-Con appropriations.
“There is a need for a Constitutional Convention so the people can adopt a Constitution which establishes a government that is truly reflective of their ideals and aspirations and which guarantees a regime of law, justice, truth, freedom, equality and peace,” Garcia said.
On the other hand, Negros Occidental Rep. Alfredo Benitez has moved to convene the House of Representatives and the Senate into a Constituent Assembly (ConAss) to introduce amendments to the 1987 Constitution, including the shift to a federal form of government.
In House Joint Resolution No. 2, Benitez said ConAss is the most prompt and least expensive mode to amend the Charter and to change the form of government to federalism, among others.
“Constitutional Assembly is the most expeditious and less costly than the other modes of ChaCha,” Benitez said.
The two other modes of Charter change provided under the Constitution are Constitutional Convention and People’s Initiatives.
His sentiments were shared by Surigao del Norte Rep. Ace Barbers who called on his fellow legislators to consider constituting Congress into a Constituent Assembly and said that it is less divisive and cost-effective.
Meanwhile, with two competing lines of thoughts on how to proceed, a lawmaker issued the call for the immediate creation of a technical working group (TWG) which would consolidate and filter proposals to change the system of government from the present presidential bicameral form of government to federal presidential bicameral form.
Iloilo City Rep. Jerry Treñas said the early creation of a TWG would reduce the time that will be consumed on debates on the actual provisions to be included in the list of amendments that will be finally approved for deliberation either in a Concon or a Conass.
“We can actually reduce the time that will be consumed on committee hearings on the proposal for federalization if we already set the parameters on what to amend and what would be kept untouched even before we start deliberating on the proposal to amend the Constitution,” Treñas said.
In the meantime, members of the AKO Bicol Party-list said that they fully support the shift to a federal form of government as BIcolanos have been clamoring for federalism since 2009.
AKO Bicol Rep. Christopher Co said that just last July 20, the Partylist group hosted a forum on federalism named ‘For Peace and Progress: Federalism Now!’ at the Albay Astrodome in Legazpi City.
The forum was conducted in partnership with the Provincial Government of Albay and the Federalismo Alyansa ng Bicol (FAB), a lobby group of Bicolanos who have been pushing for regional autonomy and the control, regulation, and supervision over the exploitation, utilization, and development of Bicol’s natural resources.
Co said the forum was intended to give Bicolanos, as well as those interested, a head start on what to expect and how they will benefit from a shift to federalism.
“President Duterte has pledged a change to a federal form of government in order to promote lasting peace and economic growth throughout the Philippines,” he said.
“Peace, growth, and coordination are praiseworthy goals especially in an administration that promises change. An adjustment in our form of government might just be exactly what is needed to fulfill that promise,” Co said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Alfredo Garbin, another AKO Bicol lawmaker, said that there has been a desire for a government that can correspond to the geological and cultural peculiarities of a country such as ours, given that the Philippines is an archipelagic state.
“The fact that FAB has been present and petitioning for a federalist state since 2009 proves that it is not only Filipinos in Visayas and Mindanao that have been clamoring for change in our government, but also even constituents from Luzon outside Manila,” Garbin said.
At present, President Duterte’s allies Congress hold the top positions in both chambers via a landslide vote with Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez garnering 251 votes out of the 292 members of the House and Senate President Aquilino Pimentel garnering 20 votes out of the 24-member Senate.
With a “supermajority” in Congress, hopes are high that the shift top federalism would be accomplished before the President ends his term.
It would be something that President Duterte would greatly welcome.
In his SONA, he said that should Congress be able to achieve this shift to a federal government, he would give way for the election of a new President, even if his own term is not yet finished.
“I can commit today to the Republic of the Philippines and its people: If you hurry up the federal system of government and you can submit it to the Filipino people by the fourth, fifth year, proseso ‘yan e. You call for a referendum and after that call for a presidential election, I will go,” Duterte said. (PNA)