THERE is still time for President Duterte to change his mind, as he often does, about shifting to a federal system that will enshrine him in history as the Philippine leader who cut up his country into autonomous sub-states.
There are signs that the President is not yet fully convinced that the nation he has led for two years should be divided among political dynasties, warlords (among other *lords), secessionist groups and economic cliques under a federated setup.
Duterte himself, not his spokesmen, must state categorically that he is betting his everything on the Federal Constitution drafted by his Consultative Committee (ConCom) to dispel doubts about his desire to switch to a federal system by 2022.
His own Cabinet officials and advisers must have told him of the dangers ahead before they spoke in alarming terms that the federal system envisioned in the ConCom draft charter is not feasible.
His leading economists, Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia and Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez have testified in the Senate that switching to a federal setup could be one big costly mistake. Asked if he would vote for it in its present form, Dominguez said No.
Pernia said that while federalism could unlock economic benefits, it could also spell disaster for regions not prepared for it and “wreak havoc” on the country’s balance sheet. Dominguez agreed: “If we don’t manage this correctly, this can end up to be a fiscal nightmare.”
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told a press conference that the Philippines was not yet ready for a federal system. He said in Tagalog: “So many don’t understand it yet. It’s confusing.”
International debt watcher Moody’s Investors Service has cautioned that federalism could pose risks to the country’s institutional and fiscal profile. It said: “The shift would also likely incur an expansion in the aggregate size of the government and, hence, public expenditure.”
Moody’s added: “There may be a gap between the national and local levels of government with respect to their ability to manage fiscal resources, posing a risk to the improved fiscal discipline that has characterized national government finances over the past decade.”
Before talking publicly against the plan, the Cabinet officials, as well as other advisers, must have shared with President Duterte their misgivings.
The President must be weighing his options, and his capability, within the short time given him to burn down the unitary system under which he is serving and then build from its ashes in three years a completely new federal structure by 2022.
Days ago, Communications Asst. Secretary Mocha Uson and a partner shocked the nation with a gross song-and-dance video as contribution to the administration’s information campaign for federalism — only to reap a howl of criticism all around.
Asked how Duterte found the video that was made saucy with sexual undertones, a presidential spokesman said the boss thought it was cool. Is it possible that the stoking of objections to federalism, aside from enhancing awareness, was the idea all along?
• Duterte’s options outside federalism
THE DRAFT Federal Constitution needs to be approved by three-fourths vote of the Congress before it is submitted for ratification in a plebiscite to be held not earlier than 60 days nor later than 90 days after its approval.
Note the time constraint. If the plan is to conduct the plebiscite simultaneously with the May 2019 elections to save money, the Congress must pass it not later than 60 days before the polls, with the Commission on Elections preparing in advance.
If the two chambers vote together as a Constituent Assembly, the measure is likely to gain passage with the 292 members of the House of Representatives overwhelming the 23 senators.
But with Speaker Gloria M. Arroyo saying she wanted the two chambers voting separately, the potentially problematic Senate could act as a foil to the House and delay or kill the federalism measure.
President Duterte cannot be unaware of these obstacles along the way to May 2019, when the midterm elections will be held with the plebiscite piggybacking on them. The polls are a scant nine months from today!
The Congress is known to be generally ready to deliver to the President the legislation he wants, but criticism against federalism could be so serious that not even pork barrel-type largesse may be able to overcome it.
Ensuring congressional passage and ratification in the brief period before May 2019 will require enormous resources that the government – bedeviled by a cash flow problem – may be hard-pressed to produce.
Besides, the economy is not exactly in the pink of health – with prices of essential goods rising, cheap rice in short supply, the peso dropping in value, the gross domestic product failing to hit the target, choice foreign investments going elsewhere, et cetera ad alarum.
One possible way out of the tight situation is for President Duterte himself to actively campaign for the federal charter’s passage by the Congress and its ratification by majority of voters in the plebiscite.
But with seven out of every 10 adult Filipinos barely familiar with the finer points of federalism, it might take more than a Duterte to swing the 2019 plebiscite where only warm bodies – not electronic bots and paid trolls – in sufficient numbers count.
Another option is to shelve federalism in the meantime. If the intention is to address the widening wealth gap and empower local governments, he could achieve much of that by amending pertinent laws, streamlining procedures and cracking down on corruption.
If Duterte is thinking of making good on his promise to his Muslim brothers, even without resorting to federalism, he has already signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law that gave them their own autonomous region and more.
The ultimate option is for Duterte to drop all pretenses and create a crisis so serious as to justify declaring nationwide martial law and ruling by decree. Then, he could do as he pleases and create a new Philippines in the image of his Davao City.