The Arguments for a Federal System of Government

By Christopher Ryan Maboloc, Ph.D

        The political exclusion of the South has had tremendous social and economic costs. The Philippines has achieved sustained Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth under President Benigno Aquino III in the last six years, and yet, this wealth has not really trickled down to the poorest households.[1] The lack of opportunities in the South, for example, has resulted to the diminished lives of our people and in the absence of lasting peace.[2] If we are to grow as one nation and end the great divide between North and South, then we have to look for a political solution somewhere.

        Dr. Jose Abueva, in “Some Advantages of Federalism and Parliamentary Government for the Philippines,” argues that a federal-parliamentary system of government will result to “greater human and institutional capability for good governance.” (Abueva 2005) Indeed, the weakness of our country’s institutions can be traced to the lack of people empowerment, most especially in the rural areas and in its poorest regions. For this reason, the devolution of power away from Central Manila, considering years of neglect, will always make sense.

        In his important paper entitled “Understanding Federalism,” Raphael Montes Jr. of the UP Center for Local and Regional Governance, enumerates at least three important arguments for a federal form of government. This is a very short exposition of the points which he has presented in that paper.  

The Arguments for Federalism

1. A Free Market – Markets work well in a free environment. Business thrives when there is less government interference. The promotion of a free market means independence in terms of economic policy making, one that allows greater diversity and the free flow of market goods at the local level. This will reduce the power, influence, and dominance of big multi-national corporations headquartered in the capital. At present, the oligarchic nature of the Philippine economy is due to the concentration of power in Manila. Centralized planning often stifles local growth because of delays in the implementation of projects. The Airport in Panglao, Bohol, which took many generations to plan, is a case in point. In this regard, the tendency of the central government to control economic policy making will have to be limited (Montes 2006) and local units will have to be empowered for them to be able to make and implement their economic plans and policies based on their needs and capacities. Furthermore, resources must be made available by the national government to the regions equitably in order to make growth sustainable at the local level.

2. Management of Political Conflicts – With a federal system, ethnic and multi-cultural conflicts can be managed with more positive results given the sense of understanding of the various stakeholders at the local level. Federalism, as a matter of principle, makes possible the sharing of political power between the majority and the minority. It also helps rectify historical wrongs. According to Will Kymlicka, people who have been previously colonized are often divided by religion, culture and linguistic barriers, (Kymlicka 2007) which often result to social-economic exclusion, political domination, and cultural marginalization of communities or regions. Given such, secessionist activities exist due to the blatant disregard of the basic rights of minorities. Obviously, the lack of economic development in some regions helps ignite armed conflict. In this sense, the problem needs to be fixed by means of a paradigm shift. Citing the situation in the ARMM, Francisco Lara makes an interesting point for the above case in his recent book, Insurgents, Clans and States:

The foundations of economic underdevelopment in Muslim Mindanao can be traced to the period before the foreign conquest of the region. Before the Spanish colonizers arrived in the country and attempted to conquer Mindanao, the region had been under the domain of Muslim sultanates that operated as feudal states that governed these large territories. (Lara 2014, 127)

Massive poverty inspires rebellion. The lack of jobs often motivates young men to take up arms against the established authority. But there is a more fundamental problem when a group of people feel betrayed by the dominant majority – the lack of respect for their dignity and culture. Charles Taylor, in this respect, argues that there is a need to recognize the situated identities of peoples. (Taylor 1994) Advocates for federalism believe that it is an effective instrument that thwarts “disintegration and secession by providing constitutional means for conflict management and self-determination.” (Montes 2006, 161) For instance, the proposal for an asymmetric model of federalism may provide group-differentiated rights based on language, culture, and religion, including local taxing powers and control in the extraction of natural resources. [3]

3. Governance and Democratization – Born with less in life, many ethnic groups are often denied their basic economic rights. Analysts point to unjust colonial structures. But the greater problem emanates from the fact that economic development has not been democratized. The basic point, theorists argue, is that federalism is an instrument for authentic democratization. For instance, by means of the devolution of power, local political units will be able to exercise their sense of subsidiarity. This will make them more responsible for their own future.

The above idea is grounded in the contextualization of government power. It is meant to address the need to be sensitive to the desires, dreams, and longings of local peoples. To achieve such, government decision making should not be dependent on the national government. National leaders are often controlled by their political parties and by those with vested political or economic interests. By means of decentralizing the decision making processes, the people will have a greater say in terms of social policy, including the design of laws and public rules on health, education and revenue generation.

Three Common Features of Federalism

        There are at least three common features or basic principles that characterize a federal system of government as identified by Montes.

1. Division of Powers – The basic division of powers between the federal government and its constituent units will have to be constitutionally determined. Constitutional guarantees must secure the autonomy of local units. The responsibilities pertaining to defense, foreign affairs, immigration policy, currency, and international trade belong to the federal level of government. (Montes 2006) This also includes human rights, the courts and customs. (Abueva 2005) The burden of the national government, in this regard, will be limited and national leaders will be more focused, especially in handling international affairs. It can, for instance, concentrate on forging favorable trade deals for the country, given the reality of globalization. For Montes, the decentralization of power is expected to foster economic growth and sustainable development. (Montes 2006) As an institutional mechanism, it is expected to ease the delivery of basic services to the poorest population by streamlining and localizing the decision making processes of governance. Abueva also thinks that corruption will be easier to detect and punish because there will be greater transparency and accessibility at the local level of governance. (Abueva 2005)

2. Fiscal Equalization – Economic development depends on sustainable investments. Amartya Sen thinks that the goal of human development is closely related to the political freedoms of people, which includes transparency and laws on competition. (Sen 1999) People, from a human development perspective, according to Mahbub Ul Haq, must be seen “as the real wealth of the nation.” (HDR 1996) The country has to generate more permanent jobs. To improve the quality of life of the people, the poorest regions should be prioritized in the distribution of resources. According to Montes, tax collection is usually done at the federal level. (Montes 2006) This means that the federal government has the political burden to share its resources to the different regions for their operations and the delivery of government services. John Kincaid affirms this point in his suggestion that there must be equalization in the sharing of revenues from richer regions to poor constituencies in order to ensure comparable levels of public services. (Kincaid 2005)

3. Accommodation of Diversity – For Montes, multi-cultural communities characterize most federal forms of government. Canada and its Quebec region are a case in point. Multiculturalism is grounded in the basic recognition of the distinct identities of peoples and the diversity of their cultures and religious beliefs. The economic, social and political exclusion of minority groups often threaten national solidarity. Montes says that a federal system is seen as a way to maintain territorial integrity. (Montes 2006) He writes:

“Whatever kind of diversity may be present in federal countries, the recognition of the distinctness of each constituent community is paramount to facilitate peaceful co-existence of peoples.” (Ibid. 168)

Conclusion and Challenges

         In following the arguments presented by Montes, it can be said that not only cultural and economic inequalities precipitate the devolution of power to local constituencies (Montes 2006), but I think there has been varying degrees of social exclusion and religious discrimination as well. For this reason, the protection and promotion of the political freedoms of the people will also require the recognition of their human rights and group-differentiated entitlements to language, religious and cultural rituals, including the power to extract and benefit from natural resources. Development, as Sen rightly points out, “is the expansion of the freedoms of people.” (Sen 1999, 150)

         Still, there are various challenges that must be met. Alex Brillantes (2002) thinks that the need for a federal system is in view of the imperative to develop self-reliance on the part of local governments. However, he also thinks that in order to achieve the authentic devolution of power, governance at the local level must also be strengthened. The Local Government Code of 1991 is good, but it is not good enough. The way I see it, some of the deep-seated problems that need to be addressed include the reality of local dynasties and the possible emergence of new oligarchs as power players who will surely want to exercise their influence on local leaders, many of whom have become little tyrants.


Abueva, Jose. 2005. “Some advantages of federalism and parliamentary government for the Philippines.” Accessed from:
Brillantes, Alex and Moscare, Donna. 2002. “Decentralization and Federalism in the Philippines,” UP NCPAG. Discussion Paper. Accessed from:
Kincaid, John. 2005. “Comparative Observations,” in Constitutional Origins, Structure and Change in Federal Countries,Volume1, John Kincaid and G. Alan Tarr, eds., McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal.
Kymlicka, Will. 2007. Contemporary Political Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lara Jr., Francisco. 2014. Insurgents, Clans and States. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
McGarry, John. 2005. “Asymmetrical Federalism and Plurinational State,” A Position Paper. Accessed from:
Montes, Raphael. 2006. “Understanding Federalism,” in Federalism and Multiculturalism, Center for Local and Regional Governance. Accessed from:
Sen, Amartya. 1999. Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf.
Taylor, Charles. 1994. “The Politics of Recognition,” in Multiculturalism, ed. by Charles Taylor, Princeton University Press.
Ul Haq, Mahbub. 1996. Human Development Report. UNDP.

[1] Average incomes in the ARMM are lowest among all other regions of the Philippines, with poverty incidence of 45% according to UNDP (2005). The poverty rate in the ARMM is at 48% (NSCB 2012).
[2] For instance, the conflict in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao may be correlated with the lack of educational opportunities for its people. In the ARMM, only 26% of children of school age participate in primary school compared to 43% of Mindanao and 45% for the rest of the country. Of those that are able to enter school, completion rates are lowest in the ARMM, with only 37% of students entering the elementary grade (Grade 1) making it to sixth grade, versus 53% for Mindanao and 66% for the rest of the country. Economic downturns were occasioned in the region by the economic recession in 1997, the full-scale war in 2000-2001 and the resurgence of armed conflict in 2003. (Lara 2014)
[3] Asymmetry is a situation in which local units or regions enjoy a distinct form of autonomy. (McGarry 2005)

Popular posts from this blog

Poverty and Population: a critique on Garret Hardin’s Lifeboat Ethics (Part I)

On Philippine Political Culture

Wataru Kusaka: Moral Politics in the Philippines