Aligning the Federalism Discourse in the Philippines to the Quest for Genuine Local Autonomy

Alex B. Brillantes, Jr and Karl Emmanuel V. Ruiz

Alex B. Brillantes, Jr. is Professor and former Dean of the National College of Public Administration and Governance of the University of the Philippines, a UP Scientist, Secretary General of the Eastern Regional Organization for Public Administration (EROPA) and Fellow at the Pimentel Institute for Leadership and Governance. He was Executive Director of the Local Government Academy, Commissioner (Deputy Minister) of the Commission on Higher Education and President of the Asian Association for Public Administration. He obtained his AB and MPA from the University of the Philippines, and MA and PhD from the University of Hawaii.


Mr. Karl Emmanuel V. Ruiz, finished Bachelor of Library and Information Science (BLIS), University of Santo Tomas, 2015. He ranked first place in the Philippine Librarians’ Licensure Examination, 2016. He is currently studying Master of Library and Information Science in UP Diliman. He co-authored articles with Dr. Brillantes like “Local Governance in an Age of Technological Transformation and Global Uncertainty;” “Good Practices in Collaborative Governance,” and “Issues and Concerns on Decentralization in Some Asian Countries.”


Whether the Philippines chooses to adopt or reject federalism, as has been advocated by several sectors over the past decade, should not distract from what we believe should be the ultimate target for adopting a federal form of government in the Philippines: to deepen decentralization and empower subnational governments. 

This study contributes to the literature regarding federalism’s characteristics and forms that the Philippines may choose. The first section of this study will analyze the federalism discourse in the country. Second, it will also delve into federalism as a politico-administrative instrument for “development” to hopefully end the conflict in Mindanao. Also, the continuing issues and concerns about federalism in the Philippine context will be discussed. Lastly, this paper aims to highlight the importance of keeping federalism discussions alive in the country.



The Local Government Code (LGC) of 1991 (Republic Act 7160) is the main legislative foundation for Philippine local governance.  Decentralization in the Philippines has been described as one of the most comprehensive among developing countries (Guess, 2005). The practice of having subnational autonomous governments in the Philippines begun even before the arrival of the Spaniards in the Philippines in the 1500s when local villages, called barangays, were established as independent territorial and political units headed by monarchical chieftains called datu, panginoo, or pangulo (Brillantes 2003).  It may be argued that decentralization discourses in the Philippines predate the arrival of the West. Spaniards enacted several national policies on local autonomy, like the Maura Law in 1893. During the American occupation (1902-1935), municipal and provincial councils were established, Manila was incorporated, and the Moro Province was set up in Mindanao, all within the context of setting up sub-national institutions. After gaining independence from America in 1946,  laws were passed recognizing the imperatives of sub-national governments: RA 2264 (1959), Local Autonomy Act; RA 2370 (1959), the Barrio Charter Act; RA 5185, Decentralization Act of 1967; Batas Pambansa 337 (Local Government Code of 1983), the 1987 Charter incorporated self-governance and autonomous territories; and the Local Government Code of 1991.

The policies enabling more responsive sub-national governments within the context of autonomy and decentralization, which, as we suggest in this paper, is what federalism in the Philippines is all about.   Excessive government centralization caused unresponsive policies, which have made other regions, especially Mindanao, underdeveloped. Insufficient socio-economic development spurred rebellion from the communists and some dissatisfied Muslims.

Federalism recommendations ignited debates from all sides on its qualities and shortcomings. This is a healthy indication for a country that perseveres in seeking politico-administrative institutions proper to us at this crossroads. The massive challenges we face – ranging from poverty to social injustice and rampant corruption – the agreement is that the status quo is unacceptable and reforms are vital. Nevertheless, it is imperative to analyze the discourse and dissect the details. National and local governments must build on prevailing informal practices and use them to support sweeping reforms essential for meaningful decentralization (Guess, 2005).

Article X ,1987 Constitution legitimizes local governments. It defines the country’s political subdivisions within the framework of decentralization and local autonomy. Nevertheless, federalism proposals continue to be a part of decentralization. Most advocates are displeased with the Local Government Code of 1991. Some believe that a federal structure is more suitable for the Philippines. However, the federalism campaign is exceptional because proponents have connected these efforts for constitutional change. Furthermore, the political climate has been unfavorable because Filipinos distrust constitutional reform (Yusingco, 2020).


Federalism as a Politico-Administrative Instrument for ‘development’

Over the years, the Philippines has sought suitable structures for its conditions and help resolve its problems. It experimented on decentralization thirty years ago via the Local Government Code and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Hence, federalism as a developmental instrument must be viewed in the context of equitable development. The proximity from Manila also affects the financial assistance provinces obtain from the national government. That distance encourages provinces’ reliance on fiscal transfers (Tusalem, 2019).

We have argued that federalism is not a panacea.  Given the Philippine politico-administrative and historical context, it is a fundamental instrument to deepen devolution within the context of local empowerment. Nevertheless, there are the classic advantages that federalism can offer—like economic competition, which can accelerate development (Nivola, 2005); respecting cultural differences by allowing localities to retain their uniqueness can avert clashes (Mahajan, 2007; Iff & Töpperwien, 2017), restrain secessionist tendencies, thus, ensuring peaceful development (Mehler, 2001, cited in Ruiz & Brillantes, 2020; Palermo & Kossler, 2017, p.100); local autonomy can help raise revenues to cultivate vibrant economies. Federalism can facilitate popular participation as provinces become democracy workshops. It can also encourage unity and allow various ethnolinguistic groups to pass laws guaranteeing local self-governance (Nivola, 2005; Iff & Töpperwien, 2017).

Taking stock of the stated reasons above, scholars believe that federalism can be a way to address Mindanao’s persisting conflict. Federalism stalwarts like the late former Senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel and former UP President Jose V. Abueva advocated it. Filipino federalism supporters believe that a federal setup would enable better responses to the geographical differences because it promotes diversity while simultaneously upholding national unity. In light of these discussions, we argue that the context of the federalism discourse in the Philippines has prioritized deepening decentralization because it has moved from deconcentration (administrative delegation) to political and fiscal decentralization (Brillantes & Montes, 2007).


Indicative Roots of Federal Thinking in the Philippines

Federalism in the Philippines may trace its roots to the advocacies country’s national hero, Jose Rizal. In his work, The Philippines: A Century Hence, referring to the Philippine experience under Spanish colonization, he recognized the inclination of oppressed states to break free of their shackles and embrace the freest government. He likened this to a process of a student leaving school. The archipelago would perhaps announce itself as a federal nation (Rizal, 1912, p.103).

During the Filipino uprising against Spain, the first Philippine Republic established at Biak-na-Bato by revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo had a federal charter, which lasted only six (6) weeks. When Aguinaldo went home to proclaim independence, the Biak-na-Bato constitution was revitalized. Then, the Malolos Constitution was accepted by the revolutionary congress in 1899. However, it was not federal, though Aguinaldo recognized the separate status of Muslims and proposed that the new government be empowered to negotiate with them to create national unity upon a federation with great respect for their customs and faith (Canoy, 1987).

In 1899, Filipinos submitted a draft charter for the Philippine Federal Republic with 11 states. However, America did not agree. Several small states set up during the revolution disappeared (May, 1992). Seven decades later, political promises have also been included. The Partido Demokrasya ng Pilipinas (now Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Laban) had taken federalism as its preferred government (Cureg & Matunding, 2006). In the 1970s, constitutional convention delegates by the Marcos government voiced support for federalism. However, in 1972, Marcos declared martial law, so it faded away. During the 1986 EDSA Revolution, a Mindanao People’s Democratic Movement (later Mindanao Independence Movement) wanted to create the Federal Republic of Mindanao. It was led by Marcos opponent Reuben Canoy (May, 1992).

Buendia (1989) examined federalism’s potential in the Philippines. He lamented the government’s strong fiscal control through the Departments of Finance and Budget, making local administrations dependent on fiscal transfers. Among the early federalism sponsors were prominent politicians from the Visayas and Mindanao: Senator Aquilino Pimentel and Senator John Osmena. Senator Osmeña has been a political family scion in the Visayan Cebu province for most of the 20th century.  Pimentel, an opposition leader who challenged Marcos, was imprisoned during the Marcos regime. He was appointed local government secretary during the Corazon Aquino administration that overthrew Marcos.  He was the  Local Government Code’s primary author. In 2000, Senators Pimentel, Osmeña, and Francisco Tatad pushed for federalism. The then-Senate Committee on Constitutional Amendments leader, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, pledged for a constitutional convention for it to no avail (May, 2007).

In the 2004 polls, two parties advocated federalism, PROMDI (literally,  From the Province or ProvinceFirst) and PDP-Laban (formerly Partido Demokrasya ng Pilipinas) (Cureg & Matunding, 2006). Then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo claimed in her 2005 State of the Nation Address (SONA) that socio-economic development of the provinces (May, 2007). The growing self-sufficiency and effectiveness of local administrations are strong points for federalism (Tigno, 2017). Though democracy ensured that federalism discussions were active, the experience does not offer clear proof that it provides a hospitable environment for federalism (May, 2007).

Rodrigo Duterte’s 2016 victory as the 16th Philippine president placed federalism in the national limelight. He was the first president-elect who promised to alter the centuries-old unitary system into federalism (Teenhankee, 2018). A consultative commission of leading governance and law experts (including former Chief Justices Hilario Davide and Reynato Puno) was convened to draft a proposed charter to supplant the 1987 constitution. The Bayanihan constitution was submitted to Mr. Duterte (Presidential Communications Operations Office, 2020).

He reasoned that going federal can empower provinces. They will become self-governing and retain considerable revenues rather than sending them to the government. When provinces can impose taxes and keep a larger portion of it, they can achieve development similar to those near Metro Manila (Tusalem, 2019). However, it remains to be seen whether federalism will push through, especially with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic (Rosuelo, 2020).

Federalism (and all reforms) should be highly inclusive. Its ultimate mission is to empower subnational units by facilitating a policy framework for decentralization and equitable development. One political party, the PDP-Laban, has been promoting federalism ever since 1982. At the University of the Philippines-Diliman National College of Public Administration and Governance, scholars and practitioners have been deliberating on its merits and drawbacks since the 1970s, with its former Dean Gabriel Urquiola Iglesias leading the discussions (Brillantes, 2019).



Issues and Concerns on Federalism in the Philippines

Like any major policy shift, many issues have been raised regarding federalism. These include the possibilities of elite capture, widespread distrust of constitutional change, lack of awareness of federalism, persisting centralist tendencies of the national government, financing federalism, and fears of separatism. These are discussed below.

Elite Capture

The rationale behind the federal shift is to empower provinces. However, will this lead to local elite capture given the local politics’ nature of  “dynasticism”?  Thus, studies and practical experiences on decentralization in the country must continue that if federalism will deepen decentralization, it has likewise to be accompanied by deepening local accountability and citizen engagement.  It is also desirable to draw upon other highly decentralized countries’ experiences. For Handley (2008), adaptability is vital for reforms to attain long-term success and increase their positive societal impact.

Distrust of Filipinos for Constitutional Change and Reform

There is merit for people to examine and debate their country’s politico-administrative structures. The 1987 charter was not amended for the past three decades. Many academics agree that it is not permanently carved in stone but a living document. Thus, it is reasonable that Filipinos may desire fundamental reforms. However,  a Pulse Asia survey in 2018 pointed out that  67% of Filipinos still regard constitutional reform with suspicion and oppose constitutional change (Pulse Asia, 2018). One reason could be that it has often been regarded as an attempt to prolong a president’s term. This suspicion originated from the Marcos era, where he used charter change to stay in office (Yusingco, 2018). Public policies gain legitimacy when the people have reasons to support them (Fung, 2006).

Most senators are skeptical about constitutional changes. Influential businesses and religious groups have also joined in (Heydarian, 2018). The people’s intense vigilance ensures that the country will never return to authoritarianism. However, that widespread distrust should not distract us from the bigger picture of institutional reform’s imperative. Paradoxically, it is this distrust that should fuel reform initiatives rather than obstruct them.

Lack of Awareness of Filipinos about Federalism

Public awareness about a topic is likely to garner popular support than something unknown. The 2018 Social Weather Station survey found that only 37% of Filipinos favored federalism  (Mangahas, 2018). Similarly, a 2018 Pulse Asia survey indicated that a federal shift was rejected by 62% of Filipinos (Pulse Asia, 2018). Also, surveys show that most disapprove of charter change or are uninformed and skeptical of its significance. Certainly, there is no popular support for it (Heydarian, 2018).

Hence, it will take a great effort towards regaining public confidence and extensive information campaigns to help change the mindset of the people towards constitutional reform.

As we suggested earlier, it is important to demystify federalism and convey to the people that federalism is not new if located within the context of decentralization and local autonomy efforts. It is the next logical step after devolution when situated within the decentralization continuum (Brillantes, 2003).

Centralist Tendencies of the National Government

The Philippines has a strong government centralization. For Tusalem (2019), this concentration underpinned an executive which firmly controls state finance, while the House of Representatives passes annual appropriations without much disagreement.  The president also has a line-item veto (seldom used) to override legislative adjustments on the national budget. Further, the legislature lacks the clout to sway resources for poorer regions. Thus, experts regard this as imperial Manila. Presidents mainly sponsored developmental plans for Manila and its adjacent provinces because it is the center of political and economic activities, putting places outside this inner enclave at a disadvantage (Yusingco, 2018). Hence, this great inequality fueled grievances from other regions.

Furthermore, Pres. Duterte’s reputation, when viewed against the pandemic, has tested his administration’s dedication to ambitious policy aims. However, it seems that the COVID-19 crisis has revealed his government’s centralist tendencies, not good news for federalism (Rosuelo, 2020). Paradoxically, it was his battle cry when he ran. What will happen to federalism after his presidency remains to be seen.

Financial Implications

A significant overhaul of the government could impose a heavy financial burden on the state.

First, shifting to a new form of government will entail many costs for the country. For De Vera (2018), going federal will need P253.5 billion pesos. These expenses will add to the government’s operating costs, as per the National Economic and Development Authority, which may be spent on new facilities for the new states. Plus, more money will have to be given to the poorer regions to lessen inequalities.

Many provinces have been dependent on fiscal transfers for many years, as they lack the means to become self-sufficient. For Dela Rosa et al. (2018), the three regions with a significant fighting chance are the National Capital Region (Metro Manila), CALABARZON (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal), and Central Visayas (Region VII). Their vibrant commercial hubs are their strength. Sadly, the rest of the 15 regions remain mostly reliant on fiscal shares (Internal Revenue Allotment: IRA, now the National Tax Allocation: NTA)[1]. The transition towards federalism would create provinces/states, likely be NTA-dependent.  So, the better-off regions may have to shoulder others’ lagging economies, much to their displeasure (Tusalem, 2019).

Hence, during reforms, the current administration will need expert assistance in creating a multi-year transition plan. All inputs from the ground will have to be studied. Once the country goes federal, unforeseen consequences will be difficult to correct.

A development – and this may be seen positively – is the 2018 Supreme Court decision on the “Mandanas Decision” that significantly altered the finance sharing between the national and local governments as practiced through the IRA. The tribunal decided to expand the computation’s basis for local governments to all taxes, not only internal revenue taxes. This inclusion would drastically increase the sub-national governments’ money by as much as 27%. The ruling’s implications must be examined from various perspectives. Sub-national governments’ capacities, redistribution, and equity considerations must emphasize poverty and performance indicators and effects on the government personnel who may be transferred to local administrations. This certainly should be addressed by the continuing discourse on federalism.

Possible dysfunction or disintegration of the country

Some people believe that Philippine federalism will bring power to the peripheries. Some claim that redrawing the territorial frontiers may shake up the status quo and increase electoral competition where incumbents face new entrants. But they adapted to Philippine politics’ changing landscape. He recommended that before the country goes federal, there are several things to do: control the political dynasties’ numbers; restructure political party rules, their subsidies and campaign funding, a prohibition on party transfers, strengthen citizen parties networks; and enhance a mixed-electoral scheme. Without these reforms, federalism might prove catastrophic, morphing the country into a patchwork of local dynasties’ fiefdoms (Teehankee, 2018).

Ocampo (2017) opposed Philippine federalism. Though he recognized the unitary presidential system’s shortcomings, he cited decentralization laws (Batas Pambansa Blg. 337, RA 7160, and others) which helped us get closer to local autonomy. Once the country goes federal, it may significantly drain the treasury, making the government less able to help poorer regions. With more resources conferred to states, rebels may use them for their agenda. It could help them covertly rebuild the war potential they surrender (Iff & Töpperwien, 2017; Ocampo, 2017).


Emerging Conclusions

Even though the Philippines is hounded by problems in its quest for equitable development,  there continue to be reform proposals. Among the structural reforms, it has been imperative to deepen devolution with federalism, or its variation as its structural and insitutional framework, if appropriate.

Over the years, the country’s federal discourses are reflected in two forms: the academic community’s fora and published books on federalism. Second, the 2004 and 2016 national elections. These developments are healthy indicators that Filipinos are not pleased with the status quo; hence, they continue to search for suitable politico-administrative structures.  Some mistrust constitutional reform and charter change. However, this indicates a healthy democracy and should trigger more debates about Philippine federalism’s potential (Brillantes, 2003).  Resource-sharing deliberations among local governments should continue.  Thus, discourses should not be disjointed from devolution and decentralization.

Furthermore, it should be up to the public to outline the debates and formulate their federalism. The 1987 constitution guarantees local governments’ autonomy. For its authors,  local autonomy in the text means a type of maximum decentralization, something infinitely close to federalism (Blas Ople, Constitutional Commission Journal, Vol. 3, August 11, 1986, p.178-179, in Yusingco, 2020). This original viewpoint indicates that the country’s decentralization framework can mirror federalism.

To some extent, unfortunately, the debates have been tainted by political partisanship. President Duterte has made federalism his campaign promise. Nevertheless, well-informed groups have strongly opposed it, certain that the federalism shift may not be practical, considering the highly political discussions. Why not just modify the Local Government Code and the IRA formula? They correctly suggested that reinforcing local governments and citizen participation are preferred. It could be better if the Philippines would deepen decentralization more within the 1987 charter and the LGC’s purview. For Bryson et al. (2006), the institutions are important because it includes broad relationships across a polity, affecting an initiative’s outcome.

We argue that federalism will lay the groundwork for meaningful devolution and empowerment of sub-national governments, should the country pursue it. Within this background, we suggest that the federalism discourse be placed within the context of decentralization and focus on local autonomy. This approach may be aligned with what Aristotle once termed phronesis or practical wisdom. It will allow us to rise above our excessive political partisanship and exert a strong, single-minded focus on the goal of nation-building, which is what the discussions on federalism ought to be.

[1] In the Philippine Supreme Court’s ruling, April 10, 2019, on the Mandanas-Garcia case, starting in 2022 National Budget, National Tax Allotment (NTA) shall be used to refer to intergovernmental fiscal transfers, not the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA). Source: Department of Budget and Management (2021),

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