Friday, July 27, 2018

Notes on Federalism in the Philippines

by Alan S. Cajes

Federalism may be described as a form of government whereby the States and the National Government possess sovereign powers to ensure that they can perform their respective functions and mandates while maintaining political cooperation, balance, harmony, continuity and integrity. The States must manage their domestic affairs and maintain organizational viability, but must also contribute for the sustenance of the National Government[i]. The same can be said of the National Government, which must manage the national and foreign affairs while allowing and providing the opportunity for the States to grow and develop the best way they can. In this set up, the States and National Government have defined and shared ultimate authorities, which under a unitary form of government, is concentrated only in the central or national government.

Countries with Federal Form of Government

The countries that adopt a federal form of government include the following:
  • Australia (federal parliament)
  • Austria (federal parliamentary republic)
  • Belgium (federal parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarchy)
  • Brazil (federal presidential republic)
  • Canada (federal parliamentary democracy)
  • Comoros (federal presidential republic)
  • Ethiopia (federal presidential republic)
  • Germany (federal parliamentary republic)
  • India (federal parliamentary republic)
  • Iraq (federal parliamentary republic)
  • Malaysia (federal parliamentary)
  • Mexico (federal presidential republic)
  • Micronesia (federal republic)
  • Nepal (federal parliamentary republic)
  • Nigeria (federal presidential republic)
  • Pakistan (federal parliamentary republic)
  • Saint Kitts and Nevis (federal parliamentary republic)
  • Somalia (federal parliamentary republic)
  • Switzerland (federal republic)
  • United States (constitutional federal republic)
  • Venezuela (federal presidential republic)[ii].

These countries, however, have different models of federalism, with each model evolving based on the country’s cultural, historical, social, economic, political and legal contexts.

Pros and Cons of Federalism

There are studies that point to the advantages of federalism. Barry Weingast views federalism as a “governance solution” to maintain “market incentives” through “decentralization of information and authority and interjurisdictional competition”[iii]. Jonathan Rodden mentions the potential benefits of federalism in terms of income distribution and progressive forms of taxation[iv]. Erik Wibbels and Jonathan Rodden highlights the macroeconomic benefits due to decentralized budget[v]. Nancy Bermeo argues that federalism could “provide more layers of government and thus more settings for peaceful bargaining.”[vi]

In the Philippines, pro-federalism studies point out the need to give more financial resources and political power to areas outside Metro Manila, reduce inequities among local government units, address the armed conflict, promote economic and cultural development, as well as encourage people empowerment and local autonomy, among others[vii]. Those who are cautious about federalism maintain that the shift to an untested form of government could mean more budget for the bureaucracy, raise taxes from citizens, widen inequities among local governments, as well reinforce old or foster new political dynasties, among others[viii].

This paper does not aim to resolve the positions of those who are in favor and those who are against federalism. The modest goal is to help shed light on why the Philippines or any other country should pursue a federal form of government.

Why Countries Go Federal?

There are theories that are useful lens in understanding the reason why countries shift to a federal form of government. The first theory is the “ideational theory of federalism.” This theory states that the impetus for the shift to a federal form of government hinges on the consensus of society, in general, including the political decision and opinion makers. This theory can help explain the origin of federalism in the United States. The framers of the Constitution of the United States, such as James Madison, saw federalism as the means to share resources across states while at the same time respecting the accountability of the states[ix].

The second theory is the “cultural-historical theory of federalism”. Under this theory, what makes countries embrace federalism is attributable to the cultural differences among the population. The Canadian version of federalism, which respects the cultural diversity of the provinces, can be partly explained through this theory.

The third theory is the “social contract theory of federalism”. This theory suggests that federalism is tenable if there is a balance of an equally strong National and State governments, in which neither the national nor the state entities can overpower the other. Some of the countries that adopted federalism can be analyzed using this theory, especially the United States and Switzerland.

The fourth theory is the “infrastructural power theory”. This theory advances the idea that a central government creates regional governments or states not because of the need to secure military power, but because of infrastructural power[x]. Michael Mann describes infrastructural power as the capacity of a national government to enforce political will to regional governments or the states[xi]. A federal government that cannot implement policy within its jurisdiction will fail regardless how militarily powerful it is.

Way Forward

The scope and limitation of this paper is encapsulated in this question: Will federalism succeed in the Philippines if any of the theory is not met? The initial answer is in the negative, unless another theory can nurture federalism in the country’s political landscape. This means that there is a need to understand more the problem that federalism is supposed to solve and to examine well the viability of the solution or the cure. One conceptual framework that can be used is the public policy process that involves crucial steps like problem and stakeholder analysis, as well as policy selection and formulation. But that’s another story.

[i] The Editors. Federalism. Retrieved from
[ii] Government Type. Retrieved from
[iii] Yingyi Qian & Barry R. Weingast, 1997. "Federalism as a Commitment to Reserving Market Incentives,"Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 11(4), pages 83-92, Fall.
[iv] Federalism and Inter-regional Redistribution. 2010.  In Núria Bosch, Marta Espasa, and Albert Solé-OlléThe Political Economy of Inter-regional Fiscal Flows.  Edward Elgar.  
[v] Rodden, Jonathan & Wibbels, Erik. "Beyond the Fiction of Federalism: Macroeconomic Management in Multitiered Systems." World Politics, vol. 54 no. 4, 2002, pp. 494-531. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/wp.2002.0016
[vi] Bermeo, N. G. (2002). The Import of Institutions. Journal of Democracy 13(2), 96-110. Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved July 27, 2018, from Project MUSE database.
[vii] See for instance Abueva, Jose. “Transforming Our Unitary System to a Federal System: A Pragmatoc, Developmental Approach,” CLCD, 2000, p. 1. 13; Pimentel, Aquilino. “Why Adopt the Federal System of Government? A Primer on the Federal System” presented to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines at its annual convention, Tacloban City, 27 April 2002. 14; Abueva, Jose. “Towards a Federal republic of the Philippines with a Parliamentary Government by 2010: A Draft Constitution.” Kalayaan College, Marikina City, 2002, pp. 5-6.; 1 Brillantes Jr, Alex B. and Donna Moscare. Decentralization and Federalism in the Philippines: Lessons from Global Community. Retrieved from
[viii] See for instance Habito, Cielito F. “The state of our regions.” Retrieved from; Philippine Institution of Development Studies. “PIDS Calls for ‘Intelligent’ Discourse on Federalism.” Retrieved from; Viray, Joseph Reylan Bustos. “Federalism: Issues, Risks and Disadvantages” A Paper delivered at the 45th National Rizal Youth Leadership Institute sponsored by The Order of The Knights of Rizal, December 18, 2007, Teachers Camp, Baguio City; Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. “Federalism, how much? P44B? P51B?” Retrieved from
[ix] Rodden, Jonathan. The Political Economy of Federalism. MIT August 15, 2005. Retrieved from
[x] Ziblatt, D. (2006). Structuring the State: The Formation of Italy and Germany and the Puzzle of Federalism. PRINCETON; OXFORD: Princeton University Press. Retrieved from
[xi] Lai, Brian; Slater, Dan (2006-01-01). "Institutions of the Offensive: Domestic Sources of Dispute Initiation in Authoritarian Regimes, 1950–1992". American Journal of Political Science. 50 (1): 113–126. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5907.2006.00173.xISSN 1540-5907.

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