Federalism in the Philippines: The Arguments

Federalism in the Philippines: The Arguments

The shift from a unitary system to a federal form of government has been advocated and advanced by numerous of scholars and politicians for several decades now.

Jose Rizal first suggested federalism in the Philippines in his 1889 essay “Las Filipinas Dentro de Cien Anos” while in 1899, revolutionaries Emilio Aguinaldo and Apolinario Mabini proposed to divide the country into three federal states. In modern politics, proponents of the shift include political scientist Jose Abueva, former senator Aquilino Pimintel Jr., and former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Talks about the need to transition to a federal form of government resurfaced during a nationwide campaign launched in 2014 by Rodrigo Duterte, then mayor of Davao City, as well as during the drafting and subsequent approval of the Bangsamoro Basic Law in 2014 under the administration of President Benigno Aquino III.

Duterte reiterated his plan to pursue a federal system after he won the 2016 presidential election. He signed Executive Order No. 10 that created a consultative committee for reviewing the 1987 Constitution, thus setting in motion the process for a charter change needed to set up federalism in the Philippines.

The Key Arguments for Federalism in the Philippines

One of the primary arguments for promoting a federal form of government in the country centers on the need to decentralize the power of the central government. Remember that the current unitary system subordinates local governments under the authority of the national government. Nevertheless, federalism involves having two levels of government of equal status: a federal or national government and the state or regional governments.

Abueva asserts that federalism is ideal for a country characterized by social and cultural diversity. It would improve the autonomy of provinces or regions and increase their access to and control over resources, thus dispersing the power from the national government and decentralizing governance in the country.

In addition, during his national awareness campaign in 2014, Duterte stressed that under the current unitary system, the distribution of public funds is disproportionately biased toward Metro Manila. A federal system would address problems emerging from diversity to include uneven economic development, as well as ethnic and religious conflicts.

Another argument has something to do with the longstanding ethnoreligious conflict in Mindanao. Pimentel noted that federalism would support the creation of an autonomous Muslim region in the Philippines, thus appeasing Moro insurgents. The system essentially would allow the governing of Muslims in the country according to how they think they should be governed.

Note that although the Bangsamoro Organic Law has legalized the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, critics have argued that it remains unconstitutional. The Philippine Constitution Association explained that the 1987 Constitution only consents to the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, thus viewing the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region as a distinct political entity.

To reiterate the arguments mentioned above, another more specific reason for promoting the shift from a unitary system to federalism in the Philippines is social and economic development. Under this system, states or regional governments have direct jurisdiction over local taxes, thus giving them direct access to the internal revenues generated from localized economic activities and control over their budgets.

The current appropriation of internal revenues collected from taxes, fees, and other charges is at 60-40 in which the majority of the share favors the central government. This scheme has branded the Manila-based central government as imperialistic because it receives and uses most of the revenues generated by localized economic activities in provincial and city or municipal governments.

Nevertheless, having primary control over taxes and budgets would enable state governments to become independent from the restrictions of the national government. This self-reliance would translate to full autonomy over the creation and implementation of state-specific social welfare programs and economic development initiatives.

States-specific economic policies could resolve the issue regarding uneven economic development in the country and imbalanced distribution of wealth. Note that the Join Resolution No. 10 proposed by Pimentel in 2008 included a proposition for the creation of eleven autonomous regions with their respective financial and development centers.

Having their respective economic centers would also compel state governments to be responsible and accountable toward their own economic policies. Because federalism would render them self-reliant from the national government, they need to focus more on developing and implementing initiatives aimed at growing their economies.

The Key Counterarguments Against the Federal System

Several contentions have been put forward against the adoption of a federal form of government in the Philippines. In his paper, law professor and former Commission on Elections commission Rene V. Sarmiento enumerated the disadvantages of federalism as noted by several scholars and politicians to include retired chief justice Hilario Davide Jr., economist Cielito Habito, former Laguna governor and former senator Joey E. Lina, lawyer Joel Ruiz Butuyan, and retired lecturer on history and political science Eva Maggay-Inciong.

One notable drawback is cost. There are financial and logistical burdens associated with establishing the two levels of government consisting of a national and state or regional governments. The Philippine Institute for Development Studies revealed that the financial cost would be between PHP 44 to PHP 72 billion.

There is also a concern over the further decentralization of corruption in the country. A federal system would empower established political dynasties in local and regional governments, while also allowing them to accumulate both power and wealth due to their direct control over the regional politics and their respective internal revenues.

It is also interesting to note that the principles of federalism have been described in the 1987 Constitution. However, the national government has allegedly failed to operationalize these principles. Take note that Section 2, Article X mentioned that the territorial and political subdivisions of the country such as provinces, cities or municipalities, and barangays should enjoy local autonomy.

Section 3 further noted that the Congress should enact a local government code that would provide for a more responsive and accountable local government structure instituted through a system of decentralization while Section 5 states that local governments have the power to create sources of revenues and to levy taxes, fees and charges subject to such guidelines and limitations as the Congress may provide.

The 1987 Constitution also has provisions for the autonomy of regions with established and distinctive historical and cultural heritage. To be specific, Section 15, Article X provides for the creation of autonomous regions in Muslim Mindanao and the Cordilleras consisting of provinces, cities, municipalities, and geographical areas sharing common and distinctive historical and cultural heritage, economic and social structures, and other relevant characteristics.

With regard to the promise of social and economic development under federalism, scholar and economist Richard Heydarian provided a counterargument. He explained that a large proportion of provinces that would be put under new federal states are incapable of raising their own taxes or lack the administrative capacity to generate their own revenues.

He also cited the experiences of countries under a federal system. In the United States, he said that the developmental gap between prosperous states such as California and New York and the southern and Midwest states has barely narrowed during the last two centuries. Federalism in developing countries such as India, Iraq, and Nigeria has failed to close developmental gaps and resolve ethnic and cultural conflicts.

In a Nutshell: Expectations and Concerns Over Federalism in the Philippines

Below is a summary of the arguments in favor of federalism in the Philippines, as well as the purported advantages and opportunities arising from a federal system:

• Decentralization of authority from the central government and corresponding autonomy of state or regional governments that would promote effective and efficient access to and control over resources.

• Support for the creation of an autonomous Muslim region in the country, especially the current Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Mindanao, as well as other autonomous regions with their respective ethnocultural heritage.

• Effective and efficient social and economic development across the country by giving state governments direct jurisdiction over local taxes and full autonomy over the creation and implementation of state-specific social welfare programs and economic development initiatives.

• Address the issue of uneven economic development and imbalanced distribution of wealth in the country through the creation and corresponding management of an economic center in each state or regional government.

• Promotes economic independence from a central government, thereby compelling state or regional governments to be responsible and accountable over their own economic policies and economic development trajectories.

The following is a rundown of arguments or contentions against the adoption of a federal form of government in the country:

• Excessive financials cost and other logistical burdens associated from establishing multiple structures within and across the two levels of government, specifically the national government and state or regional governments.

• Concerns over the further decentralization of corruption by empowering further established political dynasties through direct control over the regional politics and their respective internal revenues.

• Existence of principles of federalism in the 1987 Constitution, especially provisions in Article X that guarantees a system of decentralization and autonomy of the territorial and political subdivisions in the Philippines, as well as the autonomy of Muslim Mindanao and the Cordilleras.

• Lack of other provinces in the country the capability to raise their own taxes due to economic underdevelopment or lack of basic administrative capabilities to generate their own revenues.

• Ineffectiveness of federalism in solving developmental gaps and ethnic or cultural conflicts based on the experiences of states in the United States and other countries such as India, Iraq, and Nigeria.


  • Abueva, J. V. 2002. Towards a Federal Republic of the Philippines with a Parliamentary Government by 2010: A Draft Constitution. Available via PDF
  • Abueva, J. V. 2005. Some Advantages of Federalism and Parliamentary Government for the Philippines. Available via PDF
  • Alipon, J. 2015, October 6. “Duterte wants Cha-cha for Federalism.” ABS-CBN News. Available online
  • Brillantes, A. B. Jr. and Moscare, D. 2012. Decentralization and Federalism in the Philippines: Lessons from Global Community. International Conference of the East West Center, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Available via PDF
  • Heydarian, R. 2018, July 19. “Does Federalism Make Sense for the Philippines?” Forbes. Available online
Posted in Society and Politics, Topics and tagged , , .