Will federalism address PH woes? Pros and cons of making the shift

Pia Ranada, Nico Villarete

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Will federalism address PH woes? Pros and cons of making the shift
At least 3 presidential and vice presidential candidates in 2016 are pushing for a change in the Philippine system of government

Some candidates in the 2016 national elections have been vocal about their support for federalism.

Presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte, and vice presidential bets Alan Peter Cayetano (his running mate) and Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, in particular, have been championing it.

Supporters of federalism say it will evenly distribute wealth across the country instead of the bulk going to “imperial” Manila. Detractors, like presidential candidate Grace Poe, say it will further entrench political dynasties in the regions and create confusion over responsibilities.

Read on to find out more about federalism and its perceived advantages and disadvantages. 

What is federalism?

It is a form of government where sovereignty is constitutionally shared between a central governing authority and constituent political units called states or regions.

In basic terms, it will break the country into autonomous regions with a national government focused only on interests with nationwide bearing: foreign policy and defense, for example.

The autonomous regions or states, divided further into local government units, will have primary responsibility over developing their industries, public safety, education, healthcare, transportation, recreation, and culture. These states will have more power over their finances, development plans, and laws exclusive to ther jurisdiction.

The central government and states can also share certain powers.

How is it different from what we have now?

We presently have a unitary form of government. Most administrative powers and resources are with the national government based in Metro Manila. It’s Malacañang that decides how much to give local government units. The process is prone to abuse, with governors and mayors sometimes having to beg Malacañang for projects they believe their communities need.

How local government units spend their budget has to be approved by the national government. 

In federalism, the states will have the power to make these decisions with little or no interference from the national government.

Examples of federal countries: United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, India, Malaysia.


Locals decide for themselves. Regions have their own unique problems, situations, geographic, cultural, social and economic contexts. Federalism allows them to create solutions to their own problems instead of distant Metro Manila deciding for them.

The states can establish policies that may not be adopted nationwide. For example, liberal Metro Manila can allow same-sex marriage which the state of Bangsamoro, predominantly Muslim, would not allow. In the United States, some states like Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational marijuana even if other states have not.

This makes sense in an archipelago of over 7,000 islands and 28 dominant ethnic groups. For decades, the national government has been struggling to address the concerns of 79 (now 81) provinces despite challenges posed by geography and cultural differences.

With national government, and thus power, centered in Metro Manila, it’s no surprise that development in the mega city has spiralled out of control while other parts of the country are neglected.

More power over funds, resources. Right now, local government units can only collect real estate tax and business permit fees. In federalism, they can retain more of their income and are required to turn over only a portion to the state government they fall under.

Thus, local governments and state governments can channel their own funds toward their own development instead of the bulk of the money going to the national government. They can spend the money on programs and policies they see fit without waiting for the national government’s go signal.

Promotes specialization. The national and state governments can specialize in different policy domains. With most administrative powers now with the regional governments, the national government can focus on foreign policy, defense, and other nationwide concerns, like healthcare and taxation.

States have more autonomy to focus on economic development using their core competencies and industries. The state of Central Luzon can focus on becoming an agricultural hub. The state of Mimaropa, home to Palawan, can choose to use eco-tourism as its primary launch pad.

Possible solution to the Mindanao conflict. The creation of the state of Bangsamoro within a federalist system may address concerns of separatists who crave more autonomy over the administration of Muslim Mindanao.


Decongestion of Metro Manila. Through fiscal autonomy for state governments, federalism will more evenly distribute the country’s wealth. In 2015, 35% of the national budget went to Metro Manila even if it represents only 14% of the Philippine population.


Lessens dependence on Metro Manila. When there is political upheaval in Metro Manila, other regions that have nothing to do with the chain of events are left waiting for the resources that ony the national government can release. With federalism, regions work independently of Metro Manila for most concerns.


Brings government closer to the people. If detractors say federalism will only make local political dynasties more powerful, supporters give the argument that, in fact, it will make all local leaders, including those part of political dynasties, more accountable to their constituents. State governments will no longer have any excuse for delays in services or projects that, in the present situation, are often blamed on choking bureaucracy in Manila. 

Assuming more autonomy for regions leads to economic development, there will be more incentive for Filipinos to live and work in regions outside Metro Manila. More investors may also decide to put up their businesses there, creating more jobs and opportunities to attract more people away from the jam-packed mega city. 

Encourages competition. With states now more self-reliant and in control of their development, they will judge themselves relative to how their fellow states are progressing. The competitive spirit will hopefully motivate state leaders and citizens to level up in terms of quality of life, economic development, progressive policies, and governance. 


Possibly divisive. Healthy competition among states can become alienating – creating rivalries and promoting the regionalism that some say already challenges the sense of unity in the country. It could enflame hostilities between ethnic groups in the country like Tagalogs, Cebuanos, Bicolanos, Ilocanos, Tausugs, and Zamboangueños.

Uneven development among states. Some states may not be as ready for autonomy as others. Some states may not be as rich in natural resources or skilled labor as others. States with good leaders will progress faster while states with ineffective ones will degrade more than ever because national government will not be there to balance them out.

But in some federal countries, the national government doles out funds to help poorer states. A proposed Equalization Fund will use a portion of tax from rich states to be given to poorer states.

Confusing overlaps in jurisdiction. Where does the responsibility of state governments end and where does the responsibility of the national government begin? Unless these are very clearly stated in the amended Constitution, ambiguities may arise, leading to conflict and confusion. For instance, in times of disaster, what is the division of responsibilities between state and national governments?

May not satisfy separatists in Mindanao. Separatists are calling for their own country, not just a state that still belongs to a larger federal Philippines. Federalism may not be enough for them. After all, the conflict continues despite the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

How the Philippines would look when federal

In some proposals, there will be 10 or 11 autonomous states. Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr envisioned 11 states plus the Federal Administrative Region of Metro Manila.

Here’s how the Philippines will look like as laid out in Pimentel’s 2008 Joint Resolution Number 10.

Cost of federalism

Shifting to federalism won’t come cheap. It would entail billions of pesos to set up state governments and the delivery of state services. States will then have to spend for the elections of their officials. 

Attempts at federalism in PH

There was an attempt during the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. One of her campaign promises was to reform the 1987 Constitution.

A consultative commission she created recommended federalism as one of the goals of the proposed charter change. But the attempt failed because of opposition from various sectors who believed Arroyo wanted to use the reform to extend her term limit.

(Note that shifting to a federal government does not necessarily mean an extension of term limits for the sitting president. Such an extension would only take place in a shift to a parliamentary government.)

In 2008, Pimentel Jr and Bacolod City Representative Monico Puentevella filed joint resolutions to convene Congress into a constituent assembly with the goal of amending the constitution to establish a federal form of government.  Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.