Toxic brew: Federalism and political dynasties (Philippines Daily Inquirer)

The Bangsamoro Basic Law has inspired a renewed vigor in the campaign for federalism. What is interesting is the presentation of the shift to be immediate and easy, as if the undertaking were as simple as changing outfits. Obviously, this is not the case.

For many countries with the federal form of government, such as the United States, Malaysia, Australia and Germany, federalization was a state-building effort. These countries each began as loose collections of disparate sociopolitical entities and gradually transformed themselves into a unified nation-state through the process of federation.

In our case, it will essentially be the reverse. Thus, we face a much harder and more complicated version of federalism-one that entails a significant length of time and also demands the exertion of tremendous effort from all of us.

But I am most alarmed by the presumption of purported advocates of federalism that our local leaders are fit and ready for it. They harp on the perceived disparity in revenue-sharing with the central government to justify the shift without even touching on the readiness of local leaders to assume the big responsibility of local governments under federalism.

We should not forget that one of the most important lessons in the BBL discourse is the realization about the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as a failed experiment. The lesson being, increasing the autonomy of local levels of government ultimately amounts to nothing if local leaders are incompetent and incapable of properly utilizing expanded powers and resources.

Indeed, with the exception of a notable few, it is difficult to be confident of the ability of local leaders to formulate and implement long-term and far-reaching development objectives. Both the overdependence of local government executives on the Internal Revenue Allotment and the continued existence of central-government largesse such as the Disbursement Acceleration Program are clear evidence that the development perspective of local leaders has not reached the level of sophistication necessary to sustain federalism.

But the biggest indicator that the quality of the local leadership is still below par as far as federalism is concerned is the prevalence of political dynasties. The problem was poignantly articulated by a respected civil society activist, Guiamel Alim, in a speech delivered at the Consolidation for Peace for Mindanao seminar-workshop in Hiroshima, Japan, on June 23, 2014:

Political dynasty and the clannish social structure in the Bangsamoro are a big challenge to democracy where the doctrine of check and balance is most often than not set aside. Change politics will always be challenged by the ‘business as usual’ norm. Political dynasty, while it is true everywhere in the country, is more pronounced in the Bangsamoro, where you see practically the whole clan running [a] local government unit. I call this a political enterprise or a clan-inclusive government. In many instances, local politicians are the most resistant to change.

Now consider the key finding in the 2012 groundbreaking study on political dynasties by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center: that lower standards of living, lower human development, and higher levels of deprivation and inequality persist in the communities governed by local leaders who are members of a political dynasty.

Such an outcome is the result of the myopic and parochial governance frame of mind prevalent among dynastic politicians. To preserve their hold on power, these special caste of local politicos can only be bothered by projects that have an immediate and perceptible impact, and theirs is most likely simply a knee-jerk response to the clamor of the day from their supporters.

In a scathing rebuke recently to Sen. Nancy Binay’s curious claim that a family of politicians is no different from a family of doctors, the eminent economist Ronald U. Mendoza of the AIM Policy Center lamented that their research has shown that political dynasties have killed meritocracy in governance.

Correspondingly, one cannot help but feel terribly anxious that federalizing with political dynasties still employing a chokehold on local governance will be tantamount to condemning communities in their jurisdiction to perpetual poverty.

I still maintain, though, that the change to a federal form of government is a constitutional reform behind which we can all rally. But we have to disabuse ourselves of the idea that instituting federalism in our country is as easy as turning on a light switch. Indeed, our foremost task now in the pursuit of this goal is to lay the foundations-and we can do that by improving the quality of local leadership.

On this score, federalism advocates can help the cause by actively pushing for the enactment of the Anti-Political Dynasty Law, the Freedom of Information Act, and the Political Party Development Act of 2014.

There are other ways of uplifting the standards for governors and mayors and enhancing their capacities to be effective community leaders. Nevertheless, these three laws are particularly vital because they impose structural reforms that can instigate drastic improvements in the way local governance is conceived and delivered.

However, I must also emphasize that the transition to federalism also requires the elevation of the electorate to a higher level of political consciousness. The prevailing culture of patronage, which is the lifeblood of political dynasties, must be addressed head-on. The best way to start this task is to abandon the populist approach some sectors are wont to adopt (i.e., Bagong Sistema, Bagong Pag-asa, Federalism Philippines).

The obvious danger is that rhetoric and sound bytes, while maybe good for catching the attention of the media, can reduce the effort to a caricature and thus diminish its potency to convince the vast majority in the polity. I suggest that we proceed with a clinical and academic approach.

The advocates of federalism, whoever they may be, must create an environment that is conducive to the integration of the polity rather than its fragmentation. Indeed, they must oversee a process that facilitates the circumspect and level-headed discussion and debate on federalism among all sectors of the community.

Because federalism is not just a political framework, it is also a frame of mind.