Under the presidency of Rodrigo Roa Duterte, 2017 could have been the year when the Philippines began a shift from a unitary system of government—which has been in operation under colonial rule and since independence post-1946—to a federal form of government. In point of fact, the administration's mechanism for kick-starting the process, the Consultative Committee, only started work in January 2018 and handed its product (a completely new draft constitution) to the Philippine Congress in July 2018. With less than a year before the May 2019 mid-term elections, quick action by Congress on federalizing the Philippines seems unlikely.
The unitary system often sits uncomfortably on top of considerable political and social localism—elected officials with their own power bases, and ethnic groups who feel different from the dominant elite in Manila. While the 1991 Local Government Code did try to address the need to move power and resources further out to the periphery, impetus for broader change remains. For some twenty years there have been consistent calls to amend various provisions of the 1987 Constitution, and this time the effort is being undertaken in the first part of the term of a popular President—so constitutional revision might materialize.
That constitutional amendment might happen may seem surprising, given the failure of previous attempts and the fact that the “status quo regarding decentralization [under the 1991 Local Government Code] appears to satisfy both sub-national and central elites”.2 However, the status quo does not satisfy President Duterte—the most influential political actor in the Philippines. This chapter traces the advocacy for federalism and concludes that any possibility of federalizing depends on the attitude of the current president regarding constitutional change. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, for example, toyed with the idea, but was fundamentally only interested in instituting a parliamentary system. President Benigno S. Aquino III, on the other hand, was opposed to any change in the constitution instituted under his mother's administration. Federalism is currently possible due to the particular advocacy of President Duterte. Many elites are dubious, and public opinion is certainly not driving this prospect. The President, who launched his preliminary campaign by traversing the country talking about federalism, is clear in his insistence for federalism.