Towards A More Informed Debate On The Federalism Vs. Autonomy Issue


By: Atty. Zainudin S. Malang, (LL.M., I.M.R.I., J.D.)

A recent article in a national daily has once again brought to my attention the need for Moros to raise the level of their understanding of the federalism vs. autonomy debate. Sadly, I have noticed a less than adequate understanding not only of what federalism and autonomy are but also of the present conditions in the Bangsamoro which will have a substantial influence on our respective stands in this debate.

The article I speak of quotes one of the outspoken Local Government Unit (LGU) officials in the ARMM who argues for a federal set-up and begrudges the present set-up because the Internal Revenue Allotments (IRA) of LGUs in the autonomous region is quite small. He goes on to correlate the federalism issue with the roots of the Moro struggle, meaningful autonomy, etc.

The good mayor is indeed correct in pointing out the small IRA of LGUs in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. I won’t argue with that. However, the implicit assumption that federalism will necessarily result in higher revenue allocations to the region is not. Our IRA may be small but our actual internal revenue collections are even smaller – far far smaller. In layman’s terms, we are receiving far more than we are giving. Indeed, the percentage of our actual revenue collections to the total IRA we are getting from the national government is only 1.5%. In 1999, our IRA from the national government was P2.5 billion but our actual collection is only P38 million. Thus, had we been completely left to fend for ourselves under a federal set-up, our LGUs would have had only P38 million (with an M) instead of P2.5 billion (with a B) to spend in 1999. So, if we expect oodles of money to spend once we have a federal state up and running, we may be up for the shock of our lives.

Another conventional belief that may also be based on an erroneous premise is that between federalism and autonomy, the latter is better since it is assumed that it will grant the Moros an even greater say in how their affairs are governed – more self-governance, in other words. To this assumption, my first question is what model of federalism are we talking of? Now you may want to know why it is necessary for us to discuss what model of federalism is being bandied about? Well, for one very basic reason. Depending on the model, federalism may or may not necessarily accord the Bangsamoro greater rights in governing their affairs.

So the next time we are asked whether we support the drive towards federalism, we should immediately throw back the question and ask what model is being proposed. Is it the Malaysian model where power is still heavily concentrated in the center? Or is it the Belgian model which, for all intents and purposes, have two countries under one flag – an opposite, if you may, of the Malaysian model? Or is it the U.S. model which was initially designed to give the balance of power to the states but eventually evolved into one wherein the federal government now has a substantial say in the affairs of the states?

Unless and until we are clear on what powers we will enjoy under a federal set-up, we should reserve our judgments or stands on the issue. Otherwise, we may be unwittingly giving up powers which we already have. One useful tool we can use is to draw a matrix of the powers under the present autonomous set-up and the proposed federal set-up, and then compare.

Lastly, my reason for pointing out the faulty assumptions above is not to undermine the calls for federalism or any other perceived solution to our demands. On the contrary, I would like its proponents to offer a coherent and intelligent rationale so as to make it hard for its opponents to strike down the proposal. Otherwise, the risk that we face is not only for our advocacy to be dismissed but, worse, if we accept a federal model that we have not yet fully understood, we may end up relinquishing rather than gaining powers of self-governance.

In any case, whether it is autonomy, federal, or independent state, the adoption of any of these governance models will not necessarily lead to a better quality of life for our people. Without a good understanding of how any of these systems are supposed to work, then we cannot make it work. Thus, we should already graduate from the sloganeering phase of our advocacy for self-governance. Even a high-school student can do that. But for professionals like us, its high time to get down and do the hard work of understanding the nitty gritty of these issues.

(Atty. Zainudin S. Malang is the Director of the Bangsamoro Center for Law and Policy. This article appears in his column in the Mindanao Cross under the title “From the Plains of Kutawato”. Comments may be sent to morolaw@yahoo.com)