Federalism? What are we talking about?
Change. A new president with a new administration, new people, new ideas, new priorities. Two central concepts, federalism and the parliamentarian system, both container concepts, covering a wide range of solutions for a wide range of problems. So what are we talking about? To be meaningful, the discussions will require specific plans with specific definitions. The devil is in the detail!
I’m not a political scientist, just an ordinary citizen of a (mini-)country that transformed over the last 50 years from a centralized nation into a complex federal state and is transforming now into a confederal state. 50 years of discussions over what institutions we should have, what authority and what means we need to achieve a better system, to improve (but “improve” as such was never defined, no measures of targeted effectiveness and efficiency). Historically, we always had several shifting “fault lines”: language – French/Dutch, religion – Catholic/A-Catholic, political – right/left, economically – more wealthy / more poor, focus on “my village”/focus on Europe. Often these fault lines coincided and created emotional outbursts from the (self-perceived) “minority”, ammunition for smart politicians.
Also, here in the Philippines, strong fault lines exist:
- Regions: Luzon/Visayas/Mindanao
- Religion: Catholic/Muslim/Christians/secular
- Language/culture: Tagalog/Visayan/Ilocano/Bangsamoro…
- Ethnic: Malay/Chinese/Mestizos/Moro/Indigenous
- Economic: poor/middle class/class A&B /0.001%
- Political: left/dynasties/new thinkers
- Rural/cities: Imperial Manila with its surroundings/rest of the Philippines…
These fault lines are often quite stable. Here alliances are more on an individual than on a group level. But balancing winners and losers will be an extremely difficult, too, the return to trapo-politics just around the corner?
Some thoughts (a mixture of personal recollections and Wikipedia in Dutch, French and English) . . .
Federalism is a continuum, from highly centralized to loosely associated. Essential is a common constitution for all participating states.Some characteristics
- Two levels of judicial powers.
- The federated states participate as such in the national legislation, often limited to specific fields not belonging to the responsibility of the federated states.
- All federated states participate in approving constitutional amendments; the national constitution cannot be changed against their will.
- Federated states have individual budgets.
Different decision fields will be at play
- Centrifugal forces, more power to the confederate states versus centripetal forces, more power to the national level.
- Cooperative initiatives with solidarity mechanism versus a strict dual system where inequalities are accepted.
- Symmetric federalism, all confederate states have equal responsibilities and are organized equally, versus symmetric federalism, different levels of “independence” and/or different systems in the individual organization of the federated states.
- Some current or future institutions will be winners, gaining powers, some will be losers, losing powers.
Essential differences between existing federal systems
- All powers are centralized, except as defined by law, versus all powers are decentralized, except as defined by law.
- Upwards integration, promoting sovereignty to a higher level as ASEAN, downward decentralization, delegating sovereignty to regional or additional local levels.
- Small independent states uniting versus a large state breaking up.
- Specific areas are either completely centralized or completely decentralized versus mixed responsibilities where subsidiarity is envisaged, states and nation have complementary powers in the same areas (e.g. agriculture as an exclusive federated state responsibility or national defense is exclusive a national matter versus some agriculture issues are federated, e.g. farmer assistance, some are national, e.g research or some defense is federated, e.g. internal defense, some defense is organized on a national level, e.g. external defense).
- Borders between the federated states.
- “Insular zones” that according to many criteria (cultural/language, economy, religion… ) belong to one region but geographically are surrounded by another region.
- Budget splits (and sharing of resources or compensations for starting from different development levels)
- National representation, communication, harmonization….
- International representation (e.g. if agriculture is 100% devolved, who represents the Philippines in ASEAN agricultural meetings?)
- Ease to blame the other level. Regions don’t get the envisaged results because the national level is lagging and vice versa.
- Sense of identity. Different people having their loyalty at different levels.
- Alignment with the intended ASEAN integration and other international initiatives as IMF, TPP… What part of our sovereignty to delegate upwards? What part to delegate downwards?
- All in one big step.
e.g. From one state into 2 independent states overnight: The Czech Republic and Slovakia. Almost equally dramatic: the Bangsamoro proposal.
- Many small steps.
e.g. In Belgium it started 50 years ago, first only cultural matters were split into 3 communities: Dutch-, French- and German speaking communities (language matters as spelling, cultural awards, radio/TV…) In a second phase personal related fields were transferred to 3 regions (not the same as communities): Flanders, Walloon and Brussels (health care, education, local government, employment measures, housing…) In the next phase economic fields but not financial fields went to the regions (trade and industry, public works, transport…) Now we are preparing for the “Copernicus” revolution (all revolving around the federated states, no more around the national capital), thus the federated states are responsible for everything except for what they agree to keep national (defense, most of the foreign policy…)
As far as I read in Pimentel’s proposal (pdf file), little of the above is specified. The proposed Bangsomoro legislation gives a better direction, but some basic concepts defined above will need clarification. What problems will be solved? What new effectiveness or efficiencies will be achieved? How will we measure those?
B- Parliamentary System
Two basic concepts:
The Westminster system is usually found in the Commonwealth of Nations (and ex-nations). These parliaments tend to have a more adversarial style of debate and the plenary session of parliament is more important than committees. Most parliaments in this model are elected using a plurality voting system per district.
The Western European parliamentary model (e.g. Spain, Germany) tends to have a more consensual debating system, and usually has semi-circular debating chambers. Consensus systems have more of a tendency to use proportional representation with (many) open party lists. The committees of these Parliaments tend to be more important than the plenary chamber
Some basic questions
- Who selects the Head of State, who selects the Prime Minister?
- Absolute power for the parliament or with remaining prerogatives for the Head of State?
- Strengthening the parties? Financing, districts/proportional, switching, thresholds…
- Will weak parties get stronger or make parliamentary democracy weaker?
Presidential versus Parliamentary
- Legitimation of the president through direct elections.
- More clear separation of powers. An elected presidential is perceived more independent from the legislature than a president nominated by the legislative branch.
- Speed and decisiveness. A president can enact changes quickly. (But the separation of powers can also slow the system down.)
- Stability. A president with a fixed term provides stability more than a prime minister, who can be dismissed at any time.
- Tendency towards authoritarianism.
- Political gridlock. The presidency and the legislature as two parallel structures can create long-term political gridlock. Impeachment is a long and cumbersome process.
- Presidents as commander in chief are seen as solely responsible for the military, and as receiving heads of state and ambassadors, they are seen as solely responsible for foreign affairs.
- Presidential and parliamentary systems at different levels, national, provincial and municipal. As in Japan with a national level parliamentary system but on prefectural and municipal levels, a “presidential” system with elected officials with exclusive powers independent from elected assemblies and councils.
- Decolonization via Presidential systems failed; most parliamentary transitions were successful. What can be the reason for the correlation?
- Philippine tendency to mix opposite systems in the hope to unite the benefits but with the effect to create inefficient, nontransparent, unworkable, confusing, formality (lawyer) oriented systems.
We should try to specify what we mean with container concepts such as Federalism and Parliamentarian System. Even more important is to specify in measurable ways what improvements are to be achieved. The world is full of more and less successful examples; we should build on the lessons learned and not try to start from scratch.
A lot has to do with identities; these are getting more and more diverse, more and more globalized, but people also want the security of being able to fall back on a small group or equals. To change the feelings of identity, the main difficulty might be to communicate frequently and clearly on tangible results.