“Philippine Federalism: SONA Silence” by Malcolm Cook

2019/63, 24 July 2019

On 22 July, President Duterte gave his fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) setting out the agenda for the second half of his single six-year term. Despite the speech running well over time, what was not mentioned may be more important than what was. For the first time, there was no mention of President Duterte’s most fundamental reform agenda, a federal Philippines.
In his 2018 SONA, he struck a hopeful note on federalism, stating that,

“I am confident that the Filipino people will stand behind us as we introduce this new fundamental law that will not only strengthen our democratic institutions, but will also create an environment where every Filipino—regardless of social status, religion, or ideology – will have an equal opportunity to grow and create a future that he or she can proudly bequeath to the succeeding generations.”

A year later, this confidence appears drained. His silence on federalism in the 2019 SONA is consistent with his comments prior to the speech that the transition to a federal Philippines will likely not occur during his term. This despite the 2019 mid-term elections delivering a stronger pro-Duterte majority in the Senate and more senators from Mindanao.

Compared with his first SONA in 2016, the political conditions now are much less favourable for Philippine federalism:

1)As in 2016, there is no noticeable level of public interest in constitutional revision in general and the introduction of federalism in particular;

2)The timeline for the two houses of Congress to agree on a revised federal constitution, gain presidential support, organize a national plebiscite on the new constitution, and (if passed) hold new elections in 2022 is very tight;

3) In 2016, the House Speaker and Senate President, like President Duterte, were long-standing federalism proponents from Mindanao and leaders of the Mindanao-based federalist PDP-Laban party. Today, the House Speaker and Senate President are from Metro Manila, are not PDP-Laban members, and have not been strong federalism advocates;

In his 2017 SONA President Duterte noted that federalism was an issue that would have to be “tackled sooner or later.” It looks like it will tackled later, not sooner, or not at all.

Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.