Philippine Moros in western Mindanao are voting in a plebiscite to at long last gain autonomous status that will help to end decades of conflict. Early exit poll surveys indicate a strong vote in favour of the Bangsamoro Organic Law which will create a regional parliament to govern the Bangsamoro region in Mindanao that is populated by a majority of Muslim Filipinos, known as Moros. The likely success of the plebiscite owes much to President Rodrigo Duterte who partly staked his leadership of the country on putting autonomy directly to the people.
Duterte succeeded where others failed insofar as he delivered the referendum that millions had been seeking for decades and likewise, as Duterte himself has Moro relatives and is the first leader of The Philippines to come from Mindanao, he was clearly well placed to deliver the Bangsamoro Organic Law to the people who will be able to form their own regional parliament as a result of the Law’s likely passage.
But whilst Moros will soon have their own regional parliament, the rest of The Philippines remains governed by a unitary presidential system that up until the arrival of Duterte, had failed not only the Bangsamoro region, but had failed just about every region outside of Metro Manila.
The likely passage of the plebiscite in the Bangsamoro region raises many important questions for the rest of the country. First of all, why is it that Moros will receive autonomy, but other distinct regions with unique economic needs and cultural characteristics in The Philippines will still be governed by what is referred to as “imperial Manila”? Secondly, if the Bangsamoro region is going to get a parliamentary form of regional government, why can’t the national government also be based on a parliamentary system?
The answers to these questions become self-evident when one examines the situation through the prism of political reverse engineering. Imagine if The Philippines had long ago adopted both a federalised political map of the country whilst the national government was a parliamentary rather than a presidential system?
The conclusion of this hypothetical question is that the Bangsamoro region would have long ago had autonomy as a matter of constitutional principle, as opposed to a process that took years of bloodshed and difficult negotiation to bring to the current constructive stage. Likewise, there would have likely been no struggle between Moros and the central government because in a federal system, all distinct regions have a measure of self-government which can look after the interests of local people according to their direct aspirations and needs. In other words, if one supplies that which is politically necessary, one will not face unreasonable or difficult demands.
Even taking federalism out of the equation temporarily, had someone like Rodrigo Duterte entered national government in 2016 as the prime minister in a parliamentary system whose party-political parliamentary majority was a reflection of the confidence Duterte’s ideas command throughout the nation, a hypothetical Prime Minister Duterte could have likely staged today’s plebiscite within his first months in office. This remains crucial because in May of 2017, just under a year into the Duterte Presidency, a breakaway Daesh (ISIS) aligned Moro terrorist organisation called the Maute Group laid siege to the city of Marawi – thus threatening the entire hard fought peace process. Whilst Duterte was quick to enact Martial Law in order to aid the armed forces in ultimately liberating Marawi in October of 2017, had an efficient parliamentary system been in place from the beginning, Duterte could have scheduled the Bangsamoro plebiscite far earlier, thus draining the swamp from which latent extremism arose in May of 2017.
Moreover, had a hypothetical Prime Minister Duterte rushed the Bangsamoro plebiscite through parliament whilst then spending the rest of his first year in office organising a nationwide referendum on federalism, the problems that plagued Marawi in 2017 would not only most likely never had happened, but overall economic growth and national harmony could have blossomed far more rapidly than it has under a Duterte Presidency that whilst successful, has been constricted by an outdated pro-oligarch constitution and a political system which promotes show-businesses style politics over an ideas driven meritocracy.
In this sense, whilst Duterte’s opponents complain about the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao, they fail to realise that the federal-parliamentary system that they deride could have abrogated the need to declare Martial Law in the first place.
Clearly, the Bangsamoro leaders who have decided to form a regional parliament, seek to avoid the deadlock and anti-democratic tendencies of a congressional style system. They know first hand that in certain regions, a lack of political consensus and clear democratic accountability can be the difference not just between prosperity and poverty, but between life and death.
Therefore, the rest of the country should take notice and demand that they be given that which Moros in Mindao will shortly get – parliamentary governance and autonomy through nationwide federalism. All Filipinos deserve the opportunities that the Bangsamoro will soon experience.