Weaning Manila from total control

In the Philippines' effort to invent a new government almost from scratch, one legacy from Spanish, American -- and Marcos -- rule has come under sharp attack. The issue is the tightfisted control of the nation's affairs by the central government in Manila, a paternalistic practice made stronger during the 20 years that Ferdinand Marcos was in power.

With Mr. Marcos ousted, and with most everything he did regarded here as a lesson in what not to do, the drive for local autonomy has gained momentum under the still-forming government of President Corazon Aquino. In fact, decentralization is advocated as an essential cure for a simmering communist insurgency, a shattered economy, and a battered democracy.

``This is the second stage of the February revolution,'' said Almarim Tillah, acting governor of Tawitawi Province.

If any powers are devolved, it will come largely from a new constitution to be drafted no later than Sept. 2 by a 48-member commission -- all of whom are Aquino appointees. A referendum will be held on the document, most likely in November.

In the meantime, Mrs. Aquino, who rules under her own temporary ``freedom constitution,'' is in the catbird seat for tipping the balance of power in this nation of 55 million largely impoverished Filipinos.

She eliminated the Marcos-dominated National Assembly in March, a month after taking power, with the promise of having a new one elected next year. She plans to revamp the national bureaucracy. And she has replaced most of the nation's pro-Marcos governors and mayors with her own appointees, who hold office until elections can be held, possibly next year. Still to come is the sifting out of some 42,000 elected barrio (village) leaders, many of whom were manipulated by Marcos.

The 76 acting provincial governors and 60 acting mayors were invited to gather in Manila this week in what turned out to be a minor revolt in favor of local autonomy.

In many ways, Aquino sympathizes with local officials: Her late husband was once governor of Tarlac Province and knew just how powerless a governor can be. Example: Until the mid-1960s, a governor had to ask permission to come to Manila, where he often had to beg for a meager dole-out of the national tax revenues. One result of this top-heavy government was a nation with political parties not deeply rooted in peasant concerns and rarely reflecting any ideological differences. Politicians like Marcos could easily switch parties without much thought if it was to their advantage.

Aquino told the officials last weekend not to come to her for ``guns, goons, or gold,'' a reference to the old-style tools of Filipino politics. The group's response: a written appeal to the Constitution Commission to grant wide powers to local officials, especially unlimited ability to raise money by taxes. They also criticized the Ministry of Local Government for being ``dictatorial'' and for putting ``martial-law handcuffs on local officials.''

The ministry was created by Marcos, largely for political control. ``You could not get one centavo out of the presidential palace unless you were close to Marcos,'' says the Isabela Province acting governor, Melanio Singson. Today, the ministry is headed by an Aquino confidant and a former mayor, Aquilino Pimentel.

The Constitution Commission has reacted favorably to the proposal for local autonomy. But the exact language has yet to be finalized. The battle will be fought over the next couple months.

Centralized control will be a ``tough coconut to crack,'' as one acting mayor put it. Poor nations often opt for strong central leadership on the assumption that it speeds up economic development.

Behind the current debate lies the fear that the southern island of Mindanao, which is largely Muslim, may use local autonomy to split off from the mainly Roman Catholic nation, says Cebu's acting mayor, John Osmena. Parts of Mindanao already have been given some autonomy as a result of a Muslim rebellion in the early 1970s.

Despite the February revolt in the name of ``people's power,'' most national bureaucrats remain entrenched, ready to do battle with those who challenge their powers and to justify their traditional role of guarding the national interest.

Speaking to the just-appointed group of local officials, Ciriaco Alfelor, deputy minister for local government, said: ``Frankly, most of you are not honest. We need people to supervise you. We need a body, like a mother, to guard against some profligate governors and mayors.''

Aquino's own Cabinet ministers are also expected to be less than enthusiastic about shedding their newfound powers. In most provinces, field representatives of national ministries usually carry more clout than a governor and have more loyalty to Manila.

Patterns of pork-barrel politics have a long history in the Philippines. Spanish friars ruled in a central, autocratic way for more than 300 years, followed in 1898 by American control, which relied heavily on the landed or educated elite. Up and down the 7,100-island archipelago, government has developed into what academics call ``a patron-client relationship'' that was considered necessary to hold a disparate nation together.

Independence after World War II brought with it some small steps to empower rural areas, usually just enough to enable them to extract more money from Manila. Social groups such as 4-H clubs were formed, often as political bases for national politicians. In 1955, village governments known as barrio councils were formed, but were granted power only to make recommendations to Manila. After that, barrios were allowed to elect ``captains,'' who could collect small taxes on cockfights and on what little land was owned by people actually living in the barrios (landowners often live in the cities). A village plan for development took months to arrive in Manila, passing through many bureaucratic layers. Along the way, requests for aid often came back as political favors.

Government has generally been viewed by peasants as having no understanding of the people's welfare. According to a 1965 University of the Philippines report, villagers saw central government as ``a source of dole and jobs, the solver of problems, a form of institutionalized philanthropy.''

By 1973, Marcos had changed the laws to what one of his officials describes as ``outlining what the local government can't do rather than what it can do.'' In 1974, an International Labor Organization report characterized the Philippines as ``a nation of barrios dominated by Metropolitan Manila.''

``The big question now is whether the classic Filipino patron-client relationship can be changed,'' says David Wurfel, a noted Asian scholar at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.

A big change came before the Feb. 7 election, when the Catholic Church hierarchy openly advised people to take money offered them by Marcos supporters attempting to sway votes -- but then to vote their conscience. It worked, defying cultural habits.

To Gov. Cornelio Villareal Jr. of Capiz Province, Aquino has no choice. ``The President wants development of the rural areas. But it will not happen until there is local autonomy. When a governor or mayor is out talking with the people and solving their problems, there is no insurgency.''

The honesty of local officials has never really been tested, several acting governors say, and besides, it could be no worse than past national leaders.

One expert on local autonomy, Prof. Raul de Guzman of the University of the Philippines, believes the nation may not be ready for federalism as found in the United States or Switzerland. Local tax powers could be used to punish enemies of the economic elite, he says. And the division of the nation into provinces does not follow ethnic or linguistic lines. A unitary system is better, he contends, because ``we have to develop a national identity first.'' A compromise, he suggests, is guaranteeing local governments a larger cut of national revenues.

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