With most eyes on the national posts in the May 2022 Philippine elections, it is easy to overlook important governance issues at the local level. A new Supreme Court ruling will allocate more fiscal resources to but also demand more responsibilities from local governments. Yet lingering structural and political challenges prevent them from efficiently delivering basic services, initiating local development, and empowering the people.
Most eyes are on this year’s Philippine presidential race, where there is a high possibility that the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his running mate, the daughter of current president Rodrigo Duterte, will win. However, aside from elections of senators and members of the House of Representatives, equally important are those at the provincial, city, and municipal levels. 2022 is a critical year. Not only are more issues under the remit of local government units (LGUs) becoming more salient to pandemic recovery and management, but there is also a renewed deepening of devolution within government.
While nominally under a unitary system of government, LGUs have traditionally functioned autonomously from Manila’s central government. The devolution process under the Philippines’ 1991 Local Government Code charged local governments with the primary responsibility to deliver public services in the areas of health (including primary health care), social welfare, agriculture, environment and natural resources, and local public works. LGUs receive fiscal transfers from the national government and can collect local taxes and other fees.
The unevenness and inequity in capacity and access to resources among LGUs, and how this impacts consistency in effective service delivery, have been highlighted by the pandemic. Even the traditionally centralist Duterte administration had to adopt a ‘national government-enabled, local government-led’ strategy due to the sheer scale and variety of responses required for epidemiological response, health regulation, and economic management. A number of LGUs have been proactive not only in trying to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, but also in dealing with the dislocation of their constituents and other adverse effects of the lockdown. Some coordinated well with national agencies, while others had to work with the private sector and civil society groups in the absence of clear and consistent instructions from Manila.
It was often the case that such successful localities like Marikina, Pasig, and Quezon City had at their disposal relatively large budgets, skilled local bureaucracies, good data management, partnerships with the private sector and civil society groups, and participatory mechanisms. Notably, some LGUs outside Metro Manila with good pandemic responses are led by women. However, there were also LGUs that failed to meet the challenges of Covid-19 and their responsibilities because of limited resources, lack of good management skills, the dominance of patronage politics, corruption, and other problems. One potential development is a shift in public focus to how to facilitate local government services, which proved to be most consequential during crises. There might also be more roles for regional bodies or groupings of LGUs in localising programmes and developing appropriate services for their constituents. Regional Inter-Agency Task Forces (RIATF) in all regions were created in 2020 to be the national Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Infectious Diseases’s local counterparts, and are supervised by a Cabinet member assigned to their region by the President.
Experts disagree on whether the move to further devolution will encourage strong and responsible local governance from 2022, given the lingering problems that must first be resolved.
Key Local Governance Issues in the 2022 Philippine Elections
The year 2022 is crucial for local governance because of two important decisions that will affect the LGUs’ operations starting this year. The Supreme Court’s Mandanas-Garcia ruling of 2018 (reaffirmed in 2019) requires the national government to transfer 40 per cent of all revenue collections, or a total of 40 per cent share of all national taxes, to all LGUs. This means generally more funds for LGUs to help them perform their functions better. Given this Supreme Court ruling, Executive Order No. 138 issued in June 2021 mandates the full devolution of many functions of the national executive branch to local governments. These include health and social services, agriculture, and managing natural resources, among others.
Experts disagree on whether the move to further devolution will encourage strong and responsible local governance from 2022, given the lingering problems that must first be resolved. As the incomes of the LGUs increase, LGUs’ responsibilities and public expectations will rise. Some LGUs will have problems even with increased local resources: some districts are too small and too poor while others are still recovering from the onslaught of the pandemic on health, livelihoods, and the local economy. There is also corruption and political divisiveness at the local level, and political resistance to merging small or weak districts to form larger, more viable ones. Despite the Local Government Code being in place for three decades, there are still wide disparities in local governments’ performances. The causes range from problems with the code itself, like the unequal distribution formula for national fund transfers favoring cities over rural areas, and the absence of a process for selecting sectoral representatives in the local legislative councils, to the electoral system. The persistence of political patronage, clans, and national executive dominance further inhibit the capacity of local governments. There are also continuing disparities in local leadership and personnel quality, civil society presence, citizens’ awareness and participation, and each locality’s ability to generate its own local revenues.
Candidates and Local Governance Issues
In the 2022 presidential race, very few candidates have addressed the issues at the local level. In terms of local governance issues, only Vice President Leni Robredo has clearly specified the need for more inclusive governance, strengthening local participatory mechanisms and capacities including primary health care, and addressing corruption and patronage.
More Filipino voters are paying attention to and challenging their local officials and candidates’ endorsements of national candidates. Others are defying their local politicians’ endorsements of the Marcos-Duterte team and committing to deliver votes in favour of the Robredo-Pangilinan ticket instead. But Filipino voters should seriously pay attention to evaluating and taking to task their local officials and candidates not only in this election but in other aspects of the political process affecting their day-to-day affairs. All politics is local, and local matters matter.
Maria Ela L. Atienza is Professor of Political Science, University of the Philippines Diliman.