The Philippines possesses a complex political history

With the elections taking place in 2016 for everything from local councillor to president of the republic, Philippine politics is set to undergo some far-reaching changes. Whatever the outcome of the balloting, one thing has long been certain: 2016 will mark the end of President Benigno Aquino III’s period in office. Many will miss his leadership. During President Aquino’s tenure, the Philippines has grown much in international diplomatic, political and economic stature. In its 70th year of independence from the US, however, the country still faces many challenges. The new president, congress, governors, mayors and local councillors will need to tackle some tough issues, ranging from confrontations in the South China Sea to corruption and pursuing peace in Mindanao.

Change & Continuity

The earliest recorded human settlement in the collection of islands that now constitutes the Philippines was 67,000 years ago, yet the first written document found in the archipelago dates from many years later in 900 CE. There is little written record therefore of the early history of the country, although trading links with the Javanese and Malay kingdoms are widely suggested by archaeological findings. In those early centuries, chiefdoms, known as barangay, formed larger groupings under rajahs in Manila, Cebu, Mactan, Vigan and Iloilo.

In 1380, Islam arrived in the Philippines, leading to the founding of the Sultanate of Sulu in 1405. This encompassed the islands of the Sulu Sea and parts of Mindanao, along with parts of Borneo – the source of current tensions with Malaysia that flared up in 2013 when descendants of the sultanate’s founders staged an armed intervention in Sabah. The Kingdom of Tondo also grew to be a powerful force, which was challenged by the Bruneian Empire, which gained control of much of Luzon in 1500.


Western colonisation began in 1521 with the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan and then Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565. Starting from Cebu, Spanish conquest followed, along with the spread of Catholicism. The Philippines remained part of the Spanish Empire until the late 19th century. During that time, the Spanish linked the country to one of the world’s first truly global empires. A largely intra-island economy became connected across the Pacific to Latin America and beyond, to Spain. The Spanish also introduced a centralised administrative system, and some modern social and economic infrastructure.

The revolution that broke out in 1896, however, changed all this – although it ultimately led to the replacement of one colonial power with another: the US. With US support, Emilio Aguinaldo declared the independence of the Philippines in 1898. Then, with the Spanish ejected, the US turned on its Filipino allies. In 1899 war began between the two nations, ending in 1901 with Aguinaldo’s capture and the defeat of the Filipino resistance movement.

Though US colonial rule ended in 1946, the shift was gradual. In 1934, the Commonwealth of the Philippines was created, with the idea that this would begin a 10-year transition to independence. In 1935, a constitution was drawn up and presidential elections were held, won by Manuel Quezon. Shortly after the Second World War broke out, however, the Philippines was invaded and occupied by Japan. In 1946 the first presidential elections for an independent state were held, this time won by Manual Roxas.

Turbulent Times 

The new nation came into being devastated by the war. The US, which retained military bases in the Philippines, assisted in rebuilding, but within the provisions of the Bell Trade Act, which prohibited competition with US firms, gave US citizens and corporations parity with Filipinos in terms of economic rights, and banned import tariffs on US goods. A US dollar peg also created a major deficit, obliging the Philippine government to impose exchange controls in the 1950s, benefitting first manufacturing and then later the financial sector, in the 1960s.

In 1965 Ferdinand Marcos became president, beating the incumbent, Diosdado Macapagal, at the ballot box. Marcos engaged in a major programme of public works and was re-elected in 1969. That year also saw the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which began an armed struggle for the independence of Mindanao. Thus, Marcos began his second term facing insurrections by both the MNLF and New People’s Army – a communist group – while opposition politicians began to block him in Manila. In 1972 Marcos responded by declaring martial law.

A New Era

In 1981 presidential elections were held again, although without genuine opposition candidates, and in 1983 opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr was assassinated at the airport in Manila after being invited back from exile. This galvanised the opposition, and in 1986 another presidential election was held, with Aquino’s widow, Corazon, winning the vote. Marcos went into exile, and a new constitution was drawn up and enacted in 1987. This new constitution severely limited the powers of the president, largely due to the experiences of the Marcos years, while also re-establishing a bicameral Congress and two autonomous regions: Mindanao and the Cordilleras. Under Aquino, who weathered several attempted coups, the US also withdrew from its bases.

In 1992 Aquino was succeeded by Fidel Ramos, a hero of the 1986 uprising also known as the EDSA Revolution, followed by Joseph Estrada winning the presidential elections in 1998. His term came to an end in 2001, however, following protests in memory of the EDSA Revolution that led to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, daughter of late President Macapagal, taking over. Re-elected in 2004, she was later succeeded by the current President Aquino, in 2010.

Peace & Conflict

During the late 1980s, a faction of the MNLF split off to form the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which began its own insurgency in Mindanao. This lasted until 2014, when the group signed a peace deal with the Philippine government that promised self-rule. This peace has largely continued, although not without serious incident.

Meanwhile, on the foreign policy front, President Aquino’s term has seen a heightening of tensions with China over territorial limits in the South China Sea. In late 2015 the Philippines took its claim to the International Court at The Hague, although China has refused to participate in the proceedings. The Philippines also continued to be a major mover in efforts to bring about the ASEAN Economic Community, which came into force in 2015. At home, President Aquino engaged in a controversial drive against corruption which saw the arrest of some high-profile figures, though it resulted in few convictions.

Head Of State

The president is head of state in the Philippines as well as of the government. He or she is elected for a single six-year term in a nationwide, first-past-the-post ballot. Candidates must be born in the Philippines and have lived in the country for 10 years before standing for the post. These latter points have become extremely significant in the 2016 elections, with one of the candidates, Grace Poe, facing legal challenges on both these counts.

The president appoints a cabinet, delegating to it many of his or her executive powers. A vice-president is also elected, taking over in case of the death or incapacity of the president. The vice-presidential post is balloted separately from the president, creating the situation under President Aquino where the vice-president, Jejomar Binay, is also a candidate for president in 2016 and part of an opposition party.

The president is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and has the power to propose the national budget and make appointments, including members of the Supreme Court, the highest judicial body. The president may also veto a bill after it has been passed by Congress, sending it back to the lower chamber. There, a two-thirds majority vote is necessary to overturn the veto. Several important agencies also come directly under the presidency, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority.

Legislative Matters

The bicameral Congress consists of an upper house (the Senate) and a lower house (the House of Representatives). The Senate is composed of 24 senators who are elected for six-year terms, with a limit of two consecutive terms. Half of the senate is elected every three years according to a plurality-at-large voting system, under which the whole country is considered one constituency. The Senate in turn elects a president as chair, a post currently held by Senator Franklin Drilon. Twelve senate seats are up for election in 2016.

As in the US, every bill must be passed by both the Senate and the House, then signed by the president, to become law. The Senate also has the power, via a two-thirds majority vote, to cancel an international treaty signed by the president; the same majority is needed for it to impeach a government official. The Senate is also widely seen as a route to the presidency; Estrada, Arroyo and President Aquino were all senators before their election to the higher office.

The House

Meanwhile, the House has 292 seats: 234 elected from geographical districts and 58 from party lists. All are elected for three-year terms and may not serve more than three consecutive terms. All are up for election in May 2016. The representatives are elected from districts of similar size – roughly 250,000 inhabitants – although there has been no re-apportionment since the 1987 census, leading to attempts to redistrict seats.

The party list seats are determined by voters choosing from a list of organisations, the intent being to include groups representing minority organisations. If a listed group wins more than 2% of the total nationwide vote, it gains a seat, with a three-seat maximum per group. A key agency for the party list seats, and elsewhere in the electoral process, is the Commission on Elections, which decides which organisations can go on the party list for voting. Reports in November 2015 showed that, of 243 organisations that had applied, 100 had been approved. The House must also approve a bill for it to pass into law. If approval is given, the bill then passes to the Senate for approval, unless the Senate has a similar bill of its own, in which case a bicameral congressional committee is convened to produce a single version. The House is the only chamber where a motion to impeach the president – or any official – may be initiated. The Senate alone has the power to try accused officials.

Political parties in the Philippines are generally electoral vehicles for particular politicians and their associates, with voters often choosing individuals over party affiliations. President Aquino won the vote in 2010 on a Liberal Party (LP) ticket, while his vice-president won on a Philippine Democratic Party-People’s Power (PDP-Laban) ticket. The party with the most votes in the 2013 Senate election was the United Nationalist Alliance, a coalition of PDP-Laban and Force of the Filipino Masses, while the LP emerged the largest single party in the House.

Judicial Affairs

The Supreme Court is the highest court and court of last resort. It consists of 15 justices, including the chief justice. Justices are appointed by the president from a list presented by the Judicial and Bar Council, and are obliged to retire at age 70. Under the Supreme Court come the Court of Appeals and the Court of Tax Appeals, along with the Sandibangbayan (“people’s advocate”), a court that reviews allegations of government irregularities. At the lower level, Regional Trial Courts form the backbone, deployed to each administrative region.

Local Affairs

Regions are the highest local administrative divisions, and there are 18. Only the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has its own elected assembly and governor, however; the others are groups of provinces. ARMM itself is likely to be replaced by the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region once Congress approves the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which is part of the peace accord with the MILF. Each province has its own elected legislature and governor, who acts as the executive. Cities are independent of provinces, with these run by city councils and elected mayors, while towns are run by municipal governments. Cities and municipalities then break down into barangays, of which there are around 42,029 in the country. The barangay itself has elected leaders and a council.


As of early 2016, the presidential and general elections had produced a long list of candidates, with many names belonging to the country’s powerful political dynasties. Leading candidates included Poe, Mar Roxas (the LP candidate endorsed by President Aquino) and Vice-President Binay. Other hats in the ring included controversial Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who shot into an opinion poll lead after announcing in late November 2015. Whatever the outcome, the new political leadership in the presidential palace and in Congress will have to work hard to maintain momentum in economic growth. But they will work within an increasingly mature and sophisticated political culture and a dynamic economy.


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Cover of The Report: The Philippines 2016

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