The Philippines prepares for elections in 2016

With presidential, congressional and local elections all scheduled for next year, 2015 looks set to be a time of heated political debate in the Philippines. Issues such as constitutional reform, good governance and the perennial battle against corruption are likely to dominate discussion, alongside continued disagreements over how best to share the proceeds of economic growth. Meanwhile, recent advances in ensuring internal stability, following the signing of a peace agreement with militant rebels in the southern region of Mindanao, have come against a background of growing international tension with Beijing over disputed sections of the South China Sea (known locally as the West Philippine Sea).

2015 is also set to mark the beginning of the ASEAN Economic Community, with the Philippines playing an integral role in the foundation of this ambitious regional venture. Other international trade negotiations, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as a host of other regional agreements, are also likely to occupy minds in Manila. While none of these issues is without its various controversies and disagreements, on one point there is general agreement: that the Philippines is today a more politically and economically secure country than it has been for many years, playing an increasingly influential role in regional and international affairs.

Unity & Diversity

An archipelago consisting of some 7107 islands, the Philippines’ fragmented geography has contributed to a history characterised by ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. Waves of settlement have been traced back some 67,000 years, with the country ruled over time by a range of maritime kingdoms, rajahnates, sultanates and empires. By the time of the arrival of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s Spanish expedition in 1521, Islam was, alongside Hinduism and various native religions, firmly established in the Sultanate of Maguindanao, which ruled Mindanao, and the Sultanate of Sulu, which ruled Palawan and much of the north-east coast of Borneo. Further north, the Kingdom of Tondo was based around Manila, while two other key states were the Rajahnates of Butuan and Cebu. In the Visayas, the Confederation of Madja-as was founded by exiles from the Sumatran Srivijaya Empire.

The long period of Spanish colonisation began in earnest in 1565, with the arrival of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi from Mexico. In 1571, Manila was occupied and established as the capital of the Spanish East Indies. In subsequent years, the remainder of the archipelago was conquered by the Spanish, with many of the inhabitants converting to Catholicism. Even so, right into the late 19th century, Spanish troops continued to fight against the Moros – the Muslim inhabitants of Mindanao and the islands of the Sulu Sea – in an effort to fully subjugate those territories.

From War To Freedom

That conflict was interrupted by the outbreak of the Philippine Revolution in 1896 and the Spanish-American War of 1898. Joining the side of the revolutionaries, led by Emilio Aguinaldo and Mariano Alvarez, US troops landed in the Philippines to help defeat the Spanish. The subsequent Treaty of Paris in 1898 ended centuries of Spanish rule, yet did not end the conflict, as the US moved to establish its own control over the country, sparking the 1899 Philippine-American War.

The first, independent Philippine Republic was thus defeated and US colonial rule established over the country. While the Philippines would not attain independence until 1946, the US had promised it eventual independence from 1916 onwards, establishing the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1933 as a transitional stage towards this end. However, the Second World War interrupted this process, and the islands were occupied by the Japanese following a brutal military campaign. US troops re-occupied the Philippines in 1945, although much of Manila was destroyed in the fierce fighting. After the war, the Philippines won independence in 1946, and Manuel Roxas became the state’s first elected president.

Turbulent Beginnings

The newly independent republic faced some major challenges, internal security being foremost among them. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) relaunched its campaign for an independent, Muslim Mindanao, while the Communist Party of the Philippines and its guerrilla force, the New People’s Army (NPA), also began fighting government forces in the north.

Ferdinand Marcos won the presidential elections of 1965, and was subsequently re-elected in 1969. In 1972, however, he declared martial law, citing the deteriorating security situation. This period continued until 1981, when martial law was partially lifted, with 1983 seeing opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. returning to the Philippines – only to be assassinated on arrival at Manila Airport. This sparked a period of political turbulence that ended in 1986 with the popular overthrow of Marcos by an opposition movement led by Benigno’s widow, Corazon. This became known as the ‘People Power’ or EDSA Revolution, named thus after the avenue in Manila where much of the action took place.

Return Of Democracy

Aquino remained in power until 1992, under a constitution inaugurated in 1987, which had established the current, Fifth Republic. The 1992 presidential election was won by Fidel Ramos, who moved to legalise the Communist Party and begin talks with the MNLF. A peace deal was signed in 1996 with the latter, yet a splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), did not lay down its arms. In 1998, Joseph Estrada won presidential elections, remaining in office until 2001, when he resigned following mass protests over corruption allegations, often referred to as EDSA 2. He was succeeded by his vice-president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who then won the subsequent elections in 2004, remaining in office until 2010. That was when the current incumbent, Benigno Aquino III, widely referred to Noynoy Aquino, or “PN oy”, was elected, with his term of office set to end in May 2016.

Under Noynoy’s administration, the Philippines faced a diplomatic crisis with Malaysia in 2013, when supporters of the old Sultanate of Sulu occupied part of Sabah. Another crisis came with China, which seized the Scarborough Shoal, a rocky reef claimed by both states. In 2014, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed with the MILF, while the NPA insurgency also began to fade. An enhanced defence cooperation agreement strengthening ties with the US was also signed that year.

Presidential Role

The president is the head of state, head of government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Elected for a single, six-year term in a first-past-the-post national ballot, he or she appoints the Cabinet, whose members may not have seats in the legislature. Cabinet members must also be approved by the Congressional Committee of Appointment. The president also has the power to appoint a range of ministry, armed forces and judicial officials. The office of the presidency supervises local government units and directly oversees a series of agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority. Moreover, the president has the power of pardon, and may contract foreign loans, with the agreement of the Monetary Board. This gives the president considerable budgetary powers.

A vice-president is also elected for a single, six-year term, at the same time as the president, but via a separate vote. The vice-president takes over in the event of the death, resignation, impeachment or permanent disability of the president. The current vice-president is Jejomar “Jojo” Binay, the former mayor of Makati, who is widely considered a front-runner for the presidential elections in 2016. The president also has extensive veto powers over bills passed by the legislature. In this event, the bill is returned to the lower house, which may overturn the presidential veto, if the bill’s supporters can garner a two-thirds majority. The president may be impeached by the legislature, a process that can begin if one-third of the lower house of Congress approves such a motion. The upper house then acts as an impeachment tribunal, requiring a two-thirds majority to impeach.

Congressional Powers

As in the US, the legislature, Congress, consists of a lower chamber, the House of Representatives and an upper chamber, the Senate. The House consists of 292 members, elected for three-year terms, with a maximum of three terms. Of the total, 234 representatives are elected directly on a first-past-the-post basis from single-member legislative districts, while 58 are elected via a party list system. There is a 2% electoral threshold. The balloting system – active since 2007 – has been controversial, as it uses proportional representation (PR), under which votes are cast for groups, rather than individuals. The idea behind this is to allow smaller interest groups, indigenous communities, labour and women’s organisations to find representation, as the PR system tends to favour single-issue or regional organisations. Determining which groups make the list has often been contentious. In 2013, the Supreme Court (SC) ruled that national and regional parties could also run in the party lists, potentially squeezing out those for whom the seats had been originally intended. Resolving these disputes is the task of the Commission on Elections, which also tackles other electoral issues.

The Senate is composed of 24 senators, elected in two batches for single, six-year terms, meaning that half are elected every three years. The country is treated as a single constituency, with the 12 candidates receiving the highest number of votes nationwide elected. Both houses have similar powers, and both their consent is necessary before a bill can be passed to the president to be signed into law. A series of congressional committees also scrutinises bills between the first and second legislative readings.

Political Parties

The last elections to the House, held in May 2013, saw the Liberal Party (LP) emerge as the largest grouping, led by Feliciano Belmonte Jr. The LP won 111 seats from the districts, while second place went to the conservative Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), with 42 seats. In the party list section, the largest group was the Buhay Hayaan Yumabong – an offshoot of the Catholic charismatic group, El Shaddai. With 147 seats needed for a majority, the LP had campaigned within a coalition, known as “Team PN oy”, capitalising on the popularity of the LP-affiliated President Aquino.

As of late 2014, the LP headed the majority bloc in the House, which included the NPC and the third-placed National Unity Party of Elpidio Barzaga and most of the fourth-placed Nacionalista Party (NP) of Manny Villar. Four other national parties and several local ones, along with four independents, were also in the bloc. Four representatives from the NP sat in the minority bloc, along with one LP member. This was widely regarded as demonstrating the weak hold that party affiliation generally has over Filipino politicians. Indeed, most groupings tend to be the vehicles of particular personalities and their families. The next elections are scheduled for May 9, 2016.

In the Senate, meanwhile, the NP emerged the largest grouping after May 2013 balloting, with five seats. The LP is second, with four, and Lakas – the unusually multi-denominational Christian Muslim Democrats – with two. A total of 12 senators’ seats will also be up for election again on May 9, 2016.

Judicial Powers

The highest court in the country is the SC, which acts as the court of final appeal and can conduct judicial reviews on laws to determine their constitutionality. In recent times, this has often become a cause of friction between the justices and Malacanang – the presidential palace. Meanwhile, the legal hierarchy under the SC runs through the Court of Appeals and Court of Tax Appeals and the Sandiganbayan, a court that investigates governmental irregularities. In addition to this, there are regional trial courts with branches in each province.

Local Authorities

There are 81 provinces, grouped into 17 regions. This latter number includes the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which is the only region to have its own government. The provinces are also subdivided into cities and municipalities, with those classed as “component” coming under the remit of provincial authorities, while those classified “highly urbanised” or “independent component” have their own administration. In 2014, there were some 38 such entities across the country.

The lowest-level unit is the barangay, or neighbourhood, with 42,028 of these registered in 2012. All these levels have elected representatives in local government, with three-year terms. Provinces also hold elections for the post of governor, and cities and municipalities for mayor. In 2016, elections all the way to barangay level are also being held.


With Ninoy still enjoying wide popularity as of late 2014, speculation remained rife that he might seek to pass a constitutional amendment removing the bar on serving more than one presidential term, as well as to restrict the powers of the SC. Both moves are likely to be strongly resisted, with a considerable degree of wariness among many Filipinos of presidents taking on too much executive power. However, many believe that the six-year term limit makes for short-term thinking, and there is a widespread tendency to consider a president a “lame duck” in the final portion of their term.

The next year is likely to see other potential candidates stake out their positions in advance of the 2016 elections. Meanwhile, hopes remain high that the accord with the MILF will hold and that tensions with China will decrease. In the longer term, the domination of politics by a number of powerful families may also come under more scrutiny by voters as the country gradually becomes wealthier, although greater political pluralism might require a higher degree of economic devolution as well. For the year ahead, in any case, the country will be banging the drums and waving the flags for what promises to be both a vibrant – and extensive – election hustings.


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