Elections in June 2016 saw President Rodrigo Duterte assume his six-year term as the 16th president of the Republic of the Philippines. President Duterte, who served for seven terms and over 22 years as mayor of Davao City on the island of Mindanao, won the May 2016 elections by a wide margin, ushering in a period of widespread change through the executive and legislative branches of government for the 106.5m-strong country.
The administration of former President Benigno Aquino III had implemented changes that saw the Philippines become the fastest-growing economy in Asia as of the end of 2016, eclipsing even China. Sovereign credit rating upgrades, a continuous campaign to promote transparency and robust economic performance elevated the Philippines to a diplomatic, political and economic stature it had not enjoyed for decades, ridding it of its nickname as the “sick man of Asia”.
Building on the gains of Aquino III’s term, President Duterte has looked to stimulate inclusive growth and accelerate rural development, though despite recent economic expansion, stubbornly high poverty rates are still an issue.
Perhaps one of the most notable changes in policy involves President Duterte’s cultivation of warmer ties with China and Russia, and the cooling of relations with the country’s former colonial power and historic economic ally, the US.
On the domestic front, President Duterte’s most visible, and controversial, campaign has been centred on cracking down on illegal substances and crime. These efforts have led to mass surrenders but have also prompted concerns over human rights violations from both local and global rights organisations. Controversy aside, the administration maintains its high approval rating and popularity.
Moving forward, the government will face a number of challenges as it seeks to deliver on campaign promises, which include achieving peace and ruleof-law in Mindanao, eliminating corruption within the government, and accelerating infrastructure development to support current and future growth.
Archaeological findings suggest Philippine history could have originated as early as 67,000 years ago based on the carbon dating of its oldest known relic. The discovery of ancient human remains in the Tabon Caves of Palawan also suggest that the islands were inhabited some 47,000 years ago. However, the first permanent settlers of the archipelago were Australoid-Melanesian settlers, who arrived from mainland South-east Asia in small migrations some 30,000 years ago.
These aboriginal pygmy groups are hypothesised to have crossed through existing land bridges from Borneo, Sumatra and Malaya, and can still be found in many parts of the archipelago. Subsequent migrations of proto-Malay and Malay peoples took place over thousands of years by sea, driven particularly by Malayan culture, which maintained consistent occupation of the archipelago.
Prior to colonisation by the Spanish, there was little written history. The earliest written document from the Philippines, the Laguna Copperplate Inscription, dates to only 900 CE. This artefact, however, widely suggests trading and cultural links between the Kingdom of Tondo, which gained control of much of Luzon by 1500 and was ultimately challenged by the Bruneian Empire, the Javanese and Malay kingdoms, and the Song Dynasty in China. In those early centuries, chiefdoms, known as barangays, formed larger groupings under rajahs across Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.
Islam was brought to the southern part of the Philippines in 1380 by Arab traders from Malay and Borneo, leading to the founding of the Sultanate of Sulu in 1405. Encompassing the islands of the Sulu Sea, parts of Mindanao and parts of Borneo, the sultanate grew to become the largest Islamic kingdom in the archipelago at that time. While the sultanate relinquished political power during the US occupation, it continues to be a source of tensions with Malaysia, which reignited in 2013 when descendants of the sultanate’s founders staged an armed intervention in Sabah, resulting in 27 deaths.
Colonialism in the Philippines began in earnest with the arrival of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who headed an initial Spanish expedition that landed in Leyte in 1521. Successive Spanish expeditions followed, including one by Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, who in 1543 named the archipelago Las Islas Filipinas after King Philip II, and then Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565, who conquered Cebu and established the first Spanish settlement. Starting from Cebu, Spanish conquest followed until Manila was captured in 1570. In tandem with the expanding colonial presence of the Spanish, Catholicism also spread.
The Philippines remained part of the Spanish empire until the late 19th century. During that period, Spain’s Manila Galleon trading ships linked the country to one of the world’s first truly global empires and international commerce routes for two and half centuries. As a result, a largely intra-island economy became connected across the Pacific to Latin America and beyond. The Spanish also introduced a centralised administrative system, along with modern social and economic infrastructure, while the galleon trade positioned the Philippines as the most important centre of trade in Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Rising revolutionary sentiments erupted in the Philippine revolution in 1896, with Emilio Aguinaldo leading forces in the latter part of it, as well as during the Spanish-American War. After a series of victories against the Spanish, Aguinaldo declared the nation’s independence in 1898. However, the end of the Spanish-American War that year saw the Treaty of Paris signed on December 10. This involved Spain relinquishing most of its remaining empire and ceding the Philippines to the US. While the First Philippine Republic was established by Aguinaldo’s revolutionary government in January 1899, war broke out with the US, ending two years later with Aguinaldo’s capture and the eventual defeat of the Philippine resistance movement.
Though US colonial rule came to a close in 1946, the transition 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 and won by Manuel Quezon. Shortly after the Second World War broke out, however, and the Philippines was invaded and occupied by Japan. Presidential elections for an independent country would not be held again until 1946.
Behind the Polish city of Warsaw, Manila was the world’s second-most devastated allied city during the Second World War. Due to the degree of destruction experienced during the occupation and ensuing battle for liberation, the US, which retained military bases in the Philippines, assisted extensively in the rebuilding efforts.
This aid was provided within the provisions of the Bell Trade Act of 1946, which defined Philippine-US trade relations by prohibiting competition with US firms, giving US citizens and corporations parity with those of the Philippines in terms of economic rights and banning 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, which ultimately benefitted manufacturing and later the financial sector in the 1960s.
In 1965 Ferdinand Marcos defeated the incumbent, and his former party-mate, Diosdado Macapagal, to become the 10th president of the Philippines. In the early stages of his administration, Marcos pursued ambitious infrastructure projects, stimulated export-oriented industries and encouraged economic policies that got him re-elected in 1969.
That same year saw the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which initiated an armed struggle for the independence of the island of Mindanao, and the establishment of the Maoist-inspired New People’s Army, the militarised wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
As internal conflict intensified, Marcos began his second term facing simultaneous insurrections, while opposition politicians attempted to block his policies in Manila. In 1972 Marcos responded by declaring martial law, effectively curtailing civil liberties, abolishing Congress and expediting a new constitution the following year, which allowed him to stay in power beyond 1973.
A New Dawn
Martial law was lifted in 1981, paving the way for presidential elections. However, the boycott by opposition parties over electoral fraud concerns placed Marcos in an election without any genuine candidates and an inevitable landslide victory. In 1983 opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr, who had faced imprisonment in the immediate aftermath of military rule, was assassinated at a Manila airport after being invited back from exile.
These events, combined with another election that was perceived as fraudulent, roused political opposition among the populace, resulting in the 1986 People Power Revolution. This in turn led to the deposition of Marcos, who was sent into exile in Hawaii. Declared the winner of the 1986 elections, Aquino’s widow, Corazon, assumed power, and a new constitution was drawn up and enacted in 1987.
Due largely to experiences in the Marcos years, the new constitution severely limited presidential powers while re-establishing a bicameral Congress and proposing the establishment of two autonomous regions: Mindanao and the Cordilleras. Under Aquino, whose term survived several attempted coups and high levels of domestic political instability, the US also withdrew from its military bases.
In 1992 Aquino was succeeded by Fidel Ramos, a hero of the People Power Revolution, followed by former film actor and Ramos administration vice-president Joseph Estrada, who won the presidential elections in 1998. His stint as leader came to an abrupt end in 2001, however, following protests over corruption allegations that led to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, daughter of the late President Macapagal and also the Estrada administration vice-president, taking over. Re-elected in 2004, she was later succeeded by President Aquino III in 2010, whose term ended in 2016.
From its founding in 1969, the MNLF has been the Philippines’ largest Islamic separatist group, engaging in armed hostilities with the government through the early 1970s. Despite a 1976 peace agreement between the MNLF and the Philippine government, allowing for the eventual creation of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), in 1989 hostilities flared up with smaller individual groups. A faction of the MNLF split off to form the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which began its own insurgency in Mindanao. In 2014 the splinter group signed a peace deal with the Philippine government that promised self-rule and enhanced autonomy under a Bangsamoro region, meant to replace the ARMM.
To this end, the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) was deliberated upon during the 16th Congress of the Philippines, with a first reading taking place in September 2014. If promulgated, the law would have provided the structure to create a government for an autonomous Bangsamoro region; however, it was derailed in the Senate following public outcry after the 2015 deadly clash between MNLF forces and the Philippine National Police in Mamasapano, which ended with 44 police casualties.
President Duterte’s administration has pushed to revive the BBL by establishing a Bangsamoro Transition Commission to draft a revised law to be sent to Congress. However, recent actions from more violent splinter factions, including Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Maute Group, have further complicated the popularity and progress of the peace process.
On the foreign policy front, President Duterte has actively sought warmer ties with China while criticising the policies of his nation’s long-time ally, the US, although this stance has softened somewhat since the administration of President Donald Trump took office in 2017.
In July 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines in a three-year dispute over territory in the South China Sea by declaring that China had no legal basis to claim historic rights to resources falling within the “nine-dash line”. Although the Chinese government has failed to recognise the decision, economic cooperation between the two countries has expanded. It should be noted that this relationship remains vulnerable to China’s territorial ambitions and growing tensions with the US over the South China Sea.
Head of State
The president is head of state and government in the Philippines. This person is elected for a single six-year term in a nationwide, first-pastthe-post ballot. Candidates must be natural-born citizens and have lived in the country for at least 10 years before standing for the post.
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 a situation under President Duterte where the vice-president, Maria Leonor Robredo, is also a leader of the main opposition party.
Strained ties between the two became quickly apparent when Robredo resigned from her Cabinet position as chairperson of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) after receiving instructions to desist from attending all Cabinet meetings. While she is still technically number two in government, this means she has no specific role to perform in the Cabinet. Tensions have since escalated and Robredo has become a leading voice in the political opposition, and in particular, against the ongoing war on drugs.
In addition, the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and has the power to propose the annual national budget and appointment officials, including members of the Supreme Court. The president may also veto a bill after it has been passed by Congress, sending it back to the lower chamber, where a two-thirds majority vote is necessary to overturn the veto. Several important agencies also come directly under the presidency, including the HUDCC and the National Anti-Poverty Commission, key bodies aimed at boosting economic inclusivity.
The bicameral Congress consists of an upper house (the Senate) and a lower house (the House of Representatives). There are 24 senators in the Senate and each is elected for sixyear terms, serving no more than two consecutive terms. Half of the Senate is elected every three years according to a plurality-at-large voting system whereby the whole country is considered one constituency. The Senate then elects a Senate president, which is currently held by Senator Vicente Castelo Sotto III. In 2019, 12 seats will be up for election.
As in the US, every bill must be passed by both the Senate and the House, then signed by the president before becoming law. The Senate also has the power, via a two-thirds majority vote, to cancel any international treaty signed by the president, or to impeach a government official. Former presidents Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino III were all senators before being elected to higher office.
President Duterte has proposed far-reaching constitutional changes that would install a federal government, allowing for the dissemination of decision-making powers from the central government to the regional administrations, while also increasing presidential term limits. This reform was a part of the president’s election campaign platform aimed at increasing economic growth outside of the National Capital Region and boosting development in rural areas (see Regions chapter).
The House of Representatives has 297 seats, with 238 elected from geographical districts and 59 from party lists. Representatives are elected for three-year terms and may not serve more than three consecutive terms. All seats are up for election in May 2019. Representatives are elected from districts of a similar size – roughly 250,000 inhabitants – although there has been no reapportionment since the 1987 census, leading to attempts to re-district 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.
The House of Representatives must also approve a bill for it to pass into law. If approval is given, the bill passes to the Senate, 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 of Representatives is the only chamber where a motion to impeach the president, or indeed any official, may be initiated, but only the Senate has the power to try government officials.
However, plans for constitutional changes to install a federal government could alter the shape of the legislature in the future, with proposals set out in early 2018 suggesting the introduction of a parliamentary-style system comprised of a Federal Assembly with the powers to craft legislation and a Senate with powers of review. As of yet, however, no decisions have been made.
The Supreme Court is the highest court as well as the court of last appeal. 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 mandated to retire at the age of 70. Under the Supreme Court are the Court of Appeals and the Court of Tax Appeals, along with the Sandibangbayan (people’s advocate) – a collegial court that reviews allegations of government irregularities. At the lower level, regional trial courts in each administrative region form the backbone of the system.
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