After across-the-board elections in 2010, the Philippines entered the second decade of the 21st century with some optimism that the new president and Congress, not to mention a range of new local leaders, would move to tackle a number of tough political challenges facing the country.

These challenges include security concerns, corruption issues, and structural economic and political reforms – a difficult agenda for any country to face, especially at a time of global economic downturn. Nearly two years since the inauguration of President Benigno Aquino III, there is progress to report on all these fronts, though more still needs to be done.

Setting a structure for this agenda is the Philippine Development Plan 2011-16, the progress of which will likely determine the shape of domestic politics for some time to come. The plan stresses the need for inclusive growth as the fundamental goal of economic development and the mechanism for achieving it. The strategy also highlights the importance of good governance and the rule of law, social development, and peace and security.

At the same time, on an international level, the Philippines has continued to see its membership of multilateral bodies, principally ASEAN, as platforms for progress, while also strengthening its ties with old allies, such as the US and Japan. The country has also been continuing to orientate itself toward the world’s new rising giant, China.

A MULTI-STRAND DEMOCRACY: Some 7107 islands make up the Philippine archipelago, which is dominated by the 11 largest landmasses. The biggest of these is Luzon, in the north, followed by Mindanao in the south. Historically, this whole cluster of islands was home to a collection of small maritime states, with those in the south, such as Sulu and Maguindanao, being Muslim sultanates, while others in the north and centre, including Butuan and Cebu, were Hindu rajahdoms. Other islands pursued their own, local religions, as the archipelago was additionally home to a number of different linguistic and ethnic groups. This cultural diversity has endured over time and is, in fact, still evident in the political make-up of the present-day republic.

In 1521, Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan – who was working in the service of the Spanish king – arrived off of the island of Samar and changed the archipelago’s history. Indeed, by 1565, the first permanent Spanish settlement had been established at San Miguel on Cebu, by Miguel López de Legazpi. The Spanish then went on to colonise the whole of what they named Las Islas Filipinas to honour King Philip II of Spain, ruling what is now known as the Philippines until 1898, when Filipino nationalists launched a rebellion that was supported by the US. Once the Spanish had been expelled, the US moved to occupy the Philippines, leading to a second, bloodier conflict, which lasted until 1913. The US declared the Philippines a commonwealth in 1935, writing a constitution for the country.

GOVERNING REPUBLICS: In 1941, when the Second World War broke out in the Pacific, the Philippines was occupied by Japan, before being retaken, largely by US forces, in 1945. A year later the Treaty of Manila was signed, granting the country independence. The treaty signatory for the Republic of the Philippines was the first president, Manuel Roxas. He became the first of five presidents under what is known as the Third Republic, which operated under the constitution of 1935.

In 1965 Ferdinand Marcos took over and in 1972 declared martial law. Marcos then introduced the 1973 constitution, switching to a parliamentary model – the Fourth Republic – but continued to rule as de-facto dictator. Martial law was lifted in 1981, although the Marcos regime continued to implement repressive political laws.

The major opposition figure of the time, Benigno Aquino Jr – the father of the current president – was assassinated on his return to the Philippines from exile in 1983. This event coalesced the opposition behind his wife, the current president’s mother, Corazon Aquino. She ran against Marcos in the 1986 presidential election, a ballot which declared Marcos the winner but was widely seen as fraudulent.

This sparked the EDSA Revolution, in which thousands of Filipinos turned out to protest against the result, occupying Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) in Manila, and eventually forcing Marcos out of power. Corazon Aquino thus became the first president of the Fifth Republic, with a new, presidential-style constitution enacted in 1987. The legacy of EDSA endures, and the revolution is still a major symbol in Filipino political culture today.

Corazon Aquino was succeeded in 1992 by Fidel V Ramos, who held office until 1998, when former film actor Joseph Estrada took over. Estrada was succeeded in 2001 by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, following large street demonstrations known as “EDSA II”. Arroyo, formerly Estrada’s vice-president, stayed in office until 2010, when the current incumbent, Benigno Aquino III, won the elections in May of that year, in the first ballot held using computerised electronic voting. The Philippines and its modern political culture have thus been shaped by both the US and Spanish periods, as well as by the experiences of the post-independence era.

While much of the political and economic system owes its form to the US – and the Catholic religion remains the most obvious inheritance from the Spanish – the country also retains a strong political culture of its own, founded on its indigenous social structure and ways of doing business. Today, the Philippines thus has a vibrant political scene, a host of viewpoints and a lively debate on the way forward.

EXECUTIVE POWERS: As in the US system, the Philippine head of state, supreme executive and commander-in-chief of the armed forces is the president. This office has been held since June 2010 by Benigno Aquino III, of the Liberal Party. Presidents hold office for a single six-year term. The president appoints a cabinet, which forms the government of which he or she is head.

Often referred to as Malacañang, the name of the presidential palace, the presidency has wide-ranging powers of appointment, as well as supreme executive power. The vice-president, who is first in line of succession, is also elected for a six-year term at the same time as the president. The current office holder is Jejomar Binay of the Philippine Democratic Party-People’s Power (PDP-LABAN).

The president must appoint as heads of ministries – known as secretaries of departments, after the US model – people who do not hold office in the legislature, as part of the separation of powers. Although the president cannot normally introduce bills to Congress, he or she does hold veto power over laws passed by the legislature. This veto can be overturned by a two-thirds majority in Congress. The presidential veto is ordinarily limited to a package veto, rather than a partial veto, but these rules are different when it comes to budgets and tax measures, to which partial vetoes can be applied.

The president may also introduce a budget to Congress, which parliament does not have complete freedom to amend. The office of the presidency thus has considerable financial powers, with the president able to control day-to-day release of funds via the Department of Budget and Management. The president may also issue executive orders, under the authority of various statutes.

NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE AUTHORITY: The bicameral legislature – the Congress – is, again, modelled on that of the US, with a lower chamber known as the House of Representatives and an upper chamber known as the Senate.

The House of Representatives has 270 members, led by the speaker, who is currently Feliciano Belmonte Jr. Members are elected for three-year terms and can be re-elected for up to three consecutive terms. Of the 270 seats, 229 are assigned to legislative districts while the remainder go to members elected to represent particular sectoral interests, such as labour, indigenous communities, agricultural workers and other important social groups. The latter are elected via a vote for a party list, rather than for an individual candidate, with the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) responsible for supervising which parties and nominees for the lists are acceptable, a process that has not been without controversy. Presidential and Congressional ballots are both supervised by COMELEC. District representatives, meanwhile, are elected by direct vote, from districts of at least 250,000 voters, although all provinces must have a minimum of one electoral district even if their population is less than that.

The House of Representatives, also referred to as the Batasan after the building in which it is based, has the power to initiate bills, which if approved by a simple majority pass to the Senate. The House may also initiate impeachment proceedings against the president, and through its representatives on the Commission of Appointments, can confirm or reject presidential appointments.

The membership of the Senate, meanwhile, consists of a total of 24 senators who serve terms of six years, with half of the group contesting their seats every three years. The senators are elected at-large, meaning that the whole country is effectively one constituency, with the 12 candidates that get the highest number of votes winning seats in the chamber. The upper chamber elects a president, a position that is currently filled by Juan Ponce Enrile of the Force of the Philippine Masses (PMP) party, and also has both majority and minority leaders.

Much of the Senate’s work – as in the House of Representatives – is carried out via committee, with a structure similar to that of the US Congress. Committees exercise oversight of government activity and examine bills proposed by the respective chambers of Congress. In addition, the Senate has the power to propose bills, which, if passed, then go to the House of Representatives for its approval. All bills are in addition subject to presidential veto, which, if exercised, can be overturned by a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress.

THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM: Like the other two branches of government, the judiciary of the Philippines is largely based on that of the US. The highest judicial body in the country is the Supreme Court, which is headed by the chief justice along with 14 associate justices. All positions on the court are filled by presidential appointment, on the recommendation of the Judicial and Bar Council.

The Supreme Court has both judicial and administrative functions, the latter being the running of the Philippine courts and implementation of the rules and regulations governing members of both the judiciary and the legal profession as a whole. Its judicial function is that of the power of review, being the last court of appeals and the apex of the country’s court system. This system consists of metropolitan and municipal trial courts and municipal circuit trial courts at its lowest level.

Above these courts are regional trial courts, of which there are 12, with courts of appeal above these. At the same level as the court of appeals is the court of tax appeals, and a special body known by its Tagalog title as the Sandiganbayan. This latter institution is a special court set up to try cases of graft and corruption committed by public servants, including employees of state-linked companies.

There is also a parallel system of sharia courts, with jurisdiction over Muslims. This system involves sharia circuit courts at the lowest level and sharia district courts at the level of the regional trial courts.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT: The Philippines is divided into a number of local government units (LGUs) of differing size and authority. Possessing the most authority are the autonomous regions, of which there is currently only one – Muslim Mindanao. This region is led by a regional governor and has a regional legislative assembly. A similar LGU exists in the Cordillera administrative region in the north of the country, although it is slightly less autonomous.

Next come the provinces, of which there are 80 at present, grouped into 17 regions. In each province, a provincial governor is the executive, with a provincial board acting as the legislature. At the next level down are the cities, each headed by a mayor with its own legislature, and the municipalities, similarly organised. These two are then subdivided into barangays, or districts, each headed by a barangay captain, with its own local council.

A great deal of power and authority is still in the hands of the central authorities, however, with this one of the issues often raised in debates over the 1987 constitution, or charter. Indeed, there has been a debate on charter change, or “cha-cha”, almost since the constitution’s enactment. Other issues include the relative strengths of the presidency and the Congress, the terms of office, the use of executive orders, and budgetary and financial powers. This debate is almost certain to continue in 2012.

OUTLOOK: Coming into office on a strong anti-corruption ticket, the new administration has moved to strengthen the process of fighting graft, changing the guard at the anti-corruption commission and continuing a high-profile case against the former president. Such work is always difficult, with allegations of political favouritism widespread. Nevertheless, a more robust approach to this thorny issue has been widely welcomed. In addition, the Philippines also faces internal security threats that the presidency is working hard to address. These will likely continue to be on the agenda for the near future, yet the Aquino administration undoubtedly has a significant amount of popular support for its efforts to find solutions to these difficult and sensitive issues. The year ahead therefore looks set to be a busy one for the administration and Congress, with much to be done – and much to gain in the process.