A diverse country with an intriguing history, the Philippines today is a multi-party, democratic republic, open to foreign investment, and integrated within the regional and international political and economic community. The presidency of Benigno S Aquino III, begun in 2010, has seen continued economic growth and some important breakthroughs in long-standing local conflicts. Mid-term elections were held for both houses of the legislature in 2013, along with gubernatorial and local ballots and elections in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Overall, the position of the Aquino’s party and its allies was largely strengthened.

The Philippines still faces considerable political challenges, ranging from resolving international disputes over territorial boundaries to finding permanent solutions to ongoing internal armed conflicts. Yet progress is evident in many of the initiatives of the current government, and in the growing depth of commitment to pluralistic and more inclusive patterns of behaviour demonstrated by recent reforms.

KINGDOMS & COLONISATION: Discoveries made in 2007 date the first human arrivals in the archipelago now known as the Philippines to around 67,000 years ago. Over the following millennia, a series of different kingdoms and cultures grew up across the 7107 islands now within the boundaries of the republic. Some of the more significant were the Rajahnates of Cebu and Butuan (in Mindanao), the kingdom of Tondo (around modern day Manila), the confederation of Madja-as (in the Visayas) and the sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao. In addition, there were many barangays, or small kingdoms, each led by its own king, or datu.

Spanish colonisation began under Miguel López de Legazpi in 1565, starting in Cebu, with Manila captured in 1571. The colonisers brought with them Christianity – today still the professed faith of around 90% of the local population – along with a connection to one of the world’s first truly global empires.

The archipelago, then known as the Spanish East Indies, was run by Spain until 1898. Two years before that, in 1896, the Filipinos launched a fight for independence, ejecting the Spanish from their country after three centuries of colonial rule. Independence was declared on June 12, 1898.

FIGHT FOR INDEPENDENCE: This was achieved with support from the US – an alliance which turned sour, however, when post-independence international treaties transferred the Philippines to American control. There then followed the Philippine-American War, which continued until 1902, a year after the capture of the Filipino leader and president of the first republic, Emilio Aguinaldo.

US colonial rule was relatively short lived, however. In 1907, an elected assembly was established, with commonwealth status granted by Washington in 1935. That same year, a constitution for the new state was drawn up, Manuel L Quezon was elected president and a date of 1946 was set for independence. This plan was, however, interrupted in 1942 by the outbreak of the Second World War in the Pacific. The Philippines was invaded by Japan, which set up a second republic, led by President Jose P Laurel. In 1944 the country was reconquered by the US, with the fighting leaving much of Manila and other cities in ruins. Independence was, however, still granted on July 4, 1946.

INTERNAL TURMOIL: The first president of the new, third republic, which was governed by the 1935 constitution, was Manuel Roxas. In 1948 he was succeeded by Elpidio Quirino, who went on to rule until 1953. The new country faced major economic challenges in the aftermath of the war and a communist insurgency. This was finally defeated by 1954, by which time Ramon Magsaysay was president. Magsaysay was succeeded by Carlos P Garcia, who was in office from 1957 to 1961, then Diosdado Macapagal, whose administration lasted from 1961 to 1965.

Macapagal was defeated at the ballot box by Ferdinand Marcos, who faced a wave of insurgencies, with the communist New People’s Army (NPA) beginning a campaign in Luzon in 1969, while the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) began fighting for an independent Muslim region in Mindanao the same year. Continuing instability then led to Marcos declaring martial law in 1972. The following year, a new constitution went into effect, shifting to a more parliamentary-style system and marking the beginning of the fourth republic. However, Marcos continued to rule under martial law, a provision not lifted until 1981.

In 1983, returning exiled opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr was assassinated at Manila airport. This led to growing international and domestic pressure on Marcos and an election in 1986. Widespread allegations of fraud at the ballot box led to mass popular demonstrations, with Marcos’s defeat sealed when General Fidel V Ramos and Juan Ponce Enrile, the defence minister, sided with the demonstrators. These events centred on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue in Manila, leading to the events becoming known as EDSA. In the face of the People Power Revolution, as it was also called, Marcos fled to the US and Corazon Aquino, wife of the assassinated opposition leader, subsequently became the country’s 11th president.

NEW BEGINNINGS: The new constitution that emerged in 1987 and established the fifth republic removed many of the powers held by the head of state. A shift back to presidential and congressional politics was also made. Aquino was succeeded by General Ramos in 1992, with a peace deal made with the MNLF in 1996. Yet a splinter group of the MNLF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), continued the insurgency.

Joseph Estrada succeeded Ramos to become the next president in 1998, with his administration seeing an escalation of the MILF conflict and allegations of corruption. Eventually, more mass protests, known as EDSA II, led to Estrada’s resignation in 2001.

He was succeeded by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the daughter of former President Macapagal, who remained in office until 2010. That year saw the election of Aquino III, Corazon Aquino’s son and the current president. The next presidential election is set for May 9, 2016.

CONSTITUTIONAL RULE: Despite several attempts in recent years to achieve charter change (sometimes referred to in the local media as “cha-cha”), the Philippine political system is still governed by the 1987 constitution. This bears some strong similarities to the US political system. The president is thus the head of state, head of the government and commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces. As the chief executive, he or she makes appointments to the Cabinet, which then constitutes the government. These appointments are subject to approval by a congressional body, the Commission on Appointments. The president also makes recommendations to this body on the appointment of ambassadors, members of constitutional commissions, military officers from the rank of colonel upwards and members of the Supreme Court, on the recommendation of the Judicial and Bar Council.

The Office of the President has certain institutions directly under it, such as the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority. In addition, the president may also issue executive and administrative orders, which are directives aimed at streamlining the implementation of policy – and which have also been at times controversial. The president is elected directly by popular vote for a single, six-year term. The vice-president is also elected directly for a six-year term, although he or she has the possibility of one re-election bid.

The Cabinet consists of the heads of 19 government departments along with various other officers. These include the representatives of offices with Cabinet-level rank, such as the National Economic and Development Authority, the National Security Council and other office chiefs (as of 2012) whose duties are of national importance. The president may create more departments and posts, or abolish them, as he or she sees fit. The president also holds a veto on legislation passed by Congress.

LEGISLATIVE POWERS: The Philippines has a bicameral legislature, the Congress, which consists of the Senate and House of Representatives. The assent of the House must be obtained for a bill to become law, while the lower chamber has the power to impeach certain officials, can overturn a presidential veto with a two-thirds vote, and can initiate legislation concerning taxation and government spending.

In keeping with its American model, congressional committees are also a major part of the legislative process, providing oversight of government departments and policy, as well as initial scrutiny of proposed laws. A bill must pass both chambers and receive the president’s approval before it can become law.

The Senate consists of 24 members, who are elected by a plurality-at-large voting system, which treats the whole country as one constituency. Half the members are voted in every three years, for six-year terms. The Senate must approve legislation for it to become law, while it also has to ratify treaties and try impeachment cases.

The Senate is led by a president, currently Franklin Drilon. After the 2013 elections, the three largest parties in the Senate are the Nacionalista Party (NP) and United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), each with five seats, followed by the Liberal Party (LP) – the party of the current president – with four.

The House, meanwhile, is led by a speaker – at present Feliciano Belmonte Jr – with 292 members, elected according to a first-past-the-post system, with almost all of them from legislative districts and a maximum of 20% from party lists.

Voters have two votes, one for the district in which they live, and one for the party list. The latter is made up of candidates from different sectors or ethnic groups, with the whole country counted as one constituency.

PARTIES & COALITIONS: The 2013 election saw 234 representatives elected from the districts, with the LP winning the most seats at 110, up 18 from the previous vote. The LP campaigned in coalition with four other parties, collectively known as “Team PN oy”, for a combined representation of 113 seats. Other parties that won a significant number of seats included the conservative Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC), with 42 seats, and the National Unity Party (NUP), with 25. The NP took 19 seats, the People Power-Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD) won 14 and the UNA 10 seats. The UNA also fought the election as a coalition with five other parties, gaining a combined block of 10 seats. The NUP, NP, Lakas-CMD and UNA all lost representatives compared to their previous standing. The remaining seats were divided between some local parties, many of them regional or district-based, with six seats going to independents.

In many cases, parties are centred around their leaders and their families, with disputes often leading to splits and the formation of new parties. Allegiances are fluid, with candidates and coalitions often changing.

THIRD ESTATE: The country’s highest court is the Supreme Court, headed by a chief justice – currently Maria Lourdes PA Sereno – who serves along with 14 associate justices. The judges hear cases of constitutional, presidential and political import, while separating into smaller divisions to hear other cases. Of the latter, the majority are appeals from the lower courts.

Immediately below the Supreme Court are the Court of Appeals and the Court of Tax Appeals, along with the Sandiganbayan, a special court set up to try graft and corruption cases against public servants. Below this level are the regional trial courts and special sharia (Islamic law) district courts that operate in autonomous Muslim areas. Under the regional courts come metropolitan and municipal trial and circuit courts, and under the sharia district courts come sharia circuit courts.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT: The Philippines divides into regions for administrative purposes, but only the ARMM has any political power.

The ARMM has a regional governor and vice-governor, elected directly, along with an elected 24-member assembly. In the 2013 elections, Mujiv Hataman, backed by Team PN oy, was elected governor. Changes may be on the horizon for the ARMM, however, due to ongoing negotiations with the MILF.

Elsewhere, the main largest political unit in local government is the province. These have governors and elected provincial assemblies known as boards. Large cities within provinces have their own authorities as well, with elected mayors and city councils.

Cities and municipalities further subdivide into barangays, which are the smallest political entities. For administrative purposes, they may sometimes be further subdivided into sitios and puroks.

Funding for local government is largely dependent on the central government’s Internal Revenue Allotment, although property taxes and other sources of local revenue may also be tapped.

CLASHES & PEACE DEALS: The current administration has achieved some important success in ending decades of conflict in Mindanao, with negotiations over the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro (FAB) – a comprehensive peace deal with the MILF – making good progress in mid-2013.

Clashes with the NPA continue, however, in the more remote parts of the island of Luzon, while security is also an increasing foreign policy concern, given disputes with China over territorial waters in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

Domestically, debate is ongoing on constitutional change, efforts to combat graft, agrarian reform, and the strength of political dynasties and families within the system, in particular. While economic growth continues to boost confidence and living standards, the distribution of benefits from this is also a major source of concern for many Filipinos. As the 2016 election nears, debate over the next presidency is set to heighten.

TYPHOON HAIYAN: On November 8, 2013, the Philippines was hit by the strongest storm to make landfall ever recorded. Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Typhoon Yolanda, hurled winds of up to 380 km per hour (105 metres per second) at the central islands of Samar and Leyte, ploughing straight through the provincial capital of Tacloban. Haiyan also sent a storm surge of up to seven metres crashing against these low-lying coasts, creating a tsunami-like effect.

The result was a major humanitarian disaster. As of November 26, the official death toll stood at 5240, with 1613 missing, while over 4.2m people had been displaced and 347,426 were living in shelters.

The storm thus poses some major political and economic challenges for the country. On the economic side, fortunately, the typhoon passed south of the country’s main economic centres.

However, as a report from Capital Economics pointed out, the region affected still accounted for around 18% of GDP, meaning that some impact on annual growth is still highly likely. As a result Barclays reduced its annual forecast for GDP growth in 2013 from 7.2% to 6.8%, while JPM organ Chase brought its estimate down from 7.1% to 6.9%.

The government’s initial estimate of the damage, at around $559m, is supplemented by an additional $ 6bn7bn in longer-term rebuilding and reconstruction costs. The disaster also highlighted the need for transport infrastructure development in the region, as aid efforts were severely hampered by poor road, air and sea links. Disasters are often followed by a surge in economic activity, provided the reconstruction effort is properly organised and financed. Typhoons also typically lead to an increase in remittances from Filipinos overseas, along with donations from international charities.

The political implications may be less easily quantified, however. While a storm of this magnitude would have been difficult for any country to manage (the typhoon was more powerful than Hurricane Katrina, for instance), questions are naturally being asked as to whether more could have been done in advance and whether enough was done subsequently.

To tackle concerns over corruption in aid distribution, President Aquino has reassured donors that only three agencies will handle all relief funds, with these given high-level oversight by senior state ministers. At the same time, the disaster highlighted political bottlenecks between local and national authorities, with communications between the two often poor.

It is also possible that the storm will leave in its wake permanently displaced communities – as occurred after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It may not be practical to rebuild communities devastated and even now underwater. The central region of Leyte and Samar may also need to be classed as an emergency zone for up to 18 months, according to relief agencies.

One hopeful sign though is that the typhoon also led to a ceasefire with communist rebels in the region. Some recall that in 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami helped lead to a political solution to conflict in Indonesia’s Aceh province. Perhaps then, this tragic disaster too may have a silver lining.

OUTLOOK: The challenges thus remain significant, although the country is now experiencing a renewed optimism and greater stability than it has seen for many years. This has been achieved under a president who has maintained a high degree of trust and public support. Elected on promises of change, President Aquino has set the bar high – with the next half of his presidency likely to see more moves to address the long-term challenges of his diverse and dynamic country.