President Rodrigo Duterte assumed his six-year term as the 16th president of the Republic of the Philippines on June 30, 2016. A last minute candidate, Rodrigo Duterte won the May 2016 elections by a wide margin to become the first president from Mindanao, the country’s southernmost and second-largest island. Elections not only brought about a new leader for the 101m-strong country but widespread change through the executive and legislative branches of government at the national and local level.

The administration of Duterte’s predecessor, former President Benigno Aquino III, was marked by sovereign credit rating upgrades, a continuous campaign to promote transparency and a robust economic performance that placed the Philippines as the fastest growing economy in Asia at the end of 2016, eclipsing even China. These improvements elevated the Philippines to a diplomatic, political and economic stature it had not enjoyed for decades as it was previously known as the “sick man of Asia.”


President Duterte’s administration has been outspoken on its intentions to capitalise on the gains of Aquino’s term and align the government’s objectives to two priorities: stimulating inclusive growth and accelerating countryside development, both of which are geared to decrease stubbornly high poverty rates in spite of recent economic growth. Unlike his predecessors, President Duterte’s administration has shifted its attention away from its largest military ally, the US, in favour of stronger ties with China and Russia, disrupting the long-term relationship between the Philippines and its former coloniser. On the domestic front, President Duterte’s most visible, and controversial, campaign has been centred on cracking down on illegal drugs and crime, efforts that have led to mass surrenders but have also been marred with concerns over human rights violations. Controversy notwithstanding, the administration maintains an overwhelmingly high approval rating and popularity. Moving forward, the government faces many challenges as it seeks to deliver on campaign promises, which include achieving peace and order in Mindanao, eliminating corruption within government and accelerating infrastructure development to support current and future growth.

Change & Continuity

Although archaeological findings suggest Philippine history originated as early as 67,000 years ago, the age of its oldest known relic, or 47,000 years ago, the estimated age of the Tabo man discovered in Palawan, 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 estimated 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 through water, particularly driven by Malayan culture, which maintained a consistent occupation of the archipelago and over time drove the migration of more developed tribes.

There is little written record of the early pre-Hispanic history of the country, in fact the earliest known written document from the Philippines, the Laguna Copperplate Inscription, dates back to only 900CE. This artefact, however, widely suggests trading and cultural links between the Kingdom of Tondo, a powerful force, 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.

Arab traders from Malay and Borneo introduced Islam to the southern part of the Philippines in 1380, leading to the founding of the Sultanate of Sulu in 1405. The sultanate became the largest Islamic kingdom in the archipelago and encompassed the islands of the Sulu Sea, parts of Mindanao and parts of Borneo. Although the sultanate declined and relinquished political power during the US occupation, it continues to be a source of tensions with Malaysia that reignited in 2013 when descendants of the sultanate’s founders staged an armed intervention in Sabah.


The colonisation period of 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 expansion of the Spanish colonial presence, Catholicism spread throughout the country. The Philippines remained part of the Spanish empire until the late 19th century. During that period, the Spanish linked the country to one of the world’s first truly global empires and international trade routes through the Manila galleon trade, which lasted two and half centuries. As a result, 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, 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. However, the pursuit of independence was short-lived as the country ultimately replaced one colonial power with another: the US. With US support, Emilio Aguinaldo declared the independence of the Philippines in 1898 and the end of the Spanish-American War was formalised by the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Then, with the Spanish ejected, the US turned on its Filipino allies and proceeded with the annexation of the latter. In 1899 war broke out 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 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, 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 Manuel Roxas.

Turbulent Times

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Manila was the world’s second most devastated allied city, behind only Warsaw. Due to the degree of destruction experienced during the occupation period and in the liberation battle, the US, which retained military bases in the Philippines, assisted extensively in the rebuilding efforts. This aid was done within the provisions of the Bell Trade Act, which defined Philippine-US trade relations by prohibiting competition with US firms, giving US citizens and corporations parity with Filipinos 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, benefitting first manufacturing and then later the financial sector, in the 1960s.

Ferdinand Marcos defeated incumbent, and former party-mate, Diosdado Macapagal, in 1965 to become the 10th president of the Philippines. In the early stages of his administration, Marcos pursued ambitious infrastructure projects and stimulated export-oriented industries, economic policies that got him re-elected in 1969. That year coincided with the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which initiated an armed struggle for the independence of Mindanao, and the establishment of the Maoist-inspired New People’s Army, the armed 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 the framing of a new constitution the following year, which allowed him to stay in power beyond 1973.

A New Era

In 1981, the year martial law was lifted, presidential elections were held again. 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 martial law, was assassinated at a Manila airport after being invited back from exile. These events along with another perceived fraudulent election aroused political opposition along with the general populace, resulting in the 1986 People Power Revolution that ultimately deposed and sent Marcos into exile and eventual death 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. 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 proposed establishment of two autonomous regions Mindanao and the Cordilleras. Under Aquino, who survived several attempted coups and witnessed high political instability domestically, the US also withdrew from its military bases.

In 1992 Aquino was succeeded by Fidel Ramos, a hero of the EDSA Revolution, followed by former movie actor and Ramos’ vice-president Joseph Estrada, who won the presidential elections in 1998. His term came to an abrupt end in 2001, however, following protests over corruption allegations that led to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, daughter of late President Macapagal and also Estrada’s vice-president, taking over. Re-elected in 2004, she was later succeeded by President Aquino III in 2010, who in turn ended his term in 2016.

Peace & Conflict

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 splinter groups. A faction of the MNLF split off to form the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which began its own insurgency in Mindanao. In 2014 the MILF signed a peace deal with the Philippine government that promised self-rule and enhanced autonomy under a Bangsamoro region, meant to replace the ARMM.

The approval of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), however, was derailed in the Senate following public outcry after the 2015 Mamasapano deadly clash between the MNLF and the Philippine National Police, which ended in 44 casualties for the latter. 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 of the peace process and pace at which it moves.

On the foreign policy front, President Duterte has actively sought warmer ties with China while criticising its long-time ally, the US; although this stance has softened somewhat since the assumption of Donald Trump to the US presidency. In July 2016, after a threeyear process, which the Chinese government failed to recognise, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines in a 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 “9-dash line.” In spite of his historic win, President Duterte has remained conciliatory with China and economic cooperation has expanded, however, 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 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. 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 opposition party. Strained ties between the two became quickly apparent when Robredo resigned to her title as chairperson of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) after receiving instructions to desist from attending all Cabinet meetings. The tensions have escalated as Robredo has become a leading voice in the political opposition, in particular against the ongoing war on drugs.

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 HUDCC and the National Anti-Poverty Commission, key agencies aimed at reducing poverty.

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 Aquilino Pimentel III. In 2019 12 senate seats are up for election.

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 of Representatives has 297 seats, with 238 elected from geographical districts and 59 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 2019. The representatives are elected from districts of 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 then 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 any official — may be initiated. The Senate alone has the power to try government officials.

Judicial Affairs

The Supreme Court is the highest court as well as the 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 mandated 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 of the system, deployed to each administrative region.