The year 2019 marks the halfway point of President Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year term in office, following his inauguration in June 2016. The Philippines’ GDP has increased by more than 6% per year since 2012, making inclusive growth and the reduction of income inequality top priorities for the current administration.

The successful implementation of public infrastructure upgrades under the Build, Build, Build programme is also an essential part of spurring sustainable growth, alongside efforts to reduce red tape and improve access to credit for individuals and small businesses. Although the government has taken steps to stimulate inclusive growth and rural development, poverty rates remain high in spite of recent economic expansion.

Current Events

One of the most notable changes in policy under the Duterte administration involves the cultivation of stronger ties with China, which has been met with some political and grassroots opposition. However, President Duterte’s most visible campaign has focused on the eradication of crime and illegal substance use. While these efforts have resulted in mass surrenders to the police, the campaign has faced criticism from both local and global organisations due to concerns over human rights violations. The government nevertheless maintains a high approval rating and popularity. This was tested in the May 2019 mid-term elections, when nine out of 12 contested seats were won by pro-Duterte candidates.

Moving forward, the administration will face a number of challenges as it seeks to deliver on campaign promises, which include achieving peace and rule of law in Mindanao, eliminating corruption in the government and accelerating infrastructure development.

Cultural Roots

Archaeological findings suggest Philippine history may date back as much as 67,000 years, based on the carbon dating of the oldest known relic. In 2019 the remains of a humanoid that lived between 50,000 and 67,000 years ago was found in a cave on the island of Luzon. The species, named Homo luzonensis, is not directly related to modern humans but rather an ancient relative.

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 Malay peoples took place over thousands of years by sea, driven particularly by Malayan culture, which held consistent occupation of the archipelago.

Prior to Spanish colonisation, the Philippines had little written history. The earliest written document, the Laguna Copperplate Inscription, dates to 900 CE. This artefact, however, widely suggests trading and cultural links between the Kingdom of Tondo, which gained control of much of the Luzon region 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 Malaya and Borneo, leading to the founding of the Sultanate of Sulu in 1405. Spanning the islands of the Sulu Sea, and parts of Mindanao and Borneo, the sultanate grew to become the largest Islamic kingdom in the archipelago at the time. While the sultanate relinquished political power during the US occupation, it continues to be a source of tension with Malaysia, which reignited in 2013 when descendants of the sultanate’s founders staged an armed intervention in Sabah, resulting in 27 deaths.

Occupational Hazard

Colonialism in the Philippines began 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 López de Villalobos, who in 1543 named the archipelago Las Islas Filipinas after King Philip II, and then Miguel López 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. Alongside the growing 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.


Nationalist sentiment led to 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 saw the Treaty of Paris signed on December 10. This involved Spain relinquishing most of its 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 in 1902 with Aguinaldo’s capture.

Although 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 elections were held and won by Manuel Quezón. Shortly after the Second World War broke out, however, the country was invaded and occupied by Japan. Presidential elections for an independent country were not held again until 1946.


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 part of 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 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, curtailing civil liberties, abolishing Congress and expediting a new constitution the following year, allowing 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 opponents, resulting in a landslide victory. In 1983 opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr, who had faced imprisonment in the 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 led to the deposition of Marcos, who was sent into exile in Hawaii. Declared the winner of the 1986 elections, Aquino’s widow, Corazón Aquino, 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 the former film actor and Ramos administration vice-president, Joseph Estrada, who won the presidential election in 1998. His leadership ended in 2001, however, after corruption allegations. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, daughter of the late President Macapagal and the Estrada administration’s vice-president, took over as a result. Re-elected in 2004, she was succeeded by President Benigno Aquino III in 2010, whose term ended in 2016.

Separatist Movements 

From its founding in 1969, the MNLF has been the Philippines’ largest Islamic separatist group, engaging in armed hostilities with the government throughout the early 1970s. Despite a peace agreement between the MNLF and the Philippine government in 1976, allowing for the eventual creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), in 1989 hostilities flared up with smaller individual groups. A faction of the MNLF split off to become 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 President Duterte, peace talks have accelerated, resulting in a successful two-part referendum in 2019 that has paved the way for the creation of the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which replaced the ARMM.

Foreign Affairs 

President Duterte has actively sought warmer ties with China while criticising the policies of the nation’s long-time ally, the US, although this stance has somewhat softened since 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 as President Duterte has not pushed for the enforcement of the ruling. However, this relationship remains vulnerable to China’s territorial ambitions and tensions with the US over the South China Sea and trade issues.

Head of State 

The president is head of state and government in the Philippines, and is elected for a single, six-year term in a nationwide, first-past-the-post ballot. Candidates must be natural-born citizens and have lived in the country for at least 10 years before standing. 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. 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 come directly under the presidency, including the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council and the National Anti-Poverty Commission.

Legislative Matters 

The bicameral Congress consists of an upper house (Senate) and a lower house (House of Representatives). There are 24 senators in the Senate and each is elected for six-year 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 Vicente Castelo Sotto III. 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.

President Duterte has proposed far-reaching constitutional changes that would introduce a federal system, allowing for the devolution of decision-making powers from the central government to the regional administrations. This reform was a part of the president’s campaign platform to increase economic inclusivity. However, it remains to be seen if there is enough support for this constitutional change to be made before the president leaves office in 2022.

The House of Representatives has 297 seats, with 238 elected from geographic districts and 59 from party lists. Representatives are elected for three-year terms and may not serve more than three consecutive terms. 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 voter’s choices 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 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 any official, may be initiated, but government officials can only be tried by the Senate.

Judicial Affairs 

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the Philippines, as well as the court of last appeal. It consists of 15 justices, led by the chief justice. Justices are appointed by the president from a list given 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 Sandiganbayan (meaning “people’s advocate”) – a collegial court that reviews allegations of government irregularities. At the lower level, there are regional trial courts in each administrative region.