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Accountability and Transparency: Country Studies - Philippines

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 3 Political Rights, 3 Civil Liberties (Partly Free)


The Philippines, a large archipelago country made up of 7,107 islands, had a population of 85 million in 2006, with the majority of citizens Malay in origin. The Philippines is located northeast of Malaysia and Indonesia and southeast of Taiwan and China. Its largest islands are Luzon, which is the most populous and located in the north, and Mindanao, which is less populous and located in the south. The majority of Filipinos are Catholic (85 percent); however, Mindanao is where many of the country's Muslim citizens reside. In 2006, the Philippines ranked 139th in the world ($1,420) for gross national income (GNI) per capita, and ranked 122nd ($5,980) for GNI measured by purchasing power parity (PPP), which takes into account inflation and other factors. Still, compared with the average for other low- and middle-income countries in East Asia and the Pacific, the Philippines ranked lower on both measures.


The 1987 Philippines Constitution established a presidential system with a bicameral legislature and an independent judiciary, similar to the U.S. system. The House of Representatives (the lower house) has 250 members who serve three-year terms. Of the House members, 212 are elected by district while the remainder are chosen by party list. The Senate has 24 members elected to six-year terms by national list, with half chosen in each three-year election cycle. Currently, these two bodies are dominated by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's National Union of Christian Democrats (Lakas), but this party is split between supporters and critics of the president. The main opposition party is the Struggle for a Democratic Philippines (Laban), led by former president Corazon Aquino. Electoral fraud, rising corruption, and the government's intimidation of the opposition led Freedom House to downgrade the Philippines' status to "partly free" in 2006 (it had been ranked as "free" in 2005). Furthermore, Transparency International ranked the Philippines 132nd (out of 180 countries) in its 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, meaning that corruption is certainly an issue of concern.


The Philippines' first inhabitants were the Negritos, who arrived approximately 30,000 years ago from Borneo and Sumatra, and are considered the ancestors to aboriginal Filipinos. Other settlers arrived from Indonesia (the Nesiots), southern China (Austronesians), Malaysia, and Borneo. Thus, the dominant Malay ethnicity has a number of distinct subgroups and languages. Philippines tribes formed city-states (barangay) of freemen ruled by a chief (datu). Many barangays were subjugated (to varying degrees) to different Indian and Bornean empires in the first millennium and, starting in the 13th century, the Chinese Ming Empire. In 1380, the first Islamic missionary, Makhdum Kharim, arrived on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Spanish Conquest

Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Philippines in 1521 on the way to the Spice Islands (currently part of Indonesia) and claimed the islands for Spain. He died attempting to befriend King Humabon of Cebu (Cebu is currently one of the provinces of the Philippines) by going to war against the king's nemesis, a local chief. Spain declared the Philippines a colony in 1565 after defeating King Humabon's son. The Spanish conquered Manila in 1570–71, whereupon they brought over several hundred Roman Catholic missionaries to convert the population and teach Spanish, which became the official language of the colony. Colonial administrators in the Philippines relied on local political structures and leaders to rule indirectly on behalf of the Spanish government (similar to the British system of indirect rule for its colonies). Under Spanish colonial rule, the Philippines became an important trading center, particularly the area around Manila due to its favorable harbor. However, the Philippines remained largely agricultural, with poor educational opportunities available for Filipinos. Any economic benefit from trade was offset by the introduction of slavery and peonage. The principal Spanish impact was the conversion of the population to Roman Catholicism (over 80 percent of the population today).

Wars and Independence

Spanish colonial administration in the Philippines grew increasingly inept as its empire collapsed in the face of growing calls for independence.

Victorious Japanese troops in the Philippines during WWII
When the U.S. government declared war on Spain in 1898 (in the conflict known as the Spanish-American War), U.S. troops fought Spanish forces throughout its remaining territories (Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines). Spanish forces, already driven from many of its positions due to insurrection, withdrew from the Philippines in mid-1898. In the final settlement, the United States paid Spain $20 million for the territory.

Although Philippine leaders declared independence, William McKinley, president of the United States, rejected their legitimacy and imposed U.S. rule. A guerrilla war, called the Philippine-American War, broke out in 1899 and ended with a Peace Proclamation in July 1902 (although armed conflict continued until 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson declared the U.S. government's intention to establish self-government in the Philippines). The Autonomy Act of 1916 provided for an elected assembly. In 1935, the Philippines became a commonwealth with the aim of eventually becoming independent. Independence, however, was interrupted by the Japanese occupation of the Philippines beginning in late 1941.

In 1986, the so-called People Power movement, which brought millions of people to the streets for weeks, finally forced Marcos to resign.
A strong Philippine-American friendship was forged as an indigenous army fought side by side with U.S. forces to defeat the Japanese after more than three years of occupation. After heavy lobbying within the United States, Congress granted formal independence to the Philippines in 1946. It then declared itself sovereign and established a constitutional democracy.

Accountability and Transparency

Independence, Dictatorship, and People Power

Free elections were held in the Philippines without interruption from 1946 until 1972, when President Ferdinand Marcos of the Nacionalista Party (NP) imposed martial law near the end of his term to retain power. Marcos's personal dictatorship lasted a total of 14 years (1965–86), during which time he plundered several billion dollars (the total amount is not known, but a large cache of gold bullion was discovered several years after his downfall). Marcos lifted martial law in 1981—a precondition for a 1981 visit by the Catholic pope John Paul II—opening up greater space for political action. In 1986, the so-called People Power movement, which brought millions of people to the streets for weeks, finally forced Marcos to resign. Corazon Aquino, the wife of the nation's most prominent opposition leader, who had been slain three years earlier (allegedly on Marcos's orders), became president in 1986 and restored democratic institutions. It was a remarkably peaceful movement that exemplifies how citizens can "take back" their government through mobilization.

Ferdinand Marcos
Corruption vs. People Power II

For the next presidential election in 1992, Corazon Aquino gave her endorsement to an unlikely figure, Fidel Ramos, the former head of the Constabulary (the police) and a trusted aide under Marcos. However, during the People Power movement, Ramos had changed his allegiance and convinced Ponce Enrile, Marcos's defense minister, to join him. Ramos served as Aquino's military chief of staff and later secretary of national defense, foiling numerous coup plots against her and restoring the military to civilian rule. Ramos narrowly won the 1992 election, but undertook significant economic reforms and risky peace initiatives to establish stable conditions for investment, including declaring amnesty for insurgents and signing peace agreements with Communist and Islamic rebel movements. Some peace initiatives failed, however, when splinter groups broke off and refused to end the fighting. Yet Ramos's reforms initiated sustained economic growth and his peace initiatives brought about a decline in tensions.

Joseph Estrada, a former actor turned politician, won the vice presidency in 1992 against Ramos's own running mate (the vice president is separately elected). He then won the June 1998 presidential election, but also with a vice president from a different party, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (of the Lakas party). Estrada's tenure was the opposite of Ramos's, marked by increasing unemployment and inflation, lowered growth, brutal and failed efforts to defeat insurgents, and growing corruption. In October 2000, Estrada was accused of accepting millions of dollars in bribes. In November of the same year, the Senate began impeachment proceedings, although the impeachment process failed due to gridlock in the Senate. However, a new People Power movement emerged; more than two million people went to the streets to force Estrada to resign, similar to the protests of 1986 that forced Marcos to resign. Due to sustained popular pressure, in January 2001 Estrada tendered his resignation, which was later confirmed by the Supreme Court.

Thus, for the second time in 12 years, a popular movement against a corrupt official brought down a government, this time a democratically elected one, indicating how strongly the democratic principle of accountability has been incorporated into society. But the People Power II movement also showed that Philippine democratic institutions, especially the legislature, are by themselves insufficient to deal with systemic corruption.

Struggle for Legitimacy and Accountability

Joseph Estrada was constitutionally succeeded in January 2001 by Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who comes from a prominent Philippine political family and is the leader of Lakas, a union of several parties formed in 1992. As president, she put together the Sunshine Coalition with the other main parties, the National People's Coalition and the Liberal Party, bringing a measure of legitimacy to Philippine politics. As president, Arroyo initially sought to prosecute corrupt officials and to overcome the related problem of widespread tax evasion on the part of business, among other reforms. At the same time, no institutional reforms were undertaken to address the continuing practice of corruption or the abuse of power by public officials (see below).

Arroyo's Sunshine Coalition divided when she announced she would run for the presidency in the May 2004 election, to secure a full six-year term in office. While allowable under the constitution if the incumbent has served less than four years of a succession term, Arroyo had promised in 2002 not to do so. Arroyo waged a hard-fought battle for the presidency against Fernando Poe Jr., an actor and friend of Estrada. Arroyo was elected president with 40 percent of the vote, and her Lakas party won a plurality of seats in the House. Opposition members soon charged Arroyo's husband and other family members with embezzling campaign funds, charges verified by insiders from the administration. More seriously, Arroyo was embroiled in her own "tapes scandal" that revealed conversations between her and the election commissioner, seemingly instructing him to manufacture votes to make her win the election by at least one million votes. Arroyo's political opponents attempted to seize on this to again introduce impeachment proceedings, but these failed for lack of support in Congress.

Arroyo's own Lakas party has divided between her supporters and those of Fidel Ramos, who opposes a constitutional amendment to eliminate midterm elections and seeks Arroyo's midterm resignation (so that she would serve a total of six years in office). The most serious threat to Arroyo's legitimacy, however, was her declaration of a week-long state of emergency in February 2006, which was issued after a second coup attempt had been uncovered (a first attempt involving armed police was put down). Arroyo used the powers to conduct searches and make arrests without warrants against military officers and a number of opposition leaders. These measures raise the question of whether the coup plot was manufactured by Arroyo's regime.

The Police and the Army: Immunity from Accountability

One of the largest struggles for post-Marcos governments has been to enforce civilian rule and the rule of law on both the military and the police in the midst of serious and ongoing threats to national security. It is still not clear if the recent coup attempts were in fact serious threats to seize power. Even if not, it is certain that there remain a substantial number of military and police officers who do not respect the constitutional legitimacy of the elected civilian leadership. Arroyo, dependent on military support, thus fears that the military will join with civilian opponents to unseat her.

Fidel Ramos sought to defuse all of the major conflicts, but failed when splinter groups broke off from negotiations and rearmed. There are currently several main armed groups active in the Philippines: the New People's Army, a Communist group; the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which seeks independence for the Muslim-dominated island of Mindanao; the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), an Islamist separatist group, which is responsible for kidnappings and several terrorist bombings; and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Indonesian-based Islamist group. MILF, although publicly denouncing violence, reportedly has ties to al-Qaeda and provides safe haven in Mindanao for its operatives, including (it is suspected) those involved in two deadly bombings in Bali in 2002 and 2005. In response to armed attacks and threats, the military and police have carried out punitive actions, often without regard to the target. During 2004, the U.S. State Department reported there were over 100 extrajudicial killings, a statistic reminiscent of previous anti-insurgent campaigns. It is reported that security forces often operate outside of the reach of the law, and courts are slow to respond to complaints of abuse. Since 2004, there have been reports of numerous murders of leftist political activists by the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Corruption in Business and Government

The issue of corruption is not new. Reports of corruption in the 1950s and 1960s were common and affected overseas investment in the Philippines. While Ferdinand Marcos claimed to take action against rampant corruption, his own government took corruption to a new level of personal enrichment. Together, it is estimated that Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, amassed several billion dollars (the exact number is unknown) from public funds or through bribes. Corruption during the Marcos era pervaded the political system from top to bottom, a legacy that both Aquino and Ramos confronted in their administrations. The Estrada presidency reintroduced the culture of corruption. While Arroyo's presidency seemed to address this problem head-on, it has been mired in charges of its own abuse of powers.

While Ferdinand Marcos claimed to take action against rampant corruption, his own government took corruption to a new level of personal enrichment.

An Office of the Ombudsman, intended to be the "protector of the people," was established under the 1987 Constitution with the mission to root out corruption, administrative irresponsibility, and other acts of malfeasance on the part of public officials. It holds prosecutorial powers and acts independently of the presidential administration. Yet this office is not always seen as an effective tool and has been unable to obtain documentation of patent corruption and power abuses.

Transparency of Information, the Right to Know, and the Press

The "right of inquiry" of the Philippine Congress is highly dependent on the responsiveness of the executive branch, especially the president. A formerly responsive president, like Arroyo, may turn protective of government documents if his or her power is threatened. Thus, Arroyo's Executive Order 464 limits the investigative authority of the Senate, prohibits government officials from attending congressional inquiries without presidential permission, and blocks investigations into government contracts.

In addition, there is no "right to know" legislation in the Philippines. This means that the press and the public are limited in their abilities to find out information about the government and its elected officials. Indeed, Reporters Without Borders, an organization that advocates for the rights of journalists, ranked the Philippines 142nd in the world for press freedom in its 2006 Press Freedom Index as a result of the climate of violence, police and military intimidation, and, more recently, general government intimidation of the press. Reporters Without Borders charges that during 2005, seven journalists were killed, and in 2006, six journalists suffered the same fate, all for their reporting on corruption, abuses by the police and military, and illegal gambling and terrorist activities. President Arroyo also approved a police raid on the major opposition newspaper, the surveillance of other newspapers, the arrest of journalists, and charging media figures with inciting rebellion.


Following the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 in a People Power revolution, there was a rapid transition to democracy in the Philippines, marked by the election of Corazon Aquino. However, institutional and constitutional weaknesses, as well as the return of unscrupulous leaders, have made it difficult for the country to overcome its culture of corruption and tradition of authoritarianism. Many observers and human rights organizations have been concerned about President Arroyo's recent power abuses to remain in office and her diminished efforts to confront the legacy of corruption left by her predecessor, Fidel Ramos. In response to the abuse of executive power and the deteriorating protection of media freedom, Freedom House downgraded the Philippines to the status of "partly free" in 2006, lowering its score from the year prior, when it was rated as a "free" country.