Accountability and Transparency: Country Studies - Philippines

 Philippines Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Partly Free. Freedom Ranking: 3; Political Rights: 3; Civil Liberties: 3. 



 The Philippines, a large archipelago country in the South Pacific, was under Spanish colonial rule for more than 300 years until the establishment of the First Philippine Republic in 1898 following the Spanish-American War.  President McKinley, however, suppressed the Republic and imposed a US administration by force. The US Congress granted the Philippines self-administration and autonomy in 1916 and made it a commonwealth before World War II. After liberation from Japanese occupation, the Philippines gained full independence in 1946 and instituted a constitutional democracy. But in 1972, Fernando Marcos imposed martial law and the country suffered 14 years under a corrupt and repressive dictatorship. The People Power Revolution of 1986 forced Marcos from power and a new constitution was quickly adopted re-establishing electoral democracy.

The constitution establishes a presidential system with a bicameral legislature and an independent judiciary. The president is elected to a single six-year term in office. The House of Representatives has 290 members who serve three-year terms, with 234 chosen directly by district and 54 by party list. The Senate has 24 members elected to six-year terms in national elections, half chosen in each three-year election cycle. After two disastrously corrupt administrations from 1998 to 2010, Benigno Aquino III won presidential elections in 2010 on a decisive platform to clean up government. The Philippines has earned an improved score and freedom rating in Freedom House’s Survey of Freedom, but it remains in the “partly free” category. The Philippines has also significantly improved its ranking in Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions index (101st out of 176 countries, up from 141st in 2008 and 105th in 2012).

The Philippines, made up of 7,107 islands, is the 72nd largest country in the world with a total area 300,000 square kilometers. Total population is nearly 103 million, with the biggest and most populous islands being Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south. Ethnicity is highly diverse but the majority of Filipinos are Catholic (85 percent). Muslims, living mostly on Mindanao, account for 5 to 10 percent of the population. The Philippines averaged more than 5 percent growth in GDP over the previous decade, making it among the fastest growing economies in the world. In 2015, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ranked the country 39th in the world in nominal GDP with around $275 billion in total economic output. By Gross National Income (GNI) per capita, the Philippines ranking is worse, 121st in the world at $2,950 per annum, indicating a continued high level of economic disparity within the population.



The first inhabitants on the islands of the Philippines arrived approximately 30,000 years ago from Borneo and Sumatra. They are considered the ancestors to aboriginal Filipinos. Other settlers arrived from Indonesia (the Nesiots), southern China (Austronesians), and Malaysia, among other regions. Initially, Philippines tribes formed city-states (known as barangay) of freemen ruled by a chief. Many barangays were subjugated in varying degrees to different Indian and Bornean empires in the first millennium. Starting in the 13th century AD, the Chinese Ming Empire dominated the island chain. 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 and claimed the islands for Spain. In 1565, Spain formally declared the Philippines a colony after defeating the army of the King of Cebu. The Spanish conquered Manila on the island of Luzon in 1570–71. Subsequently, King Phillip II sent hundreds of missionaries to convert the population to Christianity and to teach Spanish, which was imposed as the official language. Under Spanish rule, the Philippines became an important trading center, particularly the area around Manila, due to its favorable harbor. The Philippines, however, remained largely agricultural. Slavery and peonage were introduced in the Spanish-controlled estates. 

Victorious Japanese troops in the Philippines during WWII

Wars and Independence 

Spanish colonial administration in the Philippines weakened as its empire collapsed over the course of the 19th century. When the US government declared war on Spain in 1898 in support of Cuban independence, US troops fought Spanish forces throughout Spain’s remaining territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Spanish forces, already driven from many of its positions due to Filipino insurrection, withdrew from the Philippines in mid-1898. In the Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish-American War, the US agreed to pay Spain $20 million for the island territories.

Filipino leaders who had fought against colonial rule declared independence, forming the First Philippine Republic, but President William McKinley refused to recognize the government and imposed a US administration with limited self-government. A guerrilla war broke out in 1899 against US troops that resulted in more than 200,000 deaths from conflict, famine, and disease. The war formally ended with a Peace Proclamation in July 1902, but hostilities continued on a smaller scale until 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson declared the US government's intention to establish self-government in the Philippines. The Autonomy Act of 1916 passed by Congress provided for an elected national assembly for the Philippines. In 1935, the Philippines became a commonwealth, but the process for establishing independence was interrupted by the Japanese occupation beginning in late 1941. 

A strong Philippine-American friendship was forged as an indigenous army fought side by side with US forces to defeat the Japanese occupation. After heavy lobbying, Filipino leaders succeeded in convincing the US Congress to grant formal independence to the archipelago in 1946, although with specific economic conditions limiting trade competition with the US. The Philippines declared its full sovereignty and established a constitutional democracy. remarkably peaceful “People Power” revolution is celebrated in the Philippines in a national holiday and stands as a model worldwide for how citizens can overthrow dictatorship and take back their government through non-violent means.

Independence, Dictatorship, and People Power 

Free elections were held in the Philippines without interruption from 1946 until 1972, with a wide range of political parties. But high levels of corruption, a high concentration of wealth, and ethnic conflict weakened democratic institutions. In 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law near the end of his term. He imprisoned his opponents, restricted political liberties, and established a personal dictatorship that lasted a total of 14 years. During this time, he and his wife Imelda plundered many billions of dollars and encouraged a general culture of corruption within all levels of government, the economy, and society. 

In 1981, Marcos lifted martial law as a precondition for a visit by Pope John Paul II. The visit opened up greater space for the political opposition, which gained greater public support after the 1983 assassination of the opposition’s most prominent leader, Benigno Aquino. A government commission blamed the assassination on military rogues planning a coup, but evidence suggested that the murder was committed on Marcos’s orders. 

In early 1986, sensing that political support for his rule was weakening, Marcos called a snap presidential election well before the end of his scheduled term. The government election commission declared Marcos the victor with highly improbable figures. An independent electoral observation group accredited by the government known as NAMFREL declared the opposition candidate, Corazon Aquino, the wife of the slain opposition leader, the winner with 52 percent of the vote. Massive demonstrations broke out that were publicly supported by the Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jaime Sin. When Marcos ordered the defense minister and the head of the police and armed forces to suppress the demonstrations, the two resigned their posts and declared their support for Aquino. As military units defected to the opposition, two million people filled the streets to demand recognition of Aquino’s election victory. Rival inaugurations were held on February 26, but Marcos fled the country the same day after US officials publicly encouraged him to resign. The “People Power” revolution is celebrated in the Philippines in a national holiday and stands as a model worldwide for how citizens can overthrow dictatorship and take back their government through non-violent means. 

Accountability and Transparency 

The issue of accountability and transparency in the Philippines is interwoven in its post-independence history and especially in the people’s struggles over the last thirty years to overcome the Marcos dictatorship. Part of the difficulty lies in the Philippines’ constitutional tradition that limits presidential terms and thus the possibility of establishing longer-term political stability. The main difficulty, however, was the embedded nature of the corruption instituted under the Marcos dictatorship at all levels of administration. Corruption was a tool both for Marcos maintaining power and for personal enrichment (both Marcoses amassed billions of dollars in foreign bank accounts, only some of which was found and returned). A second impediment was the entrenched repressive practices of the police and army in serving the dominant political authority. Establishing accountability and transparency has not been a simple matter. After two successful democratic presidencies, the next president was forced from office by public protest due to corruption, while his successor became mired in a series of corruption scandals and faced three impeachment proceedings. Only in the administration of President Benigno Aquino III (2010-2016) have endemic corruption and police and army abuses been more seriously addressed, but recent elections threaten to undermine those gains (see Current Issues).  

Democratic Rebirth 

President Corazon Aquino, who represented the democratic opposition coalition of her late husband, oversaw the Philippines’ democratic rebirth. She restored the previous constitution, its democratic institutions, and the basic mechanisms for public accountability. She struggled, however, to reduce endemic corruption within government and the security services and was challenged by the resumption of a range of separatist, religious, and ideological insurgencies in the south and north that had emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s. These had festered during the Marcos era and resumed violent resistance during Aquino’s administration. 

Aquino was not allowed to run for re-election but she surprised the public by breaking with her own party to endorse Fidel Ramos, the candidate of Lakas-National Union of Christian Democrats (Lakas means “people power”), an historical party reconstituted after 1986. Ramos’s defection as head of the police and army under Marcos had been widely credited with helping the 1986 revolution succeed. He then served President Aquino as military chief of staff and defense minister. In these positions, he showed loyalty to the new democratic regime by foiling several coup plots against Aquino. In the 1992 election, Ramos won the office of presidency with just a 23 percent plurality against five opponents, nevertheless he undertook significant economic reforms, granted amnesty to armed insurgents, and achieved tentative agreements with a communist rebellion in the north and an Islamic rebel movement in Mindanao in the south.[F]or the second time   . . . a popular movement against a corrupt leader brought down a government. . . . The events highlighted the ability of citizens to hold their leaders accountable, but they also showed the difficulty democratic institutions have had in addressing systemic corruption.  

Corruption vs. People Power II 

The next administrations, however, were less successful and showed how easily both incompetence and corruption could significantly impede democratic progress. Joseph Estrada, an actor-turned-politician, had won the vice presidency in 1992 running against Ramos’s running mate — the vice presidency was competed for separately. From this position, Ramos won the June 1998 presidential election, but again voters chose a vice president from an opposing party, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a member of a prominent political family who succeeded Ramos as head of Lakas-NUCD. Estrada's tenure was marked by high inflation, low growth, the resumption of the insurgencies, and rampant corruption. In October 2000, Estrada was accused on a wide range of corruption charges (including taking bribes, profiting from illicit gambling, and plundering the state coffers), prompting House impeachment proceedings and a trial by the Senate. 

When the trial panel refused to consider crucial evidence — indicating its intent to acquit Ramos — another People Power movement emerged in January 2001. Two million people again filled the streets to demand Estrada’s ouster and he was forced to resign. For the second time in 14 years, a popular movement brought down a government, in this case a democratically-elected one. The events highlighted the ability of citizens to hold leaders accountable, but also showed the difficulty democratic institutions have had in addressing systemic corruption. Those institutions were challenged again by the new president. 

Sunshine Turns to Political Storm 

Estrada was succeeded by Vice President Arroyo. Immediately, she put together a “Sunshine Coalition” with two other major parties, the National People's Coalition and the Liberal Party. Ending the corruption of the Estrada years was put at the top of the political agenda. A number of high-level officials were investigated and prosecuted, including former President Estrada (he remained in detention during a six-year court battle until being convicted in 2007). Arroyo also undertook a campaign to end widespread tax-evasion by private businesses. But the Sunshine Coalition divided when Arroyo decided to run for president in the regularly scheduled May 2004 election. She had pledged not to take advantage of the constitutional exception to one-term limit for an incumbent president who served less than four years of a succession term. Despite breaking her promise, she remained popular with the public and was elected president with 40 percent of the vote against several candidates. The Christian Democratic Lakas party won a large plurality of seats in the House. But the party split between supporters of Arroyo and those of former president Fidel Ramos, who opposed her candidacy. 

The split deepened when Arroyo proposed amending the constitution to create a unicameral parliament, end mid-term elections, and eliminate term limits. Initially these reforms seemed to address the country’s chronic political instability, but quickly they were seen as an attempt by Arroyo to maintain her hold on the country’s political institutions. Ramos, joined by Corazon Aquino, led the opposition to the constitutional changes, which foundered as Arroyo became embroiled in her own scandal. Tape recordings surfaced of conversations in which Arroyo is heard ordering the head of the election commission to commit massive election fraud in the 2004 presidential elections. She denied illegally influencing the elections and claimed her victory was won fairly, but the affair sparked large protests and two failed impeachment proceedings in 2005 and 2006. The country’s political stability was further challenged by Arroyo’s imposition of a state of emergency in 2006 in response to a purported coup plot. Although the state of emergency was brief, Arroyo used emergency powers to conduct searches of critical newspapers. Aquino  acted to strengthen the Office of the Ombudsman and the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission — undermined during the Estrada and Arroyo presidencies — and gave them renewed powers to pursue high-level malfeasance.  

Then, in 2007, Arroyo’s husband and other political allies (including the head of the election commission) were accused of taking large sums to lobby the government to award a large broadband contract to a Chinese firm over a Philippines company.  In the midst of this new scandal, Arroyo inexplicably pardoned and freed former President Estrada despite his recent conviction. The Senate, frustrated at presidential stonewalling of investigations into both the election and broadband scandals, impeached Arroyo a third time, but she again was acquitted. In 2009, Arroyo declared a second state of martial law following a grisly act of political violence in Maguindanao province in which 57 people were murdered by a private militia, including 34 journalists. Arroyo finished her term but left in disgrace. 

Current Issues: A New Start? 

In 2010, Benigno Aquino III, the candidate of the Liberal Party, won the presidency with 42 percent of the vote against several candidates running on a platform to end corruption and restore confidence to democratic institutions. His candidacy was propelled after the death of his mother, Corazon Aquino, in August 2009 as millions of people publicly mourned the passing of the symbol of the People Power Movement. Before the election, the new head of the election commission (COMELEC), a respected jurist named Jose Melo, worked to regain the trust of the public by improving and automating registration and voting procedures and taking other initiatives to ensure against fraud. A ban on firearms sales during the election period helped reduce the high level of political violence associated with Philippine elections.

President Aquino quickly acted to strengthen the Office of the Ombudsman and Presidential Anti-Graft Commission — neutered during the Estrada and Arroyo presidencies. He gave them renewed power to pursue high-level malfeasance. He also increased the budget for the judiciary to reduce the backlog of cases that had prevented action on thousands of lower-level corruption cases. In addition, the president established a Truth Commission to independently investigate the wide range of corruption charges from the Arroyo years. Its first determination was that former President Arroyo had indeed committed election fraud in 2004. She was arrested and charged in November 2011. New discoveries brought new charges: in 2012 she was indicted for conspiring to steal money from the National Lottery and in October 2013 she was accused of diverting government funds intended for victims of torrential storms during 2009 as graft for private companies. Several former Cabinet secretaries and 20 others were also charged in the latter case. The chief justice of the Supreme Court (an Arroyo appointee) was also pressed to resign. 

In August 2013, the Commission on Audit released a report detailing misuse of Priority Development Assistance Funds (PDAF), which provides an annual budget accessible to all Congressmen and Senators intended for development projects in their districts. The report alleged that funds were often illegally diverted by fabricating projects and channeling the money allocated for them through bogus NGOs. The Supreme Court subsequently found the PDAF to be an unconstitutional use of public funds. Police investigations resulted in at least 31 arrests of Senators, Congressmen, and other officials in 2014. 

President Aquino III also continued efforts to end the Philippines’s armed conflicts, which have cost tens of thousands of lives over four decades. In 2014, the government signed a comprehensive peace treaty with the country’s largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MNLF), which began its insurgency in 1972. The two sides agreed to a power-sharing arrangement in a new self-governed region, Bangsamoro, that expands an autonomous Muslim region established from a previous agreement under the Ramos administration. The Congress, however, has not approved the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, delaying the referendum within Mindanao on the agreement, the decommissioning of weapons, and the establishment of peace zones. The peace process is complicated by splinter groups that rejected the agreement and have resumed fighting as well as by the indiscriminate terrorist attacks and kidnappings of the Abu Sayaaf organization, an al Qaeda-affiliate. The Armed Forces arrested the leader of Abu Sayaaf in 2014, but attacks and kidnappings continued. In the north, the Aquino government pursued ongoing peace negotiations with the New People’s Army (NPA), the military wing of the Communist Party, but the NPA, in its fifth decade of armed conflict, has continued to engage in deadly clashes. The Armed Forces, however, apprehended the chairman of the Communist Party, and his wife, also a senior party official. They are expected to stand trial for kidnapping and illegal detention. 

Half-way through Benigno Aquino III’s six-year presidential term, his Liberal Party was given a solid majority in the May 2013 mid-term elections in both the House of Representatives and the Senate — the first time since 1986 that a single party had controlled both houses. The same elections, however, indicated the continued dominance in politics of a small number of elite political families (Imelda Marcos, a number of Marcos relatives, former President Arroyo and several of her relatives were all returned to the Congress, while Former President Estrada was elected mayor of Manila). Wealthy businessmen continued to play a large role in bankrolling political campaigns. Although given a clear mandate in the mid-term elections, Aquino’s reputation for good governance was tarnished by the government’s slow and ineffective response to Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, one of the worst natural disasters to hit the country in decades. Hundreds of thousands of residents were left without homes. 

Overall, the country continues to struggle with the legacy of Ferdinand Marcos: the continuation of insurgent and terrorist organizations that began under his rule; the continuation of rogue militias and official police and military abuses against civilians; high concentrations of wealth built up during the dictatorship that allow a small number of families to dominate politics and influence the media; and corruption in public life and the economy. Reflecting these ongoing problems and the declining effectiveness and popularity of Benigno Aquino III, an insurgent and controversial candidate, Rodrigo Duterte, won the presidential elections in May 2016 with 38 percent of the vote, the highest percentage received under the new Constitution. Duterte, the former mayor of Davao, Philippines’ second largest city, is renowned for his “toughness” in dealing with crime — including documentation by Human Rights Watch of 1,000 extrajudicial deaths in his 20-year term. He pledged during the campaign to address the Philippines’ ongoing problems of corruption, insurgency, and the foreign challenge posed by China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea with similar “toughness” — raising both domestic and international concerns about his assumption of power. Since his election, it is estimated that there have been nearly 6,000 killings.

The Philippines has established a strong record of democratic governance and an active citizenry that has challenged abuse of power, both by dictators and elected presidents. Individual politicians as well as the citizenry have demonstrated their ability to hold corrupt public officials accountable and defend democratic governance in the face of repeated betrayals of the public trust by politicians. The recent presidency of Benigno Aquino III restored some measure of accountability and transparency to the Philippines and showed the positive results that can be achieved through democratic elections. The next president will again test Philippines democracy.