Freedom in the World
The Philippines’ political rights rating improved from 4 to 3 due to comparatively peaceful and credible presidential and legislative elections held in May 2010.
The May 2010 presidential and legislative elections were hailed as a notable improvement over past ballots. The new president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, ran on a reformist, anticorruption platform, and he immediately established a Truth Commission to investigate the corruption record of outgoing president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Separately, in September 2010, trial proceedings began for some defendants in the closely watched case of a 2009 massacre allegedly committed by a powerful political clan in the southern province of Maguindanao. Local elections were held nationwide in late October.
After centuries of Spanish rule, the Philippines came under U.S. control in 1898 and won independence in 1946. The country has been plagued by insurgencies, economic mismanagement, and widespread corruption since the 1960s. In 1986, a popular protest movement ended the 14-year dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos and replaced him with Corazon Aquino, whom the regime had cheated out of an electoral victory weeks earlier.
Aquino’s administration ultimately failed to implement substantial reforms and was unable to dislodge entrenched social and economic elites. Fidel Ramos, a key figure in the 1986 protests, won the 1992 presidential election. The country was relatively stable and experienced significant if uneven economic growth under his administration. Ramos’s vice president, Joseph Estrada, won the 1998 presidential election by promising concrete socioeconomic reform, but his administration was dogged by allegations of corruption almost from the outset. Massive street protests forced him from office in 2001 after a formal impeachment process failed.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Estrada’s vice president, assumed the presidency upon his departure, and her political coalition won the May 2001 legislative elections. She nevertheless faced questions about the legitimacy of her unelected administration. In the 2004 presidential election, Arroyo initially seemed to have defeated her challenger by some 1.1 million votes. However, claims of massive fraud triggered demonstrations and were verified by some members of the administration.
When an audiotape of a conversation between the president and election officials surfaced in June 2005, supporting the previous year’s vote-rigging allegations, many cabinet officials resigned to join a new opposition movement. An ultimately unsuccessful impeachment bid was launched, and the first of years of frequent protests called for the president’s resignation.
The administration mounted several efforts to undercut the opposition movement, including punitive prosecutions and executive orders in 2005 and a week-long state of emergency in 2006 in response to an alleged coup attempt. The congressional opposition initiated a second unsuccessful impeachment bid that June.
Although the president’s coalition increased its lower house majority in May 2007 legislative elections, the opposition bolstered its control of the Senate. Later in the year, Arroyo was implicated in a major corruption scandal involving a national broadband contract with the Chinese company ZTE that had been approved in April. Separately, Arroyo pardoned former president Estrada in October, a month after the country’s antigraft court sentenced him to life in prison. His conviction had been the first of a former Philippine president, and the pardon was widely perceived as a bid to set a favorable precedent for Arroyo’s own treatment after leaving office. Leaders of an unsuccessful coup attempt in November called for Arroyo’s removal on the grounds of electoral fraud and corruption, and yet another failed impeachment bid was launched against the president in October 2008.
One of the worst cases of political violence in the country’s recent history unfolded in November 2009, when the wife of a local vice-mayor was ambushed by 100 armed men as she traveled with other family members and supporters to file her husband’s candidacy for the Maguindanao provincial governorship. A total of 57 people were massacred in the incident, including 29 journalists and three other media workers who were accompanying the unarmed group. Evidence soon emerged to implicate the Ampatuan clan, which dominated the province’s politics and was closely allied with the Arroyo administration.
Arroyo responded in early December by declaring martial law for the first time in nearly 30 years, as well as a state of emergency, which remained in place in three Mindanao provinces even after martial law was lifted in mid-December. At least 62 people were arrested, including Maguindanao governor Andal Ampatuan Sr., and the authorities dug up arms caches as part of a broad effort to weaken local clans. Nevertheless, the Arroyo administration was widely criticized for its longtime policy of tolerating local warlords and supporting clan patronage as part of its counterinsurgency strategy, and the massacre brought new international attention to the country’s deeply entrenched culture of impunity.
National elections held in May 2010 included contests for the presidency and both houses of Congress. A campaign to lift the one-term limit on the presidency had failed, leaving an open field for the presidential contest. The reformist Liberal Party (LP) candidate Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino—the son of former president Corazon Aquino, whose death in 2009 was widely mourned—ultimately prevailed with 42 percent of the vote. Former president Estrada placed second with 26 percent, followed by former senator and property tycoon Manny Villar, recent defense minister Gilberto Teodoro (endorsed by Arroyo), and several other candidates. As is customary in the Philippines, the campaign centered more on personality and family connections than policy or party affiliation, with Aquino benefiting from his mother’s prodemocracy, anticorruption legacy. His considerable margin of victory protected him from accusations of electoral fraud.
With 12 out of 24 Senate seats up for election, three went to LP candidates; two each to Arroyo’s Lakas-Kampi CMD party, the Force of the Filipino Masses, and the Nationalist Party; and one each to the National People’s Coalition, the People’s Reform Party, and an independent. In the 250-member House, the LP ultimately won 119 seats, while Lakas-Kampi CMD took 46 and other parties split the remainder. As is typical in the Philippines, the LP’s predominance resulted from a number of seatholders defecting to join the new president’s party. Arroyo won a seat as representative of her home district of Pampanga.
Despite allegations of extensive vote buying by Arroyo allies,among other problems, the elections were widely regarded as a significantimprovement over previous polls; they were perceived as legitimate and saw much less violence than in previous years due to a gun ban. The nationwide introduction of electronic voting machines and computerized tabulationwas also considered a success.
Soon after taking office, Aquino established a Truth Commission to investigate the corruption and electoral fraud allegations against Arroyo, though it was bogged down in a court challenge by year’s end. Separately, the new president’s leadership was tested by a hostage crisis in August that ended in the deaths of eight tourists from Hong Kong. After the findings of an investigation in September called for charges against a number of officials for their handling of the incident, the president limited the most serious charges to police officials and spared his interior secretary and undersecretary.
Efforts to end a Muslim insurgency that had plagued the southern provinces since the early 1970s continued in 2010, as the government pursued negotiations with the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Fighting had surged in late 2008 after a proposed peace deal collapsed amid a constitutional challenge by local officials and opposition leaders. The draft agreement had outlined the creation of a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE)—a self-governing expansion of the existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)—defined as the ARMM plus 712 barangays (small administrative units), subject to a formal referendum on inclusion to be held in the affected districts. The two sides agreed to a truce in 2009, and peace talks resumed at the end of that year. However, negotiators could not agree on an acceptable level of autonomy for the Muslim region, and little progress had been achieved by the time Arroyo left office. Her replacement by Aquino raised hopes for the talks, and some points of consensus related to security arrangements had been established by the end of 2010.
Meanwhile, fighting involving the Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf flared in April 2010, when militants dressed as soldiers and police carried out a series of bombings and shootings in Isabela City, the capital of Basilan province. Thirteen people were killed, and a broader battle between militants and government forces ensued.
The Republic of the Philippines is an electoral democracy. The May 2010 elections marked a significant improvement over previous polls marred by fraud, intimidation, and political violence. The Philippines has a presidential system of government, with the directly elected president limited to a single six-year term. The national legislature, Congress, is bicameral. The 24 members of the Senate are elected on a nationwide ballot and serve six-year terms, with half of the seats up for election every three years. The 280 members of the House of Representatives serve three-year terms, with 228 elected in single-member constituencies and the remainder elected by party list to represent ethnic minorities. Legislative coalitions are exceptionally fluid, and members of Congress often change party affiliation.