Republic of the Philippines

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Republic of the Philippines

Type of Government

The Philippine government is a representative republic. The president leads the executive branch as chief of state, head of the government, and commander of the armed forces. The legislative branch consists of a bicameral Kongreso (Congress), made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, and the tax courts.


The Republic of the Philippines is an island nation in the western Pacific Ocean, south of Taiwan and northeast of Malaysia. The archipelago contains 7,107 islands, generally divided into three groups: Visayas, Luzon, and Mindanao. Approximately 90 percent of the people live on the nine largest islands.

The islands were first occupied between 40,000 BC and 30,000 BC by Australo-Melanesian tribes. From antiquity to the fifteenth century waves of Indonesian and Malayan immigrants added their racial and cultural characteristics to the developing Philippine culture.

Explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480?–1521) brought the first Europeans to the islands in March 1521 while he was attempting to circumnavigate the globe for the Spanish monarchy. In 1565 Philip II (1527–1598) formally claimed the islands, then called Filipina, as Spanish territory and appointed Miguel Lopez de Legazpi (1510–1572) as the first governor-general. Legazpi chose Manila as the most suitable site for the capital city.

Before the Spanish occupation, the islands were divided into barangays (villages), each of which was run by a chief. Residential and agricultural lands were communally distributed. The Spanish colonial government imposed a system of control based on land ownership and religious authority, with led to a hierarchy of wealth that dominated Philippine politics until the modern era.

By 1863 popular protests had become common, especially against the educational system. The Spanish government instituted reforms and allowed natives to travel to Europe for higher education. Filipino émigrés living in Spain fueled the independence movement during the 1870s by publishing books and pamphlets that detailed the injustices of Spanish rule.

Writer and political leader Jose Rizal (1861–1896) founded the Philippine League—the nation’s first organization to seek independence—in 1892. He was arrested that same year as a political agitator. Rizal’s arrest and exile inspired the formation of an underground revolutionary organization, Katipuneros, under the leadership of Andres Bonifacio (1863–1897) and Emilio Aguinaldo (1869–1964). In 1896 the Katipuneros organized an armed uprising against the Spanish, which became known as the Cry of Balintawak. Aguinaldo controlled small parts of several islands and declared the establishment of an independent government. However, in 1897 Aguinaldo accepted an amnesty agreement and moved his faction to exile in Hong Kong.

During the Spanish-American War (1898), U.S. forces severely weakened the Spanish military in the Philippines. Aguinaldo seized the opportunity to return to the Philippines and take command of rebel forces. By June 1898 Aguinaldo’s rebels had seized control of Manila.

Following the 1898 Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States. Filipino revolutionaries refused to submit to U.S. rule and began, in 1899, the Philippine War of Independence. The war lasted almost two years and resulted in widespread damage to most of the nation’s major cities. U.S. forces captured Aguinaldo in 1901.

The United States turned the Philippines into a commonwealth—a territory with which it had a special, insular relationship—that was administered by a combination of locally elected leaders and appointed U.S. officials. In 1902 the U.S. Bill of Rights was extended to include the commonwealth, and the legislative and executive branches of the Philippine government were established. In 1907 the country held its first national elections, which were dominated by the newly formed Nacionalista Party.

In 1934 the U.S. Congress passed the Tydings-Duffie Act, which promised that the Philippines would remain a U.S. commonwealth until July 4, 1946, when it would be recognized as a fully independent republic.

Japanese forces bombed and then occupied the Philippines in 1942. Until the end of World War II the Philippines were under the control of the Japanese army, and thousands of Filipinos were confined to internment camps. During the occupation guerrilla forces organized the Hukbalahap (the People’s Anti-Japanese Army) and mounted an effective resistance. When the Japanese surrendered, however, U.S. forces imprisoned many of the Hukbalahap’s leaders because of their communist and socialist ties.

As the date for independence approached, the Nacionalista Party—which was seen as closely aligned to the U.S. government—began to lose support. When the elections were held in April 1946, the newly formed Liberal Party won a clear majority, and Manuel Roxas (1892–1948) became the first president of the Republic of the Philippines.

Government Structure

The 1987 constitution established the Philippines as a republic run by a government with executive, legislative, and judicial branches. In the executive branch, the president serves as head of state, head of the government, and the leader of the nation’s armed forces. After being elected to a six-year term, the president appoints an eighteen-member cabinet with approval of the legislature. The president is limited to a single term unless he or she was appointed for a term of fewer than four years. The vice president is also elected by popular vote and is usually a former member of the legislature.

The legislature consists of an upper chamber, the Senate, and a lower chamber, the House of Representatives. The exact number of senators and representatives is determined by the distribution and size of the population. Congressional districts are reapportioned within three years of each national census.

The Senate is composed of up to twenty-four senators elected for six-year terms, with half elected every three years. They are chosen by the entire electorate and do not represent specific geographical areas. In the House, district congressmen represent 212 specific geographical areas. In addition, sectoral representatives, who speak for minority interests, make up a small percentage of the total body. Representatives are elected for three-year terms.

The judicial branch consists of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court is the nation’s highest judicial body and has administrative control over the nation’s lower courts. It consists of one chief justice and fourteen associate justices whose length of service is limited only by the mandatory retirement age of seventy. Vacancies are filled by presidential appointment from three nominees chosen by a judicial commission.

The second-highest judicial body is the Court of Appeals, which consists of a chief justice and sixty-eight associate justices. The Court of Appeals reviews the decisions of the regional courts and oversees the tax courts.

Political Parties and Factions

The Philippines maintains a multiparty system in which no single political party can independently fill a majority of seats in the legislature and executive offices. Political parties form coalitions, which cooperate to win at each election cycle.

The Nacionalista Party, the nation’s first independent political party, was formed in 1901 by Manuel Quezon (1878–1944) and Sergio Osmeña (1878–1961). The major opposition party was the Liberal Party, founded in 1945 by politicians who defected from the Nacionalista Party. They included Roxas, the first president of the republic.

During the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos (1917–1989), most political parties were abolished or severely curtailed. In 1978 he formed the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, also known as the KBL or the New Society Movement, which functioned as a dictatorial regime.

In 1984 Senator Salvador Laurel (1928–2004) formed the United Nationalists Democratic Organizations (UNIDO), a new coalition of major and minor parties to oppose the Marcos administration. President Corazon Aquino (1933–) was later elected president as a representative of UNIDO, while Laurel served as vice president.

Between 1984 and the elections of 2007, a number of additional political parties surfaced, and two coalitions were organized. One of them, the TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More) Unity coalition, includes the Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino Party (KAMPI), founded by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (1947–) in 2007, and the closely aligned Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (Lakas-CMD), founded in 1991 by Fidel Ramos (1928–) and Emilio Osmeña (1938–).

The TEAM Unity coalition is generally associated with conservative social and fiscal policies, but it was also joined by members of the Liberal Party and the Democratic Socialist Party of the Philippines, both considered among the most liberal of the major political parties.

The major opposition is gathered into what is called the Grand Coalition (GC), formerly known as the United Opposition (UNO) and the Genuine Opposition (GO). The coalition was founded in 2005 by Jejomar Binay (1942–), the mayor of Makati, which is part of metropolitan Manila, and is generally considered the most socially liberal of the major coalitions. The GC includes remnants of the Nacionalista Party as well as supporters of the modern Liberal Party. In addition, the GC is backed by a number of smaller parties, including the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) and the Force of the Filipino Masses.

A number of minor factions also compete in general elections but are not aligned with the major coalitions. For example, the communist party, Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas, or PKP, is an offshoot of the country’s first organized communist movement, which appeared in the 1930s. During the Marcos dictatorship, communism was severely suppressed, but in the 1990s, during the Ramos presidency, it was granted political status.

A militant communist faction known as the New People’s Army (NPA), which has been active since the 1960s, has been accused of attempting to overthrow the government and of executing political activists. In 2006 President Macapagal-Arroyo signed legislation that gave the military a two-year deadline to find and imprison the leaders of the NPA.

Major Events

Since achieving independence in 1946, the Philippine government has twice ousted political leaders because of corruption and election fraud. The first such incident occurred at the end of the Marcos presidency. He had been elected in 1965 as a member of the Nacionalista Party and was popular during his first term, although the country was plagued by violence between radical political factions. In 1972, during his second term, Marcos used the growth of the communist faction and several terrorist-bombing incidents as justification for declaring martial law. Hundreds of opposition political leaders, journalists, and activists were detained and arrested. A year later Marcos created a new constitution that abolished the bicameral legislature and the term limit for president. Though some viewed Marcos as a dictator, some foreign governments—most notably the United States—gave military support to Marcos’s efforts to eliminate communist factions.

Marcos’s most serious political contender, Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. (1932–1983), was arrested in 1972 and spent several years in exile in the United States. Aquino returned to the Philippines to seek office in 1983 and was assassinated shortly after exiting the airplane. Following the assassination, Marcos lost the majority of his domestic and international support. Further compromised by growing economic difficulties, he declared a “snap election” to reaffirm the legitimacy of his government.

Allegations of widespread election fraud led to a popular uprising against Marcos. In February 1986 thousands of rebels and protesters gathered on the main thoroughfare of Manila, the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), in what became known as the EDSA Revolution (or People Power Revolution). It marked the end of the Marcos regime; he was forced into exile in the United States.

Corazon Aquino (1933–), the widow of Benigno Aquino, became the nation’s next president. She restored the freedoms restricted under the Marcos administration and also removed most of the provincial governors and military leaders who had been loyal to Marcos. In 1987 a new constitution, which reformed and restored the state as a representative republic, was adopted.

In November 2000 the House of Representatives called for the impeachment of President Joseph Estrada (1937–) after allegations of corruption and bribery appeared in the media. During the trial a group of senators voted to block a crucial piece of evidence relating to the corruption charges. People from across Manila gathered at the EDSA site to protest the trial; the crowd eventually grew to more than one hundred thousand people—the media began to refer to the event as EDSA II or the Second People Power Revolution. Estrada stepped down on February 20, 2001, and was succeeded by Vice President Macapagal-Arroyo.

Twenty-First Century

Though the Philippines has shifted toward a functional republican system, popular opinion of the government is a perennial problem. The Philippines faces high poverty and has had little success with economic reform. In addition, armed struggles with some radical political factions continue to threaten government stability.

In February 2006 Macapagal-Arroyo declared a state of emergency, claiming that her administration had uncovered a coup attempt by communists, soldiers, and members of opposition political parties. The state of emergency was lifted after a month; however, some citizens groups alleged that the president’s actions were unconstitutional. In May 2006 Amnesty International issued a statement expressing concern about a rise in vigilante killings and abductions of political activists and workers.

Schirmer, Daniel B., and Stephen Rosskamm Shalom, eds. The Philippines Reader: A History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship, and Resistance. Boston: South End Press, 1987.

Hedman, Eva-Lotta E., and John T. Sidel. Philippine Politics and Society in the Twentieth Century: Colonial Legacies, Post-Colonial Trajectories. London: Routledge, 2000.

Zaide, Gregorio F., and Sonya M. Zaide. Philippine History and Government, 5th ed. Manila: All Nations Publishing Company, 2002.