Historical Development of Philippine Democratic Politics

The 1987 Philippine Constitution forms the basis for the current governmental structure of the country. Article II, Section 1 provides that “the Philippines is a democratic and republican state. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.” But how did our government structure evolve into what it is today? Take a look at a general overview of the historical background of Philippine politics and governance.

The Development of Philippine Government

The evolution of Philippine politics may be presented through the various historical periods that the country has undergone. The discussion will be divided as follows:

  1. Precolonial period (before 1565)
  2. Spanish period (1565–1898)
  3. Revolutionary period (1868–1898)
  4. American period (1898–1941)
  5. Japanese occupation (1941–1945)
  6. Postwar era or the Third Philippine Republic (1946–1971)
  7. Martial Law era (1972–1981) and the Fourth Republic (1981–1986)
  8. Post-EDSA or the Fifth Republic (1986–present)

Precolonial Period

Even before the Spaniards arrived in the Philippines in 1521, there already existed a system of governance in precolonial Philippines. Back then, the Philippines was an archipelago organized into several independent and self-sufficient political units known as the barangay.

This unit is headed by a chief known as the datu. In other parts of the archipelago, the rulers were called rajah, sultan, or hadji. The datu held vast legislative, executive, and judicial powers. You will learn more about these three powers in the succeeding modules. But for now, suffice it to say that the chieftain had powers to create rules, implement these regulations, and decide on cases. The datu also served as the military head.

During this period, the barangays already had a legal system, too. Most of the laws, which evolved based on native customs and traditions, were unwritten and were passed on from one generation to the next by oral tradition. In terms of justice, a system of trial in the form of trial by ordeal was administered. A system of punishment also existed during thattime. The barangay administered laws, and cases were settled as well through mediation and compromise.

Present also during the precolonial times was the system of stratification, which was deemed politically significant. The stratification was based on class, which included the nobility (maharlika), the freemen (timawa), the serfs (aliping namamahay) and the slaves (aliping sagigilid). The datu belonged to the maharlika class. Women also played a pivotal role during this period as they held important positions in precolonial Philippine society. The precolonial system was already complex and sophisticated, such that foreign relations were already established as early as this period. The following photos depict such organized and systematic government our forefathers established during that time.

A painting by Fernando Amorsolo depicting Lapulapu, a datu of Mactan
A painting by Fernando Amorsolo depicting Lapulapu, a datu of Mactan
The datu occupied the highest rank in the barangay, the most basic political unit in precolonial Philippines and up to this day.
The datu occupied the highest rank in the barangay, the most basic political unit in precolonial Philippines and up to this day.

Spanish Period

Ferdinand Magellan’s arrival in the Philippines in 1521 became the Spanish Crown’s basis for the occupation of the archipelago. Thereafter, a number of expeditions were sent to formally colonize the archipelago. However, it was only during Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s conquest of the islands in 1565 did the formal establishment of a colonial government take place.

The Spanish takeover brought changes in the archipelago’s governmental structure. The Philippines was indirectly governed by the king of Spain through Mexico through the Council of Indies in Spain. When Mexico gained independence in 1821, the Philippines was directly ruled by Spain until 1898, when the country was ceded to the United States of America under the Treaty of Paris.

If the precolonial government was characterized by independent barangays, the Spaniards consolidated power under a centralized government, which was led by the governor-general. With his authority based in Manila (Intramuros), the governor-general was likewise an all-powerful individual. He had executive, legislative, judicial, administrative, and military powers. The centralization of power and the creation of a basic unitary government is thus a Spanish influence.

The barangays were consolidated for the purpose of administrative efficiency. When the Spaniards were about to implement their imperial design, they noticed that the sparse indigenous population were scattered in forest lands and coastal areas. With this, the friars enticed the natives to live in towns.

Recognizing the influence of the datus for the easier pacification of natives, the Spaniards appointed the chieftains as the cabeza de barangay. The datu’s traditional powers, however, were lost and were limited to collecting taxes. The unified barangays composed the pueblos or towns, which were led by the gobernadorcillo (“little governor”). The consolidated towns then formed into provinces, which could be categorized into two. Provinces that were fully subjugated were called alcaldia, headed by the alcalde mayor; while provinces that were not entirely pacified under Spanish authority were called corregimiento, led by the corregidor.

If during the precolonial period the datu and the council of elders created laws, laws during the Spanish period emanated from Spain. On the other hand, there was a Royal Audiencia which was an independent body created to hear and solve cases. Initially, the governor-general headed the judicial body, but the chief justice replaced him permanently. Audiencias were established in Manila, Cebu, and Vigan. While the Audiencia was not an exact model of the present-day Supreme Court (Santos, n.d.), it nonetheless had influence on its structure.

Revolutionary Period

During the second half of the 19th century, the nationalist sentiments of the Filipinos were awakened. The Propaganda Movement, led by key figures such as Jose Rizal, Marcelo H. del Pilar, and Graciano Lopez Jaena, advocated reforms—such that the same rights and freedoms being enjoyed in Spain would also be granted to the Filipinos. They wrote novels, manifestos, and articles that called for reforms. However, the failure of the Propaganda to initiate changes in the society gave birth to a secret association, the Kataas-taasang Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (Katipunan). Founded in 1892 by Andres Bonifacio and a group of patriots, the Katipunan sought independence from Spain and set the 1896 Revolution in motion.

A Carlos V. Francisco painting that depicts the Philippine Revolution of 1896
A Carlos V. Francisco painting that depicts the Philippine Revolution of 1896

As an organization, the Katipunan adopted its own form of government, which had national and local levels. The Katipunan was governed by the Kataastaasang Sanggunian (Supreme Council), which was composed of the president, secretary/secretaries, treasurer, and fiscal. The Sangguniang Balangay (Provincial Council) and the Sangguniang Bayan (Popular Council) was also organized in each province and town, respectively. A Sangguniang Hukuman (JudicialCouncil) was also created to adjudicate on cases involving members of the organization.

Events, however, led to the division of the Katipunan into two factions: the Magdalo and Magdiwang. The Spaniards were about to make an offensive in Cavite and a unified leadership was deemed necessary. On 22 March 1897, the Tejeros Convention was called, where Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo was elected as president.

On 1 November 1897, Aguinaldo established the Biak-na-Bato Republic. Its constitution declared the creation of an independent Philippine state. The republic, however, lasted for only a month after the Pact of Biak-na-Bato was signed. It provided for the amnesty and monetary indemnity of Aguinaldo and other revolutionaries, including the exile of the revolutionary government to Hong Kong. The pact was supposed to signal the end of the revolution, but Aguinaldo and his men purchased more arms and ammunition to prepare themselves for another siege.

By April 1898, the Spanish-American war broke out. Aguinaldo sailed for Cavite from Hong Kong and by 24 May, he established a dictatorial government. It was under this dictatorial government that the Philippine independence from Spain was declared on 12 June in Kawit, Cavite.

Soon after, the dictatorial government was replaced by a revolutionary government. On 15 September 1898, months after the declaration of independence, the Malolos Congress convened, which produced the Malolos Constitution. On 23 January 1899, the First Philippine Republic was established with Emilio Aguinaldo as its president. A Supreme Court of Justice was likewise created, which addressed cases. However, the outbreak of the Filipino-American War suspended the activities of these institutions. In 1901, Emilio Aguinaldo was captured by American forces, leading to the dissolution of the First Philippine Republic.

The opening of the Malolos Congress at the Barasoain Church in Bulacan
The opening of the Malolos Congress at the Barasoain Church in Bulacan

American Period

The signing of the Treaty of Paris signaled the end of the Spanish-American War. The treaty involved United States’ payment of $20 million to Spain after the latter ceded all its imperial possessions, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The American occupation of the Philippines definitely precipitated the Philippine-American War. Following the capture of Emilio Aguinaldo and the defeat of revolutionary forces, the official end of hostilities was declared in 1902. Regardless of this, individual uprisings all over the archipelago still persisted, making the Philippine-American War one of the longest wars the United States has ever been to.

A photograph of Filipino soldiers during the Filipino-American War

In 1898, after America’s capture of Manila, the United States forces established a military government in the Philippines. It was led by a military governor, who exercised all powers of the government. The military governor administered the Philippines through the authority of the US President, who was also the Commander in Chief of the US Armed Forces. The military governors were Gen. Wesley Merritt (1898), Gen. Elwell Otis (1898–1900), and Maj. Gen. Arthur MacArthur, Jr. (1900–1901).

The Spooner Amendment eventually ended the military regime. A civilian governor replaced the military governor. The Americans established the Insular Government of the Philippine Islands under the authority of the Bureau of Insular Affairs, a division which oversaw the civil affairs of some US foreign territories. What ensued thereafter was the establishment of governmental structures that would later on affect or shape the course of Philippine politics.

William H. Taft (in office 1901–1904) became the first civil governor of the Philippines. The civil governor acted as the head of the executive branch and also exercised legislative powers as the head of the Philippine Commission, a lawmaking body, whose members were all appointed.

In 1902, the Philippine Organic Act (Cooper Act) was enacted, which provided for the creation of a Philippine legislature. The legislature would be bicameral, with the all-appointed Philippine Commission as the upper house; and the Philippine Assembly, whose members were to be elected, as the lower house. In 1907, the first nationwide election was held and the Philippine legislature held its first session. By 1916, the Philippine Autonomy Act (Jones Law) provided for the reorganization of the Philippine legislature into a fully elected and Filipino-controlled bicameral body. The Philippine Commission became the Senate, while the Philippine Assembly became the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, Filipino statesmen were already working toward total Philippine independence from the United States. Until in 1934, the Tydings-McDuffie Act (Philippine Independence Act) was ratified by the US Congress. It established the Philippine Commonwealth, which provided for a 10-year transition period that would prepare the Filipinos for self-governance. The 1935 Constitution was promulgated, which paved the way for a presidential and unicameral legislative system called the National Assembly of the Philippines. The legislature was later restored to bicameral after an amendment in the Commonwealth Constitution. An independent judiciary was also established, with judicial power vested in a supreme court and such other inferior courts as provided by law. President Manuel Quezon and Vice President Sergio Osmeña headed the first Commonwealth government. The Commonwealth government went in exile when the Japanese occupied the Philippines from 1942–1945.

The influence of the American occupation on the structure of government of the country is very evident. The democratic political institutions established, including electoral and party politics, constitutional law, the secret ballot, and the legislature, are manifestations of the strong influence the Americans had on our current political system. Similarly, our belief in the democratic ideals that guide governance of the country is by itself an American influence. As Teehankee (2002) noted, colonialism became the defining force in the emergence of democracy in the Philippine nation-state.

Japanese Occupation

The Japanese occupation of Manila signaled the establishment of the Japanese Military Administration on 3 January 1942. It consequently led to the interruption of American rule in the Philippines.

As an initial move, the Japanese military forces established the Philippine Executive Commission (PEC), a civil government that would temporary rule the country. It was composed of Filipinos, with Jorge B. Vargas as its chairman. While this commission exercised executive and legislative powers, everything was subject to approval by the commander in chief of the Japanese forces.

In 1943, a new constitution was promulgated and the Japanese-sponsored Philippine Republic was established. Jose P.Laurel served as its president. Also called the Second Republic, its executive, legislative, and judiciary structures were similar to those of the PEC. While Filipinos assumed government positions, the Japanese apparently influenced how the country would be administered. Thus, the Second Republic is commonly referred to as a “puppet” government.

Soon after the return of Gen. Douglas MacArthur to the Philippines in 1944 and the eventual defeat of the Japanese forces, the Commonwealth government was reestablished. The 1935 Constitution again became the highest law of the land. Meanwhile, Manila suffered as the second most devastated city after the Second World War, next to the city of Warsaw in Poland. By 5 July 1945, MacArthur announced the liberation of the Philippines. The reestablishment of the government under Osmeña saw enormous problems: devastation by war, destruction of the economy, political warfare, and guerilla violence. Thus, the primary problem during this period was the reconstruction of the country and of the government.

Intramuros after the war
Intramuros after the war

Postwar Era

As what has been mentioned earlier, the Tydings-McDuffie Act granted independence to the Philippines after the 10-year transitional period. This happened on 4 July 1946, despite the fact that the Philippines was still rising up from the ashes brought by the war. The Third Republic was also inaugurated on this day.

The structure of postwar Philippine politics and government was founded on the 1935 Constitution. The said constitution provided for a presidential and unitary system, wherein the president will be directly elected by the people and will serve for four years with a maximum of two terms. There was also a bicameral legislature composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives, whose members are also directly elected by the people. An independent judicial body—composed of the Supreme Court and the lower courts—was also created. Philippine politics and government were democratic in a sense that they provided for the separation of powers and a system of checks and balances among the three branches of the government. Electoral and party politics (see unit II, module 10) also characterized pre- and postwar periods.

The first president of the Third Republic was Manuel Roxas (in office 1946–1948), followed by Elpidio Quirino (1948–1953), Ramon Magsaysay (1953–1957), Carlos P. Garcia (1957–1961), Diosdado Macapagal (1961–1965), and the first term of Ferdinand Marcos (1965– 1969). Marcos’s second term saw changes in the governmental structure and the ratification of a new constitution in 1973.

Manuel Roxas took his oath of office during the Independence Day ceremony on 4 July 1946.
The Philippine flag was raised as the US flag was lowered during the inauguration of the Third Philippine Republic.
The Philippine flag was raised as the US flag was lowered during the inauguration of the Third Philippine

Martial Law Era and the Fourth Republic

In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos was elected to the presidency and his administration was characterized by an increased agricultural productivity, massive infrastructure development, and a defining diplomatic policy. In 1969, he ran for reelection and succeeded, making him the only president under the 1935 Constitution to be elected for a second term. That time, however, the country was undergoing worsening economic condition, deteriorating peace and order, social discontent, and a growing Communist insurgency.

To “save” the Republic from this turmoil and to reform the society, Marcos, on 23 September 1972, announced on nationwide radio and television that he was placing the entire country under martial law. The declaration was made through the virtue of Proclamation 1081 which was signed on 21 September. Marcos rationalized that martial law was the only option that would solve the rebellion which posed a threat to the peace and order of the country. He then instituted the Bagong Lipunan (New Society), which envisioned a thriving and self-reliant society that is based on new social and political values.

Under Marcos’s administration, a new constitution was adopted in 1973. The 1973 Constitution provided that the Philippines will have a modified parliamentary form of government. The president will serve as a ceremonial head of state, with the following functions: address the National Assembly at the opening of its regular section; proclaim the election of prime minister; dissolve the National Assembly and call for a general election; appoint all officers and employees in accordance with the Civil Service Law, among others (Article VII, Section 6). On the other hand, the prime minister will be the head of the cabinet (Article IX, Section 1), be responsible to the National Assembly for the program of government approved by the president and determine the guidelines of national policy (Section 2), and be the commander in chief of all armed forces in the Philippines (Section 12), among others.The president and the prime minister were to be elected by the National Assembly, a unicameral legislative body composed of assemblymen elected by the people.

By 1976, the 1973 Constitution was amended. Instead of having an election for the National Assembly, an interim Batasang Pambansa would be established, composed of the incumbent president, the current regional and sectoral representatives, and the members of the cabinet. The interim Batasang Pambansa would have the same power as that of the National Assembly.

The third item in the 1976 amendments allowed Marcos to be the president and the prime minister at the same time. He shall “continue to exercise all his powers even after the interim Batasang Pambansa is organized and ready to discharge its functions. Likewise, he shall continue to exercise his powers and prerogatives under the 1935 Constitution and the powers vested on the President and the Prime Minister under this Constitution.” Ultimately, Marcos’s legislative powers were solidified as the sixth item allowed him to “issue the necessary decrees, orders, or letters of instructions, which shall form part of the law of the land” if the interim Batasang Pambansa or the regular National Assembly fails to address matters deemed requiring immediate action by the president–prime minister. In 1981, the constitution was again amended. With these changes in the government structure, Marcos was able to stay in the presidency longer and exercise greater powers.

During martial law, the political rights and civil liberties of the people as well as their human rights were suppressed and violated. The suspension of the writ of habeas corpus led to the arrest and detention of any person without proper court proceeding. There were also cases of human rights abuses among those who were vocal against the regime. Press freedom was

suppressed as Marcos established control of mass media. Through Letter of Instruction No. 1, Marcos ordered the closure of media establishments in the country. He also used his power to seize companies and industries and to place them under the control of his trusted supporters and relatives, instituting what came to be known as crony capitalism.

While Marcos already lifted martial law by 1981, he continued to exercise dictatorial powers. Calls to end his dictatorial regime brought Filipinos to take to the streets to participate in a popular and nonviolent uprising called the EDSA People Power, which ousted Marcos and ended his dictatorial rule.

People carried religious images during the peaceful demonstration.
People carried religious images during the peaceful demonstration.

Post-EDSA Period

The period from 1986 onward is the restoration of democracy. The fall of the dictatorship marked the shift toward redemocratization and return to constitutionalism. A revolutionary government was created following Corazon Aquino’s ascent to presidency. A Freedom Constitution was also framed, which served as the foundation of the transitory government. When a new Philippine Constitution was ratified in 1987, a democratic and republican government was established.

The 1987 Constitution featured aspects that reflected those of the 1935 Constitution, albeit several changes. The post-EDSA era, also known as the Fifth Republic, saw the revival of democracy, wherein governmental powers emanate from the people. Elections, political parties, and civil societies were thus reinstituted. Civilian authority (through the president) was recognized supreme over the military. An independent judiciary was also reestablished. The Philippine legislature also returned to a bicameral form, with the rebirth of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Corazon Aquino (in office 1986–1992) served as the first president of the Fifth Republic. She was followed by Fidel Ramos (1992–1998) and Joseph Estrada, who only served half of his term (1998–2001) after being deposed by the EDSA People Power II. Estrada was succeeded by his vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who eventually won the 2004 presidential election and thus served as executive for almost a decade (2001–2010). She was followed by Benigno Simeon Aquino III (2010–2016), son of former president Corazon Aquino. Today, the Philippines is headed by Rodrigo Duterte, the first president to have hailed from Mindanao.