Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Overview: In February 1987, the Philippines adopted a new constitution that instituted the presidential-style republican form of democracy, which resembles the U.S. model much more than the European parliamentary system. One key difference between the Philippine and U.S. systems is that the Philippines is a unitary republic, whereas the United States is a federal republic, with significant powers reserved for the states. In the Philippines, by contrast, the national government is not challenged by local authority. The ratification of the 1987 constitution—the fourth in the nation’s history—by national referendum signaled the country’s return to democracy following the autocratic rule of Fernando Marcos (1965–86). Politics in the Philippines is somewhat tumultuous. In February 2006, the president declared a state of emergency after quashing the attempted coup staged by the political opposition.

Executive Branch: Embracing the concept of separation of powers, the constitution provides for a president, who is simultaneously head of government and chief of state, a separately elected vice president, a bicameral legislature, and an independent judiciary. The constitution includes legislative and judicial limits on the power of the president. The president cannot abolish Congress, and Congress can override a presidential veto with a two-thirds majority vote. Moreover, the president needs Congressional support in order to implement policies and programs. The Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of presidential decrees.

The president is elected to a single six-year term by direct universal suffrage; the vice president may be elected to a maximum of two consecutive six-year terms. The vice president may be appointed to the cabinet without legislative confirmation. The current president is Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who originally took office in January 2001, when she succeeded Joseph Estrada following his impeachment in November 2000. In May 2004, Macapagal-Arroyo was elected to a full term. The vice president, since June 2004, is Noli de Castro. The executive functions of the government are carried out through the Cabinet of Ministers. The cabinet, which in 2005 consisted of heads of 22 departments and offices, is appointed by the president with the consent of the Commission of Appointments.

Legislative Branch: The bicameral Congress of the Philippines consists of the Senate (upper chamber) and House of Representatives (lower chamber). Members of the 24-seat Senate are elected at large to six-year terms and are limited to no more than two consecutive terms. The current president of the Senate (since 2000) is Franklin M. Drilon. The House is limited by the constitution to no more than 250 members. In 2005 there were 238 members, of whom 214 (80 percent) were elected for three-year terms from legislative districts apportioned among the provinces, cities, and the Metropolitan Manila area in accordance with the population, on the basis of a uniform and progressive ratio. The other 24 members (limited by the constitution to 20 percent of the total) are presidential appointees elected through a party-list system of registered national, regional, and sectoral parties or organizations. House members are limited to no more than three consecutive terms. The current speaker of the House (now in his third term as speaker, most recently since 2004) is José de Venecia. By means of a two-thirds majority vote, Congress can override presidential vetoes and declare a state of war.

Judicial Branch: The Philippines has an independent judiciary, with the Supreme Court as the highest court of appeal. The Supreme Court also is empowered to review the constitutionality of presidential decrees. The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and 14 associate justices. It is not necessary for the entire court to convene in all cases. Justices are appointed by the president on the recommendation of the Judicial and Bar Council and serve until 70 years of age. The current chief justice, since 1998, is Hilario G. Davide, Jr. Lower-level courts include a national Court of Appeals divided into 17 divisions, local and regional trial courts, and an informal local system to settle certain disputes outside the formal court system. In 1985 a separate court system founded on Islamic law (sharia) was established in the southern Philippines with jurisdiction over family and contractual relations among Muslims. Three district magistrates and six circuit judges oversee the Islamic law system. A special court—the Sandiganbayan or anti-graft court—focuses exclusively on investigating charges of judicial corruption.

Administrative Divisions: Administrative divisions consist of regions, provinces, chartered cities, municipalities, and barangays (villages). Chartered cities are not part of any province and do not elect provincial officials. The Philippines has 17 regions, 79 provinces, 117 chartered cities, 1,500 municipalities, and 41,975 barangays. Metropolitan Manila, which is regarded as a region, consists of 14 cities, 3 municipalities, and 1,694 barangays. The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was established in 1990 following a plebicite in late 1989.

Provincial and Local Government: Governors and vice governors are elected to head provinces, the largest local administrative unit. Appointed functionaries responsible for managing offices concerned with finance, tax collection, audit, public works, agricultural services, health, and schools are subordinate not just to the governor, but also to national ministries. Because the Philippines is a unitary republic, local government has less power than it would have in a federal system. In fact, according to the constitution, the president oversees local government. The single biggest problem for local government has been inadequate funding. Although local government is permitted to levy taxes, such taxes are subject to restrictions by Congress, and they have been difficult to collect in practice. A fragmented four-province Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was formally established in November 1990 with its own governor and unicameral legislature.

Judicial and Legal System: The basis of the legal code is primarily Spanish and Anglo-American law. Islamic law applies among Muslims in portions of the southern Philippines. According to the constitution, those accused of crimes have the right to be informed of the charges against them, to be represented by counsel, and to have a speedy and fair public trial. Defendants also enjoy the presumption of innocence and have the right to confront witnesses, present evidence, and appeal convictions. However, the judiciary is said to suffer from corruption and inefficiency, which at times undermine the provision of due process and equal justice. As a result, the Supreme Court has undertaken a five-year program to speed up the judicial process and crack down on corruption.

Electoral System: The Philippines has universal direct suffrage at age 18 and older to elect the president, vice president (who runs independently), and most of the seats in the bicameral legislature, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate; a minority of House members known as sectoral representatives are appointed by the president. Elections are held not just for national leadership but also for representation at the provincial and local levels. In the last elections in May 2004, some 74 percent of eligible voters participated, but the process was marred by violence and numerous irregularities, which the political opposition continues to protest, even calling for the president’s impeachment.

Politics and Political Parties: President Macapagal-Arroyo represents the conservative Lakas-Christian Muslim Democratic Party (Lakas-CMD), since the May 2004 election the largest faction in the House of Representatives (100 seats). Lakas-CMD has formed a governing coalition with the Liberal Party (32 seats). Others parties in the House are the Nationalist Peoples Coalition (47 seats); Struggle for Democratic Filipinos (nine seats); Nationalista Party (six seats); Akbayan (three seats); Association of Philippine Electric Co-operatives (three seats); Bayan Muna (three seats); Power of the Filipino Masses (three seats); Aksyon Demokratiko, Promdi, and Reporma, which have formed an alliance (two seats); Philippine Democratic Party (two seats); and Philippines Democratic Socialist Party (two seats). Personalities are more important than parties in Philippine politics. Movie stars and other celebrities have enjoyed considerable success. In addition, several prominent families play a disproportionate role in politics.

Mass Media: The Office of the President is responsible for managing the government’s policy toward the press, but freedom of speech and freedom of the press are enshrined in the 1987 constitution. Although independent observers credit the government with respecting freedom of the press in general, the government has been criticized for failing to investigate thoroughly summary killings of journalists and for subjecting journalists to harassment and surveillance. The most widely read newspapers are the Manila Bulletin, Philippine Star, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Manila Times, and Business World. In 2004 the country had 225 television stations, 369 AM radio broadcast stations, 583 FM radio broadcast stations, and 5 shortwave stations. Although some media outlets, such as IBC (television) and the Philippine Broadcasting Service (radio), are government-run, most outlets are privately owned. Much media ownership is concentrated in the hands of prominent families and businesses. Consequently, some reports tend to be one-sided presentations favoring special interests. The privately owned press also tends toward sensationalism at times.

Foreign Relations: The foreign policy of the Philippines aims to promote democracy and human rights and the welfare of some 7 million overseas workers. The Philippines maintains close ties to Persian Gulf and other Middle Eastern nations where many of these workers are employed. In an effort to expand its relationship with the Islamic world, the Philippines is seeking observer status in the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The Philippines is an active member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The Philippines also has participated in a variety of United Nations-sponsored peacekeeping missions. However, in July 2004, after a Filipino truck driver was taken hostage in Iraq, the Philippines elected to withdraw troops from that embattled nation in order to win his release.

The Philippines maintains strong ties to the United States, which designated the nation a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally in 2003. Although the United States mildly rebuked the Philippines for yielding to insurgent demands in Iraq to withdraw its small contingent, the United States continues to view the Philippines as an important ally in the war on terrorism, particularly in view of various Islamic insurgencies on the islands of Mindanao and Jolo. The relationship with the United States was redefined in the early 1990s, when the United States complied with Philippine demands to vacate various military bases, including the naval base at Subic Bay. However, the two nations remain close, and in May 2004 the Philippines signed an agreement with the United States exempting U.S. military personnel in the Philippines from prosecution before the International Criminal Court.

The Philippines has an improving, but still fragile, relationship with China. As reflected in President Macapagal-Arroyo’s visit to China in 2001, the Philippines is seeking closer economic cooperation with China, even as it fears China’s growing economic and military clout. A territorial dispute over control of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea is an impediment to better relations. China also is concerned about the Philippines’ strong ties to the United States, which it views as a strategic rival in the region.

The Philippines cooperates with the neighboring countries of Indonesia and Malaysia in combating the regional threat posed by the Islamic terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah. Relations with Indonesia improved following the ouster of President Suharto in May 1998 after 32 years of authoritarian rule. Suharto’s overthrow mirrored Ferdinand Marcos’s overthrow in the Philippines in 1986. The Philippines’ relations with Malaysia are somewhat impaired by a territorial dispute over the state of Sabah, which is now part of Malaysia.

Japan and the United States are the Philippines’ leading trading partners and sources of direct investment. Japan is the top source of development assistance. Australia also is a significant economic and security partner. The Philippines and Singapore share a close economic and political relationship with the United States, and the two nations have engaged in joint military training exercises.

Membership in International Organizations: The Philippines belongs to the United Nations (UN), the World Trade Organization, and several key Asian regional organizations, notably the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), ASEAN’s Regional Forum, the Asian Development Bank, and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. In addition, the Philippines is a member of the following international organizations: Colombo Plan, Customs Cooperation Council, Group of 24, Group of 77, International Chamber of Commerce, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, International Criminal Police Organization, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Hydrographic Organization, International Olympic Committee, International Organization for Migration, International Organization for Standardization, Non-Aligned Movement, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, World Confederation of Labor, World Federation of Trade Unions, and World Tourism Organization. The Philippines has applied for observer status in the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

During 2004–5 the Philippines served as a temporary member of the UN Security Council. The Philippines is a permanent member of the following UN-affiliated organizations: Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Food and Agriculture Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), International Civil Aviation Organization, International Development Association, International Finance Corporation, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Labour Organization, International Maritime Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Telecommunication Union, UN Conference on Aid and Development, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UN Industrial Development Organization, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, UN University, Universal Postal Union, World Health Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, and World Meteorological Organization.

Major International Treaties: The Philippines is a party to the following environmental agreements: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, Wetlands, and Whaling. The Philippines has signed, but not ratified, the agreement on Air Pollution-Persistent Organic Pollutants. In the area of arms control, the Philippines is a party to the Biological Weapons Convention, Chemical Weapons Convention, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and Limited Test Ban Treaty. The Philippines has ratified numerous international human rights agreements, including those against slavery, genocide, prisoner of war abuse, human trafficking, racial discrimination, and torture. The Philippines also has adopted agreements designed to protect women, children, and refugees. Although the Philippines is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), it has not ratified the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty or the Copyright Treaty.


Armed Forces Overview: The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) consists of a 66,000-member army; a 24,000-member navy, including 7,500 marines; and a 16,000-member air force. Active forces are supplemented by 131,000 reserves. A joint service command covers five military areas. The 6,000-member National Capital Region Command, established in November 2003, is responsible for protecting the government against coup attempts. The president of the republic is commander in chief of the armed forces. The AFP is poorly funded and is armed with antiquated equipment. In 2003 the government moved to replace World War II-era rifles. In addition, only slightly more than half of the Philippines’ naval ships are operational, and only a few air force planes are combat ready. Compounding the problem of inadequate equipment, the AFP’s leadership has been accused of corruption and complicity with insurgent groups, although its primary mission involves counterinsurgency. In July 2003, junior officers staged an unsuccessful coup. The Philippines is the recipient of U.S. military assistance.

Foreign Military Relations: The United States and the Philippines have a mutual defense treaty that has been in effect since 1952, but it does not extend to territorial disputes involving the Spratly Islands. In 2003 the United States designated the Philippines as a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally. Total U.S. military assistance to the Philippines rose from US$38 million in 2001 to US$114 million in 2003 and a projected US$164 million in 2005, which would make the Philippines the fourth largest recipient of U.S. foreign military assistance. Australia reportedly also a major source of military assistance.

External Threat: The Philippines faces no major external threat.

Defense Budget: The defense budget for 2005 totaled US$840 million, or 5 percent of the proposed government budget of US$16.5 billion. Almost half of the defense budget was designated for the army. Viewed another way, 80 percent of the budget was slated for personnel and almost the entire remaining amount, for maintenance and operating expenses. Thus, less than 1 percent was available for desperately needed procurement.

Major Military Units: The army has eight light infantry divisions, one special operations command, five engineering battalions, one artillery regiment at headquarters, one presidential security group, and three light-reaction companies. The navy has two commands—Fleet and Marine Corps. Navy bases are located at Sangley Point/Cavite, Zamboanga, and Cebu. The air force is organized into headquarters and five commands: air defense, tactical operations, air education and training, air logistics and supply, and air reserves.

Major Military Equipment: The army is equipped with 65 light tanks, 85 armored infantry fighting vehicles, and 370 armored personnel carriers, as well as towed artillery, mortars, recoilless launchers, and several small aircraft. The navy is equipped with one frigate; 58 patrol and coastal combatants; 7 amphibious ships, plus about 39 amphibious craft; and 11 support and miscellaneous vessels. However, in April 2003 the armed forces chief of staff stated that only 56 percent of the navy’s vessels were operational. Naval aviation has six transport aircraft and four search-and-rescue helicopters. The air force has 36 combat aircraft and 25 armed helicopters.

Military Service: The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is an all-volunteer force. The minimum age for service is 20 years.

Paramilitary Forces: Paramilitary forces include the civilian Philippine National Police (under the Department of Interior and Local Government), with an estimated 115,000 personnel; the Coast Guard (run by the navy but technically part of the Department of Transportation and Communications), numbering 3,500; and local citizen armed militias, the Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGUs) estimated to number 40,000–82,000.

Foreign Military Forces: Beginning in 2002, the U.S. military has assisted the Armed Forces of the Philippines in fighting the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), an al Qaeda affiliate. Although foreign militaries are formally banned from conducting operations on Philippine soil, the U.S. military has maintained an officially advisory presence in the Philippines continuously since 2002. The two nations regularly conduct joint training exercises in the Philippines.

Military Forces Abroad: The Philippines has participated in a variety of United Nations (UN)-sponsored peacekeeping missions, most recently the UN Mission in Burundi, the UN Mission of Support in East Timor, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, the UN Mission in Ivory Coast, and the UN Mission in Liberia. The Philippines also participated in United States-led operations in Iraq, with troops involved in humanitarian assistance starting in August 2003. However, the Philippines decided to withdraw its small force in July 2004 when insurgents took a Filipino truck driver hostage.

Police: The Department of Interior and Local Government oversees the Philippine National Police (PNP), which has an active force of about 115,000. The PNP, which had been entrusted with internal security in 1996, lost this role two years later, when the Armed Forces of the Philippines—particularly the army—reasserted its lead role in internal security. In September 2002, the PNP regained some of its authority when it was allowed to form a counterinsurgency task force in northeast Mindanao. Meanwhile, the army established a parallel task force in southwest Mindanao.

Internal Threat: Insurgencies by various Islamic terrorist and separatist groups and the communist New People’s Army pose a significant internal threat. In response to this situation and the global war on terrorism, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has been restructured to combat domestic insurgencies, most of which are based on the southern island of Mindanao: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Jemaah Islamiyah, and the Communist Party of the Philippines’ New People’s Army (NPA). In addition, the loyalty of the military to the government remains in doubt, following an unsuccessful coup by a renegade faction of the AFP in July 2003.

Terrorism: The Philippines faces an indigenous terrorist threat from several organizations: the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), and the communist New People’s Army (NPA). The MILF and ASG, which aspire to establish an Islamic state on Mindanao, are reputed to have links to al Qaeda. The MILF, which has engaged in sporadic peace negotiations with the government and has some moderate elements, is the largest of the groups, with about 10,000 to 11,000 soldiers. The more militant ASG, after being forced to abandon its stronghold on the island of Basilan by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, has regrouped on Jolo. About 400 guerrillas now are affiliated with the group, about half the original level before its confrontation with the Philippine military. Jemaah Islamiyah, an al Qaeda affiliate active in Indonesia but with branches across Southeast Asia, allegedly failed to execute plans to bomb ceremonies marking the inauguration of the new Philippine government in June 2004. The NPA, the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, has about 3,000 guerrillas on Mindanao.

Human Rights: According to a U.S. Department of State report released in March 2006, Philippine security forces have been responsible for serious human rights abuses despite the efforts of civilian authorities to control them. The report found that although the government generally respected human rights, some security forces elements—particularly the Philippine National Police—practiced extrajudicial killings, vigilantism, disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrest and detention in their battle against criminals and terrorists. Prison conditions were harsh, and the slow judicial process as well as corrupt police, judges, and prosecutors impaired due process and the rule of law. Besides criminals and terrorists, human rights activists, left-wing political activists, and Muslims were sometimes the victims of improper police conduct. Violence against women and abuse of children remained serious problems, and some children were pressed into slave labor and prostitution.

Index for Philippines:
Overview | Government


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