Political Reforms in the Philippines: Challenges Ahead

By Yu, Samuel C. K. | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2005 | Go to article overview

Political Reforms in the Philippines: Challenges Ahead


Yu, Samuel C. K., Contemporary Southeast Asia


Introduction

Since mid-1986 the Philippines has embarked on a series of political reforms, which started with a revised Constitution. Corazon Aquino, then president of the Philippines, organized a committee to draft a new Constitution, which was ratified by over three-quarters (78 per cent) of the voters in a referendum in February 1987. The Philippines then conducted three presidential elections in 1992, 1998, and 2004 based on the new Constitution. Thus, while the Philippines had been ruled by the authoritarian Ferdinand Marcos for more than twenty years from 1965 to 1986, the polity seems to have transformed into a democratic one.

Is the Philippines already a liberal democracy, or just an electoral democracy? What political reforms are being implemented? How will leaders in the archipelago restructure the political dominance of powerful factions in the country? Is a Western liberal democracy really the political goal? Given the potential threat of the military to the legitimate government, can the Philippines achieve democratic consolidation in the future? In addition, the Philippines achieved modest economic growth in the early 1990s, but the Asian financial crisis hit the country badly: without strong economic development, can the Philippines continue to move towards liberal democracy? As the first civil democracy in Southeast Asia after the end of WWII and the first country to implement political reforms since the mid-1980s, can the Philippines also become the first consolidated liberal democracy in the region? These are the questions explored in this article.

While Filipinos reclaimed their liberties in the People Power revolution in February 1986, (1) some scholars and observers have begun questioning the success of political reforms in the archipelago, particularly because of the sustained rebellion on Mindanao Island and potential military threats to the ruling government, such as the one-day abortive coup on 27 July 2003. This paper argues that, while the nature of the regime has changed, democracy has not yet matured in the archipelago.

The first four sections of this paper will focus on the political reform programmes in the Philippines. demonstrating their progress. This will be followed by an analysis on the broad challenges to further political reforms in the Philippines in another three sections: the fifth section examines the major challenge for political reform in the Philippines, i.e. the issue of the nature of the regime, and analyse whether the country is an electoral democracy or a liberal democracy; the sixth section will explore the second challenge, i.e. the relationship between political reforms and economic growth in the archipelago; and the final challenge will be examined in the seventh section of the paper, exploring the variable of timing. The conclusion of the paper is that the road to a liberal democracy in the Philippines is not an easy one; Filipinos need more time to establish a consolidated liberal democracy.

Bolstering Political Participation

Rule by an elite few was a common political phenomenon in the Philippines. Big landlords and rich families have ruled for decades, while the military remains powerful and influential even after the downfall of former president Marcos. These dominant groups are not only politically powerful because of their positions in both the government and the legislature from the central to the local level; they are also economically dominant because they own and run most of the businesses and corporations in the country. These groups of people have intertwined political bases and economic interests, which explains why they have been able to rule the Philippines for years.

An even more fundamental reason for this political phenomenon is that political participation was a privilege for the weathy, leaving the masses outside the circle of the policy-making process. It was only the rich families who were able to establish their own patron-client relationships, a network to develop their political connections in the government and gain advantages and privileges in running their businesses and corporations (Lande 1965; Staufer 1975; Hawes 1987; Kerkvliet 1974) As a result, those who were in power would continue to garner both political and economic clout, whereas those who were powerless would continue to be ruled. …

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