Democratic Failure in the Philippines

Author: Dillan Jacobson, 2018.


“In 2017, the Philippines ranked fifty-first out of one-hundred and sixty countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index, an index that measures the depth and strength of each country’s democratic structures and processes…”

Photo by Nestor Lacle on Flickr under Creative Commons.


In 2017, the Philippines ranked fifty-first out of one-hundred and sixty countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index, an index that measures the depth and strength of each country’s democratic structures and processes (Gavilan 2018).  In the same year, Freedom House classified the Philippines as a “partly free” nation, with an aggregate score of 63/100, in which zero signifies “least free” and 100 signifies “most free” (“Freedom in the World 2017”). While recent actions taken by President Rodrigo Duterte significantly contribute to these low scores, the state of democracy in the Philippines has been fragile since the country first adopted its constitution in 1935 (Kästle). Thus, an examination of democracy in the Philippines warrants an understanding of the country’s history, its democratic influences, and historical democratic setbacks. Based on these considerations, this study examines the current challenges to a functioning democracy in the Philippines. The most significant challenges to present-day democracy in the Philippines stem from the mass wealth inequality between the ruling class and the population at large – a feature that originated with the early colonization of the country, and has continued ever since. This significant economic inequality– a source of ongoing social discontent– is further compounded by the absence of strong political parties that regulate campaign finance, which has led to candidates having to finance their own campaigns. When analyzed together, these issues have maintained elite dominance and sustained corrupt voting practices, which has in turn contributed to the growing support for anti-democratic leaders who claim to be representative of the population at large. This paper will argue that the combination of these challenges threatens the realization of a proper-functioning democracy in the Philippines today.


History of Democracy in the Philippines

The establishment of democratic institutions can be traced back to early American rule of the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century. Three-hundred years of Spanish control over the Philippines ended with America’s victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898; the transfer of the Philippines to the United States was codified in the Treaty of Paris (Kästle). The United States’ colonization of the Philippines had arguably the most influence on the country’s establishment of democracy. As noted by scholars Hutchcroft and Rocamora, “Prior to American colonial rule, it is important to note, the Philippines had no significant experience with national-level democratic institutions or national-level political parties” (262). Since the Philippines was its first colony, the United States introduced democratic institutions largely to expand the “American image” throughout the Asia-Pacific (Veloso Abueva 114), and thus incorporated elements of the basic democratic structures that were set forth in the United States’ constitution, such as the integration of free elections, the granting of universal suffrage, freedom of expression, and upholding of the rule of law (Putzel 200). Specifically, the Philippines’ first constitution in 1935 divided power between the legislative and executive branches, established an independent judiciary, and granted basic civil liberties such as the freedom of speech and freedom of the press (Putzel 203). The establishment of democratic institutions in the Philippines paved the way for the country’s independence in 1946.

Prior to independence, the Philippines’ experienced the first of many significant challenges to its new and relatively fragile democracy.  The Japanese occupied the Philippines during World War II until the Allies’ victory in 1945, and actively supported an “anti-democratic government” during this occupation (Putzel, 206). The Japanese abolished all political parties that had formed in the early years of American rule, and instead, instituted a nationalist monopoly party that received the support of much of the ruling elite (Putzel, 206). Following the Allies’ victory in 1945, the United States attempted to “save democracy” and re-establish the pre-war institutions that had been abolished under Japanese rule (Putzel 207). Although the United States’ concessions improved the stability of the Philippines’ democratic institutions, one of the major consequences of its intervention was the formation of an elite hegemony, and consequently, the rise of violent guerillas and other communist parties that opposed the dominance of the elite (Hutchcroft and Rocamora 270). The Philippines colonial history left it with ongoing societal inequality, which was further compounded by the absence of any meaningful participation by the Filipino political class and its citizens.  Democratic initiatives are inevitably undermined if they do not take seriously the unique socio-economic context, and therefore, the inclusion of both the knowledge and experience of the country’s citizens is fundamental to this process. The lack of a strong Filipino presence in the democratic process contributed to the fragility, and largely unsustainable democratic set-up that was initially instituted by the American colonists.


Early Challenges to Democracy

Despite the Philippines’ independence in 1946, the government was still largely dependent on U.S.’ markets (Kästle). Since the trading system largely benefited the elite and enhanced wealth inequality amongst the population, a strong opposition to elite dominance emerged, leading to the rise of a strong guerilla movement, and ascendancy of the Nacionalista Party, a party that claimed to represent the masses (Kästle). The party was ruled by Ferdinand Marcos, who was president from 1965 until the party’s defeat in 1986 (Kästle). Marcos was democratically elected; however, in order to remain in power for longer than the two-term limit as set forth in the 1935 Constitution, he declared Martial law for a period of nine years (Hutchcroft and Rocamora 275). Commonly referred to as the “Martial Law Era”, this period can be classified as one of most significant setbacks to democratic development in the history of the Philippines. During this period, there were no elections, and “prominent members of the democratic opposition along with street activists were rounded up and put in jail, the legislature was dissolved” (Putzel 209). Support for Marcos eventually began to wane due to “rampant cronyism, human rights abuses, and economic decline” during his presidency (Hutchcroft and Rocamora 277).

Public opposition was widespread, and traditional elites as well as members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) supported Marcos’ defeat (Hutchcroft and Rocamora 277). In 1986, Marcos called for a “snap” election, and ran against opposition leader Corazon Aquino; however, due to Marcos’ dominance in the National Assembly, he manipulated the votes in his favor (Kästle). In response to the blatant corruption in the voting process, thousands of citizens took the streets in order to demonstrate their condemnation of Marcos’ illegitimate win and his corrupt actions as president (Putzel 210). The revolt finally forced Marcos to flee the country, and Corazon Aquino took power, “on a platform promoting democratic reform, respect for human rights and economic reconstruction” (Putzel 210).  Aquino’s pro-democracy platform revitalized democratic institution-building in the Philippines.

Although the period from Aquino’s victory in 1986 and extending until the present day has witnessed less pronounced threats to democracy when compared to the events that occurred during the Japanese occupation and Marcos’ rule, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the Philippines is a properly functioning democracy. In the subsequent sections, this paper will seek to demonstrate that the most significant challenges to modern-day democracy in the Philippines are largely due to the impact of the United States’ colonization.


Democratic Setbacks: From Past to Present

As previously outlined, the United States instituted early democratic institutions in the Philippines that were modeled after their own democratic system (Manglapus 613). The constitutional framework that was established integrated democratic features, such as a division of powers, defined terms in office, and an independent judiciary (Putzel 203). Other elements included the installation of a two-party system, the separation of church and state, and freedom of the press (Overholt 2017). By the year of independence in 1946, the Philippines had also received higher development scores than any of the other colonies based on its advanced infrastructure projects, “literacy, secondary education, newspaper circulation (per 1,000 inhabitants), steel consumption, electricity consumption, and income” (Overholt 2017). Despite the importance of these institutions, on their own, they are not enough to ensure a strong functioning democracy.

The democratic system that was instituted by the United States was built on foundations of social and economic inequality; this had a lasting effect on the socio-political condition of Filipino people, and consequently, on the state of democracy in the Philippines. As Putzel noted, “The U.S. had introduced democratic institutions over a political economy marked by the domination of landed wealth and local ‘boss rule” (203). Benedict Anderson termed this set-up as a “cacique democracy”, which signified that power was concentrated by an elite oligarchy (Putzel 203). American colonizers sought to expand their commercial power over the Asia-Pacific area, and were thus interested in securing more access to the resources and markets in the Philippines (Putzel 203). In exchange for this access, “indigenous power brokers were given considerable autonomy to rule the colony and accumulate wealth in their own right” and power was concentrated by the few families who were involved in this exchange of service (Putzel 204). These elite families increasingly gained prominence by dominating “agricultural commodity trade, overland transport, inter-island shipping, local distribution of imported goods and incipient manufacturing activity” (Putzel 204).  Evidently, this system was sustained by the desire of those in power to maintain the structure from which they benefitted – through exploitative and corrupt practices.

The large divide that was drawn between wealthy landlords and peasants alienated poor, uneducated families from participation in the political system (Overholt 2017). Further, while the United States had created intricate legal institutions based on its own structures, the complexity of these institutions impeded the average Filipino citizen from accessing its services, and therefore, inhibited access to due process and a fair trial (Overholt 2017). As Overholt wrote, “In a society that combined extensive poverty with extreme inequality and limited education, the typical citizen had no ability to comprehend the legal system or afford a lawyer for those who did” (Overholt 2017).  Therefore, the elite were better placed to utilize and exploit these institutions. Given that the majority of the population could not effectively access the institutions that supposedly upheld their democratic rights, democracy in the Philippines failed to represent and protect the population at large. Even today, this democratic system lacks sufficient mechanisms for preventing the exploitation of these institutions, and thus exclusively rewards the minority who have enough money and influence to reap its benefits, despite rising education rates nationally.

Another consequence of a system marked by elite dominance in the Philippines is the ubiquity of corruption. In the early republic under the United States’ control, oligarchs were responsible for counting votes and determining new candidates (Putzel 204). This unchecked responsibility manifested in the utilization of “vote-buying” practices, where rewards were given in exchange for specific voting choices (Putzel 204). Vote-buying practices are still used today and have become even more widespread and multifaceted (Rodriguez 2016). Another avenue for corruption in voting practices results from the absence of strong political parties able to regulate campaign finance. In the Philippines, the political parties lack strong bases of “dues-paying members,” and thus, “a political party leader usually banks on his own funds or relies on some business or other supporters for the campaign requirements of the party” (Carlos et al. 18). When political candidates are expected to fund their own campaigns – in the absence of strong political parties that support the finance of a candidate’s campaign – members of the elite are clearly at an advantage in running for presidency. This has maintained an elite dominance over the government, sustained corrupt voting practices, and ultimately fostered mass-societal discontent.


Future Challenges

Democracy in the Philippines is associated with a ruling elite often accused of widespread corruption and the preservation of wealth inequality (Heydarian 2016). In the 1950s, Ferdinand Marcos rose to power when public dissatisfaction with the ruling elite was at a peak, with an initial election campaign built on the promise of improving the quality of life for the masses (Kästle). Today, some are calling this “democratic fatigue” – that is, the public’s willingness to elect a leader, such as Duterte, who has outwardly challenged democratic principles, evidenced by his threats to “suspend the constitution” and “invoke nationwide martial law” (Ranoco, 2018).

In 2011, the Philippines had a Gini index– the measure of inequality in the distribution of income in a country– of 44 percent, which was higher than its neighboring nations, such as Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam (Ho 2011). The most recent World Bank data on the Philippines demonstrates a Gini index of 40 percent, in which zero signifies “perfect equality”, while 100 signifies “perfect inequality” (“GINI Index”). Scholars Ethan Kapstein and Nathan Converse argued, “If large segments of the populace share only a sliver of the nation’s wealth, they may view the political order—even if ‘democratic’ in institutional form—as being unresponsive or even detrimental to their interests” (61). Clearly, a country’s Gini Index is not the sole indicator of a democratic outcome, given that many functioning democracies have greater levels of inequality than the Philippines; however, a functioning democracy is significantly threatened by the combination of high rates of inequality and political and legal institutions that are rife with corruption and lack measures of accountability. As Marcos’ rise to power demonstrated, and as recently proven by Duterte, the core issues with democracy in the Philippines stem from the mass societal discontent with the significant wealth inequality and corruption of the leadership. These democratic deficits have yet to be addressed in any meaningful way.

The government has recently placed a stronger emphasis on social policy initiatives in order to reduce the poverty rate and income inequality. Significantly, the government introduced a more comprehensive tax collection system in 2012 to fund investment in primary and secondary education, healthcare and safety, and infrastructure. While these initiatives are fundamental to alleviate societal inequality, the country requires a substantial reform to the legal system to include more stringent anti-corruption mechanisms for preventing the exploitation of these institutions from those with money and strong political influence.

It is interesting to consider whether these reforms will be implemented during the next few years under Duterte’s rule. As a leader who claims to identify with the majority of the population, his ascendancy is merely symbolic without an element of political reform in order to eventually include more of the population in the political process, and also to provide greater accountability mechanisms to limit large-scale corruption. In the meantime, the country is ruled by a dictatorial leader currently under investigation by the International Criminal Court.



As Amartya Sen wrote, “Democracy does not serve as an automatic remedy…[it] has to be seen as creating a set of opportunities, and the use of these opportunities calls for analysis of a different kind, dealing with the practice of democratic and political rights” (155). The core issues with democracy in the Philippines stem from the significant wealth inequality between the ruling class and the general population, which has been a feature of the country since its colonization, and has contributed to today’s mass societal discontent. American colonizers established relatively strong democratic institutions in the Philippines, especially when compared to other colonies. However, even with the skeleton of an extremely sophisticated legal system, a defined two-party system, and a constitution that sought to uphold civil liberties, democracy in the context of the Philippines could not function in the same manner as it did in the United States or other Western democracies. Although the basic structure of democracy was introduced to the Philippines, its social, political, and economic context was exploited for American colonial interests. Democratization has been further compromised by the absence of strong political parties that regulate campaign finance, which has led to candidates having to finance their own campaigns. Weak campaign finance regulations have maintained corrupt voting practices and fostered increasing societal resentment. This has contributed to growing support for anti-democratic leaders. The combination of these issues threatens the realization of a proper functioning democracy in the Philippines today.



Works Cited

Carlos, Clarita R., et al. “Democratic Deficits in the Philippines: What Is to Be Done?” University of the Philippines, Center for Political and Democratic Reform, Inc., 2010,

“Freedom in the World 2017: Philippines Profile.” Freedom House, 2017,

Gavilan, Jodesz. “Quality of PH Democracy ‘Adversely Affected’ under Duterte  – Report.” Rappler, 1 Feb. 2018,

“GINI Index (World Bank Estimate) Data.” The World Bank, 2015,

Heydarian, Richard Javad. “The End of Philippine Democracy?” The Huffington Post, 11 Apr. 2016,

Ho, Abigail L. “Philippines Leads in Income Inequality in Asean, Says Study.”, 11 July 2011,

Hutchcroft, Paul D., and Joel Rocamora. “Strong Demands and Weak Institutions: The Origin and Evolution of the Democratic Deficit in the Philippines.” Journal of East Asian Studies, vol. 3, no. 02, 2003, pp. 259–292., doi:10.1017/s1598240800001363.

Kapstein, Ethan B., and Nathan Converse. “Why Democracies Fail.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 19, no. 4, 2008, pp. 57–68. Project MUSE [Johns Hopkins UP], doi:10.1353/jod.0.0031.

Kästle, Klaus. “History of the Philippines.” One World Nations

Manglapus, Raul S. “The State of Philippine Democracy.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 38, no. 4, 1960, 613–624., doi:10.2307/20029447.

Overholt, William H. “Duterte, Democracy, and Defense.” Brookings, 2017,

Putzel, James. “Survival of an Imperfect Democracy in the Philippines.” Democratization, vol. 6, 1, 1999, pp. 198–223., doi:10.1080/13510349908403603.

Ranoco, Romeo. “US Intelligence Report: Philippines’ Duterte a Threat to Democracy.” Public Radio International, 21 Feb. 2018,

Rodriguez, Fritzie. “The Many Ways of Buying Votes.” Rappler, 3 Apr. 2016,

Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. Anchor Books, New York, 2000.

Veloso Abueva, Jose. “Filipino Democracy and the American Legacy.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 428, 1976, pp. 114-133. Sage Publications,

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