Political Rights: 2
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Free
Population: 81,600,000
GNI/Capita: $1,030
Life Expectancy: 70
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (83 percent), Protestant (9 percent), Muslim (5 percent), other [including Buddhist] (3 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Tagalog (28.1 percent), Cebuano (13.1 percent), Ilocano (9 percent), Bisaya/Binisaya (7.6 percent), Hiligaynon Ilonggo (7.5 percent), Bikol (6 percent), Waray (3.4 percent), other (25.3 percent)
Capital: Manila


President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was the favorite to win the May 2004 presidential elections after she announced in October 2003 that she would stand for reelection, reversing an earlier decision not to run. Arroyo is credited with boosting tax revenues and stabilizing the budget deficit but has been less successful in tackling the Philippines' rampant crime and chronic corruption, whose burdens fall heaviest on poorer Filipinos. Her administration also has struggled to reign in armed Islamic groups making their bases in the southern jungles.

The Philippines won independence in 1946 after being ruled for 43 years by the United States and occupied by the Japanese during World War II. Once one of Southeast Asia's wealthiest nations, the Philippines has been plagued since the 1960s by insurgencies, economic mismanagement, and widespread corruption.

The country's economic and political development was further set back by Ferdinand Marcos's 14-year dictatorship. Marcos was finally chased out of office in 1986 by massive "People Power" street protests and the defections of key military leaders and units. He was succeeded by Corazon Aquino, who had been cheated out of victory in an election rigged by the strongman's cronies.

Though she came to symbolize the Philippines's emergence from authoritarian rule, Aquino managed few deep political or economic reforms while facing seven coup attempts. Her more forceful successor, former army chief Fidel Ramos, ended chronic power shortages, privatized many state firms, and trimmed bureaucratic red tape.

With the popular Ramos constitutionally barred from running for reelection, Vice President Joseph Estrada won the 1998 presidential election behind pledges to help poor Filipinos. Almost from the outset, the Estrada administration was dogged by allegations that it was corrupt and that it gave favorable treatment to the business interests of well-connected tycoons. The House of Representatives impeached him on these and other grounds in November 2000, but Estrada's supporters blocked prosecutors from introducing key evidence during his trial in the Senate. The resulting massive street protests and public withdrawal of support by military leaders forced Estrada to resign in January 2001.

As vice president, Arroyo became president under the constitutional line of succession. In the first major test of her administration's popularity, Arroyo's coalition won 8 of 13 contested Senate seats and a majority in the House in the May 2001 legislative elections. Nevertheless, Arroyo has been dogged by questions about the legitimacy of her unelected administration, while her establishment image – she is the daughter of a former president of the Philippines – makes her an easy political target for populist backers of former president Estrada.

Far from the political bickering in Manila, the southern Philippines continues to be wracked by Islamic militancy. Arroyo acknowledged publicly in October 2003 that Jemaah Islamiah, the Islamic terrorist group blamed for the 2002 Bali bombing, trains militants on southern Mindanao Island. Meanwhile, the administration has been unable to secure a durable cease-fire with the country's main Islamic rebel group, the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on Mindanao. Separately, Arroyo temporarily brought in U.S. soldiers in 2002 to train and equip Filipino forces chasing guerrillas belonging to the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim kidnapping and extortion outfit in the far southern Sulu Archipelago.

Meanwhile, Arroyo's government has made little progress in reviving stalled talks with Communist rebels, known as the New People's Army (NPA), who have been waging a low-grade rural insurgency since 1969. The NPA's extortion of local businesses and attacks on military and civilian targets in the countryside have helped cripple rural development.

In an incident that added to Arroyo's challenges, some 300 soldiers led a 21-hour mutiny in July, protesting what they described as rampant corruption in the armed forces. Officials alleged that the mutiny was a remnant of an aborted coup plot and accused several leading opposition figures, some with links to Estrada, of backing the mutineers.

Arroyo's main challengers in the May 2004 presidential elections are likely to be movie actor Fernando Poe, Jr., and opposition senator Panfilo Lacson. The senator has been accused of ordering summary executions when he was national police chief, a charge Lacson denies.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Filipinos can change their government through elections. However, many foreign and domestic observers said that the street protests and military pressure that forced President Joseph Estrada to resign in 2001 amounted to a "soft coup." Elections continue to be violent, though less so than in the past. Some 100 Filipinos were killed in violence linked to the 2001 national elections, and the military said that 86 people were killed in violence related to local elections in 2002.

The Philippines has a presidential system of government, with the directly elected president limited to a single six-year term. Because she is serving out the remainder of Estrada's term, however, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is eligible to run in the 2004 presidential election. Congress consists of a Senate with 24 directly elected members and a House of Representatives with 201 directly elected members and up to 50 others appointed by the president. Despite recent economic reforms, a few dozen powerful families continue to play an overarching role in politics and hold an outsized share of land and corporate wealth.

Corruption, cronyism, and influence peddling are widely believed to be rife in business and government. The Berlin-based Transparency International ranked the Philippines in an eight-way tie for 92nd place out of 133 countries in its 2003 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The private press is vibrant and outspoken, although newspaper reports often consist more of innuendo and sensationalism than investigative reporting. Seventeen Filipino journalists have been killed since 1998, including six in 2003 as of mid-November, according to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in Manila. Like their print counterparts, most television and radio stations are privately owned and outspoken but lack strict journalistic ethics. The government does not restrict Internet use.

Filipinos of all faiths can worship freely in this mainly Christian society. However, Muslims who live on Mindanao, known as Moros, say that they face economic and social discrimination in mainstream society at the hands of the country's Roman Catholic majority. Muslim-majority provinces lag behind Christian-majority ones on Mindanao on most development indicators, a 1998 Asian Development Bank survey found. University professors and other teachers, meanwhile, can lecture and publish freely.

Citizens can hold protests, rallies, and other demonstrations without government interference. The Philippines has many active environmental, human rights, social welfare, and other nongovernmental groups. Trade unions are independent, though Filipino workers face strict labor laws. The International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2003 renewed its criticism of labor law provisions requiring a union to represent at least 20 percent of workers in a bargaining unit before it can be registered, and imposing stiff sanctions against workers who participate in illegal strikes. Officials have not recently penalized striking workers. The global labor body also said that the labor law provides inadequate protections for female and foreign workers in certain areas. Aside from these tough laws, private employers often violate minimum-wage standards and dismiss, or threaten to dismiss, union members, according to union leaders. Around 5 percent of Filipino workers are unionized.

Despite many gains since the Ferdinand Marcos era, the rule of law continues to be weak. The judiciary is generally independent but at times dysfunctional. "Judges and prosecutors remained poorly paid, overburdened, susceptible to corruption and the influence of the powerful, and often failed to provide due process and equal justice," according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report for 2002, released in March 2003. The result is "impunity for some wealthy and influential offenders," the report added. Because of backlogs, suspects often spend long periods in jail awaiting trial.

Prison conditions are harsh, with inmates kept in overcrowded jails where they receive inadequate food, have limited access to sanitary facilities, and are often at the whim of corrupt officials. Police and prison guards at times rape and sexually abuse female detainees or inmates with impunity, the human rights group Amnesty International said in 2001.

The Philippines's poorly disciplined national police force is regularly described by the official Commission on Human Rights as the country's worst rights abuser. Most notably, police continue to be accused of illegal killings of criminal suspects, although officials frequently allege that any killings of suspects occur during shootouts. Moreover, police and other security forces continue to torture suspects, Amnesty International said in a January report. To combat torture and other abuses, the government has expanded human rights training for the police and military and dismissed, and in some cases prosecuted, dozens of police officers accused of rights violations.

The long-running conflict between the government and the MILF, the separatist Islamic rebel group, has caused severe hardship for many of the 15 million Filipinos on southern Mindanao and nearby islands. Amnesty International in April accused Filipino forces of summary killings, disappearances, torture, and illegal arrests during counterinsurgency operations on Mindanao. MILF guerrillas are widely accused of killings and other abuses and have attacked many Christian villages. Separately, the smaller Abu Sayyaf group has kidnapped and tortured many civilians and beheaded some of its captives. Islamic militants are suspected in a string of bombings on Mindanao in recent years, including two bombings in Davao City in March and April that killed at least 38 people.

In the countryside, the 10,000-strong NPA and smaller Communist groups continue to summarily execute soldiers, police, political figures, and ordinary civilians, according to the U.S. State Department report. The army and pro-government militias operating in Mindoro Oriental and other provinces are responsible for summary killings, disappearances, torture, and illegal arrests while fighting Communist rebels, Amnesty International said in April.

Further signs abound of a society plagued by a weak rule of law. Businesses and powerful landowning families in rural areas often maintain private security teams that operate with near impunity. Meanwhile, vigilante "death squads" reportedly have killed dozens of suspected criminals since 1995 in several Mindanao cities. In late 2003, President Arroyo was facing calls to use the death penalty against convicted kidnappers following a wave of more than 100 kidnappings during the year.

Members of the Philippines's indigenous minority have limited access to some basic government services and at times are pushed off their ancestral lands by mining and other commercial projects, the U.S. State Department report said. The government is slowly implementing legislation passed in 1997 aimed at increasing the amount of ancestral land held by indigenous communities.

Filipino women have made many social and economic gains in recent years, and more women than men now enter high schools and universities. In the job market, though, women face some discrimination in the private sector and have a higher unemployment rate than men, according to the U.S. State Department report. Both the government and civil society groups have programs to protect women from violence and abuse. Still, rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment on the job, and trafficking of Filipino women and girls abroad and at home, for forced labor and prostitution, continued to be major problems. An estimated 500,000 women work as prostitutes in the Philippines, according to a 1998 ILO study.

The Philippines also has up to 200,000 street children and at least 3.7 million working children, according to studies by the government and international agencies. The NPA, MILF, and Abu Sayyaf have been accused of using child soldiers.

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