Population: 86,300,000
Capital: Manila

Political Rights Score: 3
Civil Liberties Score: 3
Status: Partly Free

Trend Arrow

The Philippines received a downward trend arrow due to a spate of political killings specifically targeting left-wing political activists.


An alleged coup attempt prompted President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to declare a week-long state of emergency in February 2006. Security forces raided antigovernment press offices, arrested opposition officials without warrants, and brutally suppressed public protests. Responding to these actions and a series of Supreme Court rulings against the administration, opposition members of the lower house of Congress launched a second unsuccessful impeachment bid against Arroyo in June. Amnesty International in August released a report documenting a spike in the number of political killings of left-wing activists during the first half of 2006, garnering international attention and prompting Arroyo to establish the Melo Commission to Address Media and Activist Killings the same month. Yet minimal concrete steps to reduce these extrajudicial killings have been made. Both the police and the military were believed to be involved in the killings, raising doubts as to whether the perpetrators would be held accountable under Arroyo, who remained heavily dependent on military support to stay in power. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court in October ruled against a proposed referendum on constitutional reform that would replace the country's bicameral legislature and presidential executive structure with a unicameral parliament and a prime minister, effectively ending the long-standing debate on the issue.

The Philippines came under U.S. control in 1898, ending centuries of Spanish rule, and won independence in 1946 after emerging from Japanese occupation during World War II. The country held U.S. commonwealth status from 1935 until its independence. 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 set back by President Ferdinand Marcos's 14-year dictatorship. Marcos was finally chased from office in 1986 by a popular movement that replaced him with Corazon Aquino, whom the regime had cheated out of an electoral victory weeks earlier.

Aquino set out to make significant democratic reforms, but her administration ultimately failed to implement more than procedural changes and was unable to improve the socioeconomic situation of the population. Social and economic elites reconsolidated their hold on power under Aquino, and electoral politics continued to reflect their entrenched positions. In the May 1992 presidential poll, Fidel Ramos – a key figure in the demonstrations that forced Marcos into exile – narrowly defeated Agrarian Reform Secretary Miriam Defensor-Santiago. Under Ramos, the country was relatively stable and experienced significant if uneven economic growth.

Joseph Estrada, the vice president under Ramos, won the 1998 presidential election by a wide margin, securing strong support from impoverished Filipinos in a campaign built around promises of concrete socioeconomic reform. Almost from the outset, the Estrada administration was dogged by allegations of corruption, although an impeachment process eventually failed after stalling in a deadlocked Senate. In retrospect, Estrada's administration seems to have been no more graft-prone than either Ramos's or that of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who succeeded him. The campaign against Estrada, however, had political support, and massive street protests removed him from office in 2001. Since that time, the model of demonstration-driven transitions in leadership has provided a more or less constant potential alternative to electoral removal.

Macapagal-Arroyo, who was Estrada's vice president, assumed the presidency, and her political coalition soon won 8 of 13 contested Senate seats and a majority in the House of Representatives in the May 2001 legislative elections. Nevertheless, Macapagal-Arroyo faced questions about the legitimacy of her unelected administration. In the May 2004 presidential election, Macapagal-Arroyo initially seemed to defeat challenger Fernando Poe Jr. with a reported 1.1-million-vote margin of victory. However, charges of massive voter fraud quickly began to circulate (not in itself a rare event in Philippine politics). Poe's supporters staged demonstrations, but these faltered until members of the administration themselves began to verify the charges.

As a postelection fiscal crisis emerged, an audiotape of a conversation between the president and election officials surfaced in June 2005. The conversation, the authenticity of which was confirmed by government officials, seemed to support allegations that the president had used her incumbent powers to rig the elections. Many cabinet officials resigned to join a new opposition movement, while an ultimately unsuccessful bid to impeach the president was launched in Congress. Frequent protests called for the president's resignation. The anti-Macapagal-Arroyo movement included former president Aquino, a broad array of civil society groups, and 11 former members of the administration. Rumors also suggested that factions of the military would join the move to oust the government. The administration undertook several efforts to undercut the opposition movement in 2005, including gag orders, punitive prosecutions, and the announcement of Executive Order 464, which prevented department heads, high-ranking military officers, and potentially a wide range of other executive-branch officials from testifying before Congress without prior clearance from the president.

In February 2006, Macapagal-Arroyo declared a week-long state of emergency to disrupt an alleged coup attempt by a supposed right-left alliance between members of the military, opposition lawmakers, and the New People's Army (NPA), a Communist rebel group. The crackdown involved security raids on antigovernment press offices, warrantless arrests of opposition officials, and the brutal suppression of public protests. While credible evidence suggested that some within the military were scheming to challenge Macapagal-Arroyo, the president's concerns appeared to stem from the likelihood that elements of the army would join civilian protesters in upcoming opposition rallies marking the anniversary of Marcos's 1986 popular ouster, potentially driving her from power in a similar mass movement. In June, House opposition members launched a second presidential impeachment campaign, repeating the 2005 charges of electoral fraud and corruption and adding the obstruction of the press and freedom of assembly during the state of emergency, the unconstitutionality of Executive Order 464, and persistent human rights abuses. However, pro-administration parties controlled the House, and the impeachment bid failed to garner the one-third vote required to advance it to the Senate, where opposition forces were more powerful.

Philippine politics in 2006 were also dominated by an ongoing debate over constitutional reform. Macapagal-Arroyo strongly supported the "Cha-Cha" (Charter Change) campaign, which aimed to replace the current bicameral legislature and single presidential term with a unicameral parliamentary system, led by a prime minister, by the time the current presidential term ended in 2010. Philippine reformers also supported the plan on the grounds that the Senate has traditionally inhibited effective governance by preventing administrations from pushing through various reform measures. A presidential commission delivered related proposals in December 2005, the most controversial of which involved calling off the 2007 midterm elections. That would have ensured the administration's continued control of the House, safeguarding the president against impeachment, and provided an incentive for senators who would otherwise be forced to step down in 2007 due to term limits. In light of pressure mounting on Macapagal-Arroyo to step down from office at the time of the midterm elections in exchange for striking a deal on constitutional reform, this particular proposal was also seen as a means for the president to retain power through her elected term. The government sought to bring the reform plan to a referendum through a public petition, or "People's Initiative," but the Supreme Court ruled against the mechanism in October 2006. The decision effectively killed hopes for reform by making success contingent on approval by the Senate, the very body the proposed changes would eliminate. The government then tried to change the laws requiring that both houses of Congress approve constitutional amendments, but was forced to concede in the face of significant resistance from the public and the Catholic Church. At year's end, the midterm elections remained scheduled for June 2007.

The southern Philippines continued to be racked by violence in 2006, with serious outbreaks of fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist militant group known for terrorist bombings and kidnappings, in both January and August. The group suffered a significant loss of leadership in September, however, when Khadaffy Janjalani was killed in a clash with government troops on Jolo Island. Separately, the government in February finally reached consensus on the issue of "ancestral domain" (or homeland) with another rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and expanded the terms of local autonomy granted in 1996 to allow for a separate constitution, but not the establishment of an Islamic state. Talks with the MILF stalled in the fall, however, and no agreement was finalized by year's end. Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a regional Southeast Asian terrorist group with ties to al-Qaeda, is also believed to have training grounds on the southern island of Mindanao and, although the MILF continues to renounce violence and deny relations with JI, links between the groups are thought to exist. Meanwhile, the Communist insurgency elsewhere in the country continued at a low level in 2006.

Attacks against journalists and left-wing political activists have dramatically increased since Macapagal-Arroyo entered office, and a persistent culture of impunity allows for continued abuse. In 2006, a wave of assassinations struck left-wing political activists, including some journalists, labor leaders, and senior members of legal left-wing parties. The Philippine human rights group Karapatan has counted more than 800 victims of extrajudicial killings since 2001, while other watchdog groups reported roughly 50 in the first half of 2006 alone, marking a significant spike from the year before. A scathing Amnesty International report on the killings and alleged military involvement, released on August 15, 2006, brought international attention to the issue, prompting Macapagal-Arroyo to announce the establishment of the Commission to Address Media and Activist Killings on August 21. Macapagal-Arroyo pledged to leave "no stone unturned," and mandated the Melo Commission (so-called after the former Supreme Court justice appointed to head it) to conduct a five-month inquiry. Yet the extent of the president's dependence on military support to retain power, combined with witnesses' fear of testifying, threatened to impede the investigation and complicate the credibility of the commission's findings.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The Republic of the Philippines is an electoral democracy. However, the fairness of Philippine elections and the strength of the country's democratic institutions have been called into question by events surrounding the 2004 balloting and persistent concerns about possible coup attempts in late 2005 and 2006. The Philippine National Police reported 192 incidents of electoral violence during the May 2004 presidential polls.

The Philippines has a presidential system of government, with the directly elected president limited to a single six-year term. The current president's constitutionally anomalous position stems from her initial rise to office in an extraconstitutional transition process in 2001, in which military pressure and street protests drove incumbent Joseph Estrada from power. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the vice president at the time, completed Estrada's first term, and then – despite some legal challenges – ran for her own full term in 2004. As protests against her government mounted in 2005, many politicians, including former president Fidel Ramos, suggested that her second term be shortened, so that both together would add up to six years; Macapagal-Arroyo rejected this appeal. Pressure on the president to relinquish her post early mounted again in late 2005 and early 2006 in connection with the campaign for constitutional reform.

The national legislature, the Congress, is bicameral. The 24 members of the Senate are elected on a nationwide ballot and serve six-year terms. The 250 members of the House of Representatives serve three-year terms; 212 of them are elected by district, and the remainder are elected by party list. Legislative coalitions are exceptionally fluid, and members of Congress often change party affiliation. In 2006, the ruling People's Power Coalition was headed by Macapagal-Arroyo's party, the National Union of Christian Democrats (Lakas); the main opposition party is the Struggle for a Democratic Philippines (Laban or LDP). Pro-administration parties currently hold the majority of seats in the House of Representatives, while opposition forces are dominant in the Senate. To prevent potential cooperation among members of the opposition, military dissidents, and civilian protesters, the government imposed a number of unconstitutional restrictions during the week-long state of emergency in February 2006, including the warrantless arrest of a number of opposition party leaders and raids on opposition newspapers.

Corruption, cronyism, and influence peddling are widely believed to be rife in business and government. 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. Local "bosses" often control local areas, limiting accountability and encouraging abuses of power. Corruption is especially prevalent in local government; a number of journalists killed in 2005 and 2006 were well known for covering corruption at the local level. The country was ranked 121 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Government accountability and transparency have deteriorated since the 2005 implementation of Executive Order 464, which prohibits government, military, and police officials from attending congressional inquiries without presidential permission. The order essentially limits the investigative authority of the Senate and allows the administration to block probes into government contracts and corruption. The Supreme Court ruled against key provisions of the order in April 2006, but the administration filed an appeal for reconsideration in response. The order will remain in effect until the appeal is resolved, preventing the Senate defense committee from proceeding with its hearings on electoral fraud, which had been launched in November 2005. There were also allegations that the government bought and counterfeited signatures on public petitions in support of constitutional reform prior to the October 2006 court decision outlawing the "People's Initiative."

The constitution provides for freedom of expression and of the press. The Philippine media express a wide range of opinion, but journalists face extreme danger in the course of their work, and there was an overall decline in press freedom in 2006. The private press (most print and electronic media) is vibrant and outspoken, although newspaper reports often consist more of innuendo and sensationalism than substantive investigative reporting, and many newspapers largely declined to cover opposition activities until recently. The country's many state-owned television and radio stations cover controversial topics and are willing to criticize the government, but they too lack strict journalistic ethics. Although the censorship board does have broad powers to edit or ban content, government censorship generally does not pose a serious problem. The internet is widely available and uncensored in the country, which is home to more than 110,000 internet hosts.

The February 2006 state of emergency significantly infringed on press freedom: security forces raided the offices of the Daily Tribune, a number of other newspapers were placed under surveillance, critical media figures were charged with incitement to rebellion, and several journalists were arrested. After emergency rule was lifted, the National Telecommunications Commission warned the media not to air materials that "incite treason, rebellion, sedition, or pose a clear and present danger to the state." In May, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration's clampdown on the press during the state of emergency was unjustified.

The Philippines is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work, according to the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP) and several foreign press-freedom watchdog groups. The number of murdered journalists has spiked under the Macapagal-Arroyo administration; according to the NUJP, 47 journalists have been killed since 2001, while 12 journalists were killed in 2006 alone. Several cases over the last few years have involved journalists who were well known for exposing corruption scandals or being critical of the government, army, or police. Watchdog groups allege that unknown gunmen are hired by government officials, and a general culture of impunity for violence against journalists prevails. The November 2005 conviction of former police officer Guillermo Wapile for the murder of journalist Edgar Damalerio marked the first conviction since the spike of journalist killings began and, while a few additional murderers were convicted in 2006, there have been no convictions against those ordering the killings. The government established a police task force, Task Force Usig, in May as a first step toward investigating the murders; however, the effort is complicated by the fact that police are believed to be complicit in many of the killings.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the constitution and generally respected in practice. While church and state are separate, the country is mainly Christian, with a Roman Catholic majority. The largest minority group is the Muslim population, which is concentrated in the south on the island of Mindanao and, according to the most recent census, represents roughly 5 to 9 percent of the total population. Muslims face some discrimination, although a 2005 Social Weather Station survey suggests that hostility toward Muslims – which reportedly increased in the years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States – may be on the decline. Muslims claim that the government has made inadequate efforts to promote economic development in predominantly Muslim provinces, which are among the country's most impoverished. Only 12 of 236 members of Congress are Muslim. Muslims' perceptions of relative socioeconomic deprivation and political disenfranchisement, and their resentment toward Christian settlement in traditionally Muslim areas, have long played a central role in the Muslim separatist movement in the south and continue to fuel conflict between Christian and Muslim populations in certain provinces. There are also reports of reverse discrimination (against Christians) in Muslim-majority areas such as Mindanao.

Academic freedom is generally respected in the Philippines, and professors and other teachers can lecture and publish freely.

Citizen activism in the Philippines is robust, and protests, rallies, and other demonstrations have traditionally been permitted without government interference. The law requires that groups request a permit before holding a rally, but this law was often ignored in practice before the government's September 2005 shift from a maximum-tolerance approach to a strategy of "preemptive calibrated response." This new approach allows police to break up demonstrations and arrest protesters when they lack official permits or stray outside permitted areas. It was implemented in the aftermath of the July 2005 attempt to impeach the president, when 40,000 to 60,000 protesters publicly called for the president to step down. The Supreme Court ruled against the government's preemptive calibrated response policy in late April 2006, and called for the designation of certain areas where protest permits were not required. The police brutally suppressed protests during the state of emergency in February 2006.

The Philippines has many active environmental, human rights, social welfare, and other nongovernmental groups. Trade unions are independent, and they may align themselves with international trade union confederations or trade secretariats. However, only 5 percent of the national labor force is unionized, and 18 percent of government employees are unionized. Collective bargaining is widespread, and strikes may be called, though unions must provide notice and obtain majority approval from their membership before calling a strike. Strikes often provoke violence, however, and labor leaders have been among those targeted in the spate of killings of leftist activists in 2005 and 2006. In July 2006, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) issued a letter to Macapagal-Arroyo with a list of 19 instances in which unionists, labor activists, and workers were killed, abducted, or arrested for their work between September 2005 and July 2006. An ICTFU study found that violence against labor leaders and activists occurred with impunity.

Judicial independence is strong, particularly on the part of the Supreme Court, which issued a series of rulings against the actions and decisions of the Macapagal-Arroyo administration in 2006. However, despite many advances since the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos, the rule of law remains generally weak. The judiciary is hampered by corruption and inefficiency. Low pay for judges and prosecutors is often cited as a major factor in making bribes and payoffs central to the resolution of most court cases. The constitution sets time limits for court cases, but they are not mandatory and are mostly ignored in the face of backlogs. Independent observers have found that the judicial system does not adequately guarantee defendants' constitutional rights to due process and legal representation. In what Amnesty International has called "the largest ever commutation of death sentences in modern times," Macapagal-Arroyo commuted the death sentences of at least 1,230 prisoners to life imprisonment in April 2006; the Philippine Congress abolished the death penalty in June.

Reports of arbitrary and unlawful detention or arrest under harsh prison conditions, disappearances, kidnappings, and abuse of suspects and detainees continued in 2006. International as well as local and regional human rights organizations have condemned the vast number of extrajudicial killings that have occurred over the past few years. The killings increased in 2006, with a spate of political assassinations of leftist activists, including journalists, labor leaders, and senior members of legal left-wing parties. The August 2006 Amnesty International report on the number of extrajudicial killings documented from January to June 2006 raised international pressure on the Macapagal-Arroyo administration to investigate the murders and the role of the AFP, which were believed to have been involved. Meanwhile, members of the poorly disciplined Philippine National Police (PNP) – suspected of complicity in the recent spike in journalist murders – are regularly described by the official Commission on Human Rights as the country's worst rights abusers. The PNP are under the jurisdiction of the AFP.

The long-running conflict between the government and separatist Muslim rebels has caused severe hardship for many of the 15 million Filipinos on southern Mindanao and nearby islands, and has resulted in more than 120,000 deaths since it first erupted in 1972. Both government and insurgent forces have committed summary killings and other human rights abuses. MILF guerrillas have attacked many Christian villages. Separately, the smaller Abu Sayyaf Group has kidnapped, tortured, and beheaded some civilians. Islamist militants are suspected in a string of bombings on Mindanao in recent years, including one that killed six people in October 2006, as well as bombings in Jolo City in February and March 2006. The Abu Sayyaf was suspected of planning attacks during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in the town of Cebu in December 2006.

In the countryside, especially central and southern Luzon, the 10,000-strong NPA, the Communist paramilitary group, continues to engage in low-level executions, acts of torture, and kidnappings. Meanwhile, the army and progovernment militias operating in Mindoro Oriental and other provinces are responsible for summary killings, disappearances, torture, and illegal arrests while fighting Communist rebels. The number of internally displaced persons in the Philippines is close to 160,000.

Citizens may travel freely, and there are no restrictions on employment or place of residence. The government generally respects the privacy of its citizens, but the poor security situation inhibits individuals' ability to operate private businesses.

Filipino women have the same legal rights as men, though this is not always borne out in practice. Women have made many social and economic gains in recent years, and more women than men now enter high school and university. Women face some discrimination in the private sector, however, and have a higher unemployment rate than men. The UN Development Program's 2006 Human Development Report ranks the Philippines at 84 out of 177 countries on its Gender Empowerment Index, which measures gender inequality in economic participation and decision making (including over economic resources) and political participation.

Rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment on the job, and trafficking of Filipino women and girls abroad and at home for forced labor and prostitution continue to be major problems despite efforts in government and civil society to protect women from violence and abuse. There are reports of bonded labor, especially of children, in blackmarket trades such as prostitution and drug trafficking. The NPA, MILF, and Abu Sayyaf have been accused of using child soldiers.

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