Oscar S Rodriguez, Mayor of San Fernando and member of the Constitutional Commission

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Local government in The Philippines
Government system based on US
and Spanish models under review

By Andrew Stevens, Deputy Editor

29 December 2008: The Philippines is a country in Southeast Asia consisting of some 7,000 islands, which sit on the Philippine Archipelago. A republic with an executive presidency elected by popular vote, its 1987 constitution is loosely modelled on that of the United States, with a 24 member Senate and a House of Representatives consisting of 250 seats. It is further divided into 79 provincial governments, with 136 cities enjoying varying powers of self-government. 1,494 municipalities also exist, with a traditional ‘parish’ unit known as the barangay also playing an important role in local affairs, of which there are 41,939.

The Philippines today represents a bridge between East and West, with profound Catholic influences (East Timor is the only other in the region) and the widespread use of the Spanish language in an East Asian setting. Two areas have majority Muslim or indigenous populations however. Spain’s colonisation of the Philippine islands began in 1565 with the creation of its East Indies outpost. The islands were then governed by the Viceroyalty of New Spain based in Mexico City, which ended in 1898 with the Spanish-American War. An insurrection waged against American forces ultimately proved futile with the US failing to acquiesce to Philippine demands for independence following its staged ‘liberation’ from Spain and in 1913 it was declared a US territorial possession. Clarification of its status was achieved under the 1935 self-governing Commonwealth, though it was then invaded by Japan in 1941. The US’ declared policy of allowing Philippine independence was achieved in 1946 following the end of the war. However, independence treaties granted the US access to natural resources and allowed it to retain possession of 23 military bases that were to prove invaluable in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Elections to the Philippine presidency following independence were subject to covert (and not so covert) intervention by the US Central Intelligence Agency, with rule alternating between the Liberal and Nationalist parties. Its most famous post-war president, Ferdinand Marcos of the Nationalists, was elected in 1965 and again in 1969, credited with achieving considerable economic success. Against a backdrop of urban student unrest and communist-led separatist insurgency elsewhere, Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and began a period of ‘constitutional authoritarianism’ known as the ‘New Society’. The Marcos regime enjoyed the support of the US throughout this period, unsurprising given his support to military efforts during the Vietnam War and his economic liberalisation. Flawed congressional elections were held in 1978, with an all-out victory for the party headed by Marcos’ now equally infamous wife Imelda.

The 1983 assassination at Manila airport of opposition leader Benigno Aquino following his return from exile in the US was instrumental in creating the turning point that ended hitherto solid US support for the Marcos regime. The kleptocratic regime ended in 1986 following the army’s refusal to put down the ‘ESDA revolution’ on the streets of Manila that later saw the couple exiled and Aquino’s widow Cory installed as the country’s first democratically elected President in 17 years. A Constitutional Commission issued a new democratic constitution in 1987, which remains in place today. The Aquino administration suffered from repeated coup attempts and she herself alienated supporters of the ESDA revolution by backing Marcos’ army chief Fidel Ramos as her successor in 1992. Although Ramos, as head of the military and a member of Marcos’ elite guard, was responsible for overseeing the 1972 declaration of martial law, his subsequent support for the opposition in the 1980s was crucial in securing military support for Aquino. As head of armed forces under her, he also foiled no less than seven coup attempts. Ramos’ presidency, though credited with achieving peace with separatist rebels, ended with the 1997 Asian financial crisis and he left office in 1998, replaced by his vice president Joseph Estrada.

Estrada became Ramos’ vice president in 1992 when his running mate Eduardo Cojuangco (the cousin of Cory Aquino) was defeated by Ramos, even though Estrada himself won the vice president’s election. A former actor known for tough guy roles in over 100 films, Estrada cultivated a street fighter image that later played well electorally in his populist pitches to stand up for the ‘downtrodden’ masses. Estrada unsuccessfully ran for Mayor of San Juan, a district of Manila, in 1968 but was later installed after contesting the election. He served throughout the Marcos regime but was removed by an Aquino-sponsored anti-corruption drive in 1986. However, he successfully contested a senate seat in 1987 under his own party banner (the ‘Party of the Filipino Masses’). Although Estrada was successful in his 1998 presidential campaign, largely fought on an anti-elitist platform, corruption allegations quickly surfaced. The refusal of Estrada’s congressional allies to investigate the allegations (even refusing to open irrefutable evidence) led to the second ESDA revolution in 2001, which saw Estrada removed from office and placed under house arrest on anti-corruption charges, where he remains. Although ESDA II was supported by influential political figures, including ex-presidents Aquino and Ramos, the action was heavily criticised by foreign governments (especially the US) who denounced it as a de facto coup. Estrada was replaced by his former vice president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who also won the 2004 presidential elections amid accusations of ballot fraud.

The Philippine local government system originates from the era of Spanish colonial occupation, insofar as the period was characterised by excessive centralisation under the authority of the Governor General in Manila. While decentralisation over the past half century has bequeathed the country its current system, its organic tier of barangay communal units (comparable to parishes) began under Spanish occupation with these arranged around recognisable neighbourhood entities coupled with church functions. The Filipino term barangay has been revived following the more colonial term barrio (common throughout the Latin world) and is named after the boats used by the first settlers on the island group, with each coastal settlement forming a council.  Each barangay is headed by a barangay captain, who presides over the barangay council. The League of Barangays currently has 41,939 members and is the largest NGO in Filipino civil society. Barangays also have a separate youth council to oversee the provision of sporting and cultural activities for local youth.

The 1,494 municipalities are units recognised as towns under the four-yearly population audits used to classify the distinction between towns and cities. Each municipality is headed by an executive mayor, who alongside the vice mayor, eight councillors and the presidents of the youth council and the local barangay union forms the municipal council. All are elected to three-year terms and may not serve more than three consecutive terms.

The 136 recognised cities belonging to the League of Philippine Cities are regarded as belonging to the same sub-tier as the municipalities but are given more central government subsidy to fulfil their duties. Though they have the same governance arrangements as the municipalities, a number are awarded further distinctions by Congress in view of their large populations. As such, they are denoted as charter cities and fall into two classification groups for purposes of self-government - chartered cities and component cities. Chartered cities, which include a number regarded as Highly Urbanised Cities, are accorded significant powers of self-government and individual representation as congressional districts (which are otherwise based on provincial boundaries), while component cities are recognised only as titular cities. Three metropolitan areas exist in the Philippines, including the National Capital Region Manila, which consists of the city of Manila and 16 neighbouring cities, including Quezon (the largest in the country). The Manila Metropolitan Development Agency is a division of central government, with a chairman appointed by the president. The current mayor of the city of Manila is Jose "Lito" L. Atienza, currently on his third and final term, who oversees a city council consisting of the vice mayor and 36 elected councillors (six from each congressional district).

The province is however, the primary unit of local government in the Philippines, of which there are 79 in number (as well as the National Capital Region). Provinces are largely modelled on the three branches of central government, with an elected executive governor and their vice presiding over the provincial legislature. Similar to the sub-tier, there is ex-officio representation for barangay and youth council provincial presidents. The provinces are given presidential oversight through the Department of Interior and Local Government and grouped into 17 regions for administrative purposes at central government level. Two regions have political jurisdiction as recognised autonomous groupings of provinces, namely the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in the south west (adjacent to Malaysia) and the Cordillera Administrative Region of the indiginous Igorot in the north.

The 1987 constitutional settlement and the role of local government itself is currently under debate, with a presidential Constitutional Commission set up to deliberate revisions to the constitution and local government code. ‘ConCom’, which reported to the president in December 2005, has proposed shifting to a parliamentary form of government, the creation of autonomous territories and the strengthening of local autonomy. Mayor Mel Senen S. Sarmiento of Calbayog City and Mayor Oscar S. Rodriguez of San Fernando City, Pampanga were the League of Cities representatives on the commission.

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