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  • Philippine Politics and the Rule of Law
  • Steven Rogers (bio)

Despite a long tradition of democratic government and serious efforts at market-oriented economic reform, the Philippines remains plagued by poverty, corruption, crime, insurgency. This stagnant situation is perpetuated by the traditional exemption of the ruling class from the rule of law, which has excluded the unresponsive and inefficient governing elite from the electoral and economic competition that could force meaningful reform. The persistent inability of Philippine Governments to bring the elite within the rule of law is a pervasive obstacle to progress that can only be removed by focused, sustained political pressure from the Filipino people.

Friends of Philippine democracy breathed a sigh of relief when incumbent president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo turned back the challenge of populist movie star Fernando Poe, Jr., in the May 2004 elections. The reaction was understandable: Poe's principal allies and political platform were inherited from actor-turned-politician Joseph Estrada, whose corrupt and incompetent run as president ended abruptly amid popular demonstrations in 2001. The Filipino electorate's rejection of a return to celebrity demagoguery alleviated fears of immediate political collapse, but business as usual is unlikely to resolve the problems which have long plagued Filipino democracy.

Estrada had won the presidency in 1998, triumphing in the cleanest and most decisive election that the country had ever seen. Macapagal-Arroyo was elected vice-president on a separate ballot with an even larger mandate than Estrada's. Less than three years into Estrada's six-year term, the economy was failing, crime and insurgency were rampant, and allegations of presidential corruption filled the media. The Philippine Congress filed articles of impeachment; when political machinations in the Senate derailed the trial, popular demonstrations in Manila—at least one of which was addressed by a senior military officer—drove Estrada from office. The process was hardly democratic, but it was accepted as necessary, at least among Manila's upper and middle classes, and Macapagal-Arroyo became president on 20 January 2001.1

Macapagal-Arroyo used her first three years in office to continue economic-reform policies that President Fidel Ramos had first launched back in the mid-1990s. She put the economy back on a modest growth track, and emerged as a major supporter of the global war on terror, [End Page 111] drawing a substantial increase in U.S. aid. Her no-nonsense governing style provided welcome relief from the drunken carousing of Estrada's "midnight cabinet" of cronies.

As the 2004 elections drew near, disquiet suffused a nation still reeling from the aftermath of its last electoral exercise. Armed Muslim separatists remained active in the south, with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front challenging the Philippine Army for control of large parts of the large southern island of Mindanao and demonstrating increasing ties to international radical Islamist movements. The communist New People's Army showed signs of resurgence in economically depressed rural regions. Organized crime remained a major problem. Economic growth had done little to reduce glaring disparities in the distribution of wealth.The elite-dominated Congress had not enacted any significant political reforms. Many of those who had backed Estrada were now rallying around Poe, who like Estrada courted the voting power of the masses with a combination of personal celebrity and populist rhetoric. Macapagal-Arroyo's perceived lack of charisma and limited mass popularity reinforced the perception that she was the underdog.

By election day, the contest seemed more equal. The opposition failed to unite: Senator Panfilo Lacson, once national police chief under Estrada, refused to quit the race, dividing the Estrada machine's resources and support base. Poe, on the other hand, lacked Estrada's affability and political instincts, appearing awkward, temperamental, and dependent on his handlers. Macapagal-Arroyo remained unflappable throughout the acrimonious campaign, and made effective use of Poe's refusal to debate. She also took full advantage of her incumbency, a situation that the Philippine constitution, which calls for a single six-year presidential term, was designed to prevent. The case of a vice-president running for reelection after finishing the term of a president who left office early was unforeseen, and the powers of public office gave...