May 17, 2004

May 17, 2004 | WebMemo on Asia, Alliances

Elections in the Philippines: No Reason To Get Excited

On May 10, Filipinos went to the polls and re-elected President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but her victory does not change the systemic weaknesses responsible for many of the Philippines' problems. During Arroyo's next term, security and economic issues will continue to dominate the U.S.-Philippine relationship. Given the recurring nature of these problems, the Bush administration and Congress should greet skeptically new requests for aid to alleviate poverty or to assist the military's fight against terrorism. Instead, the administration and Congress should focus on strengthening Philippine law enforcement agencies, including the police and the judiciary, and look to the success of trade agreements with Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand as models for improved trade relations with the Philippines.


Persistent Problems

The continuing existence of two insurgencies for more than three decades is a telling indicator of the ineffectiveness of Philippine security policy. Long after communism's demise, the anachronistic New People's Army, the only remaining communist insurgency in Southeast Asia, lingers on in the Philippines. Another terrorist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, is nominally fighting for an independent Muslim state, but the group lacks support even on the island of Mindanao, where most of the Philippines' Muslims live. Military and political operations against these groups have been largely ineffective.


The police conduct about 80 percent of counterterrorism operations in the Philippines, but, inexplicably, there are fewer police than soldiers in the country. The judicial system further undermines police efforts to fight terrorism. When the police do capture terrorists, the courts sometimes fail to prosecute them fully. Moreover, a number of convicted terrorists have escaped from jail.


The Philippines' persistent economic anemia has caused it to fall behind many of its Southeast Asian neighbors. The 2004 Index of Economic Freedom categorizes the Philippines as "mostly unfree," due in large part to restrictions on foreign investments and inadequate legal protections for business. The constitution restricts foreign investment, and there are an insufficient number of police and judges. The courts are underfunded, corrupt, inefficient, and slow.


The Philippine government is powerless to resolve these problems because of a constitution that imbues domestic politics with crises. A major constitutional weakness is that the President and Vice President are elected separately-frequently from opposing political parties. As a result, the executive branch is divided at the very top. President Arroyo was originally elected as an opposition Vice President. She was propelled into the presidency by a popular revolt that deposed President Estrada. Many politically active Filipinos, even those who helped unseat Estrada, were surprised and concerned at the ease with which a constitutionally elected President was tossed out of office. As a consequence, many Filipinos, including former President Ramos, believe that substantive constitutional reform is needed.


Making matters worse, the Philippine Congress is in a state of paralysis. The House of Representatives passes many bills, which then stall at the Senate. During the 12th Congress (2001-2004), 2,450 bills were filed with the Senate. Only 30 were passed into law, and 2,153 bills remain in Senate committees. This problem stems from the way in which senators are elected. The Senate's 24 members do not represent regions or provinces but are elected nationally for six-year terms. Freed from the responsibility of answering to constituencies and already experienced in managing national election campaigns, senators, many accuse, ignore the legislative process and spend their time running or preparing to run for president.


Because of these systemic weaknesses in the Philippine polity, American policymakers should not expect substantive improvement as a result of the 2004 elections. Rather, the President and Congress should focus efforts to help the Philippines improve law enforcement and open the economy to trade. The United States can, and should, offer legal and constitutional assistance when asked, but ultimately it is the Filipinos who must amend their constitution.


Dana R. Dillon is Senior Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Dana Robert Dillon Senior Policy Analyst
Asian Studies Center

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