Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was sworn in as the new president of the Philippines on 20 January 2001. Her assumption of power resulted from a peaceful demonstration of "People Power," which forced the resignation of President Joseph Estrada over charges of corruption and cronyism. This is the second time in postwar Philippine politics that a president has been replaced through populist action. The first time was in February 1986, when Corazon Aquino became president after a mass outpouring of popular support for her against then-President Ferdinand Marcos. Although formal institutions exist providing a mechanism for change of government, it appears that when these institutions impede what people perceive as good governance, they are willing to explore other avenues.
Formal Structure of Government
From the time when the Philippines declared itself a sovereign state in 1898, the nation has had four major constitutions: the 1899 constitution, which established the first republic in Asia; the 1935 constitution, which served as the basic law during the period of self-government while the Philippines was still under American rule and after it became independent in 1946; the 1973 constitution, which allowed Ferdinand Marcos to continue to hold office as president; and the 1987 constitution, upon which the present government is based, which essentially restored institutions and processes dismantled by Marcos during his regime. The 1987 constitution describes the Philippine political system as republican and democratic. It is a unitary system in that power resides in a central authority, and whatever power lower levels of government possess has been delegated to them either by Congress or through executive orders. The formal political structure of the Philippines is patterned on that of the United States, in which the president wields executive power, Congress formulates laws, and an independent judiciary ensures that laws are uniformly upheld.
The Executive Branch As chief executive, the president has the power to execute laws. The president is assisted by a cabinet, which currently comprises twenty-three departments. Among the more important departments are Foreign Affairs, National Defense, Finance, Interior and Local Government, Justice, and Trade and Industry. Both president and vice president are elected at large for a six-year term with no possibility of reelection. This means that the president and vice president could belong to different political parties. The vice president succeeds the president in case of death, resignation, or incapacity. In some instances, the vice president is assigned a government portfolio; Vice President Teofisto Guingona is concurrently serving as secretary of foreign affairs. Controversies regarding the results of the election of president and vice president are decided by the Supreme Court.
The Legislative Branch The Philippine Congress is a bicameral body, the upper house being the Senate and the lower house being the House of Representatives. These two houses possess equal power, although budgetary bills must originate in the lower house, while treaty ratification rests exclusively with the upper house.
With only twenty-four seats, the Philippine Senate is one of the smallest upper chambers among countries with bicameral legislatures. Its members are nationally elected for six-year terms on a staggered basis, twelve senators being elected every three years. Senators may serve for a maximum of two terms or twelve consecutive years. In the May 2001 elections, thirteen Senate seats were contested. The extra seat became vacant when Senator Guingona assumed the vice presidency, which became vacant when Macapagal-Arroyo took over as president. Guingona, who was nominated by Macapagal-Arroyo to succeed her, had been Senate minority leader.
The constitution states that the House shall comprise not over 250 members, apportioned by area and population, and that party-list representatives shall not exceed 20 percent of the total members. Members are elected for three-year terms and can serve for a maximum of three consecutive terms. The House of Representatives is presided over by a speaker.
Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have working committees organized according to sectoral or functional interests. These committees conduct inquiries in aid of legislation and call upon government officials and the private sector, including concerned citizens, to appear before them. Senators and representatives can file bills on almost any subject for legislation, but the Senate is traditionally expected to file bills of national import; the House of Representatives, on the other hand, generally concentrates on constituent concerns.
Congress also functions as the sole judge regarding any election contest that pertains to its members. For the Senate, there is the Senate Electoral Tribunal, which is composed of three justices of the Supreme Court and six senators chosen on the basis of proportional representation from parties represented in the Senate; for the House, there is the House Electoral Tribunal, which is composed of three justices of the Supreme Court and six representatives chosen on the basis of proportional representation from parties of organizations registered under the party-list system.
Congress, through the Commission on Appointments, also confirms (or rejects, as the case may be) presidential appointments for heads of executive departments, ambassadors and other public ministers and consuls, officers of the armed forces from the rank of colonel or navy captain, and officials of constitutional bodies such as the Civil Service Commission, the Commission on Elections, and the Commission on Audit. The Commission on Appointments is chaired by the president of the senate, with twenty-four members, twelve of whom are senators and twelve of whom are representatives.
The Judiciary Judicial power is vested in the Supreme Court and in the lower courts. Members of the judiciary are chosen by the president from a list of nominees provided by the Judicial and Bar Council, a constitutional body composed of representatives from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, the legal profession, and the private sector. Once appointed, judges have secure tenure and can serve until the age of seventy or until they become incapacitated.
Constitutional Commissions The constitution also provides for independent constitutional commissions, namely, the Civil Service Commission, the Commission on Elections, and the Commission on Audit. The Civil Service Commission administers the civil service, comprising all governmental agencies, including corporations that are owned or controlled by the government. The Commission on Elections administers all laws relating to conducting an election, plebiscite, initiative, referendum, or recall. It has jurisdiction over contested elections of officials other than members of Congress, the president, and the vice president. The Commission on Audit examines, audits, and settles all accounts pertaining to government revenues and expenditures. The members of these commissions are appointed by the president subject to confirmation by the Commission on Appointments of Congress. They have a term of seven years without reappointment.
Local Governments The lowest political unit in the Philippines is the barangay (village). The barangay is administered by a council headed by a punong barangay (chairperson). Several barangays make up a city or municipality. A barangay consists of at least two thousand residents for municipalities and five thousand for cities. A province consists of municipalities and sometimes what are called component cities. Other cities are run independently of the province and have their own charters. There are also subnational administrative units composed of several provinces linked by common characteristics such as ethnicity or language. At all these levels, officials are elected by their constituencies.
In addition to these formal structures, structures such as the media and nongovernmental organizations allow people active involvement in national affairs. Unique to Philippine democracy is the concept of "People Power," a mass movement that at critical times is crucial in the political process, specifically, in deciding who should be president. In the case of Corazon Aquino, the people determined that the 1986 election was neither fair nor free. They staged massive demonstrations until Ferdinand Marcos was deposed. In the case of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the people determined that Joseph Estrada was inept and corrupt and unfit to be president. Again, massive demonstrations were staged until Estrada was forced from office. The jury is still out as to whether this method of changing governments will become a more frequent occurrence in Philippine politics.