Origins of Democracy in the Philippines

When the United States colonised the Philippines in 1898 it planned to gradually grant self-determination to the country as the principles of democracy were imbibed by the population. As education was not widespread, the elite and the educated benefitted most from the system instituted by the US, which was largely executed by officers of the US army. Filipinos worked in the American administration and quickly came to value the concept of self-government. By 1917, when the US decided to institute its policy of ‘Filipinisation’ , the elite was ready to assume positions vacated by departing US military officers. Between 1917 and 1935, when the Commonwealth came into existence, political parties were formed and most of the population was educated into accepting the principles of democracy, which meant having a ruling party and an opposition. In this respect, the Philippines was significantly different from many Asian countries which gained independence a few years later. As Apter (1962:154) points out: these countries did not generally accept an opposition as a normal feature of a democracy. The small elite who controlled the political process realised that each party would have its turn in government. The Nacionalista and Liberal parties, which differed little ideologically, dominated politics, and politicians switched parties to gain office. But the democratic system that developed did not represent the majority of the population.

The Philippine Commonwealth was inaugurated in 1935 under a democratic constitution patterned after the United States bicameral system. ‘The ideology of American ‘democracy’ which emphasised the limitation of state power was very different from the philosophy of the French in Indo-China, the Dutch in the Indies and the British in Malaya. It played into the hands of the elite to whom the Americans, always ambivalent colonial rulers, proceeded to hand over political power as soon as possible’ (Overholt 1986:1136).

For most Filipinos, American-style democracy meant little more than elections every few years. Beyond this, the colonial authorities made sure that only the candidates who represented colonial interests first and last won. This practice did not die with colonialism. The ensuing political order, which persisted long after independence, was one where a handful of families effectively and ruthlessly ruled a society riven by inequality. It was democratic in form, borrowing as many American practices as it could, but autocratic in practice (World Bank report cited in Chomsky 1991:237).

The first duty of the Commonwealth government was national security. President Manuel Quezon procured the services of General Douglas MacArthur, who was about to retire as US Army Chief of Staff, to establish the Philippine military. MacArthur and his US military advisory team used the Swiss army as a model for the Philippine army. A military academy, patterned after the US military academy at West Point, was designed in which officers were to be instructed in the techniques and skills of the military and taught that the proper role of the military in a democracy was one of subservience to civilian government. In practice, however, these ideals were not easily imparted to the new recruits, many of whom attained their place at the academy through political patronage rather than merit (Selochan 1990:57). Courses at the academy were oriented towards equipping cadets to maintain internal law and order through combat techniques. The curriculum did not address subjects in the humanities. Maintaining law and order, more a policing than military function, required more emphasis on domestic politics than military skills. Officers recruited from the Reserve Officers Training Course (ROTC) conducted at the universities were more amenable to humanitarian considerations, but they did not generally hold command positions in the military as they were seen as part-time soldiers. Yet with a liberal education they were possibly more attuned to the democratic process than the officers trained at the Philippines Military Academy (PMA) under an authoritarian military system.

Officers’ adherence to democratic practices also suffered under the Commission on Appointments (CA), instituted to vet appointments under a functioning democracy. Politicians who were members of the CA sought and gained allegiance from officers in exchange for approving their promotion. Many officers consequently remained indebted to politicians and were unable to conform strictly to the military chain of command. While the Philippine military was still being developed World War II abruptly interrupted the military training and education program. To defend the islands, the fledgling Philippine military was incorporated into the United States Armed Forces for the Far East (USAFFE) under the command of General MacArthur.

At the termination of the war, the Philippines had suffered severe damage. It also had over one million people claiming to be guerilla fighters and thus seeking a place in the military. Reconstruction of the Philippine economy and the reconstitution of the military became priorities of the newly-installed government under President Osmeña. Independence was also granted during this period. But the country was inadequately equipped to assume full sovereignty.

The 1935 constitution, which was adopted at independence on 4 July 1946, provided the framework within which a democratic state could develop.

The Constitution was supplemented by laws enacted by legislatures at the national, provincial, and city/municipal levels of government. A centralised court system which was headed by the Supreme Court performed the judicial function of the state and a career national bureaucracy administered the policies of the government. In other words, the political and institutional infrastructure of a democratic government was in place in the Philippines at the time of independence. What was not altered was the distribution of wealth, economic power and social status (Lapitan 1989:236).

The American-style democracy exported to the Philippines was bound to encounter problems: ‘Except in rare instances, democracy does not work when foreign models are imposed, and many features of American democracy are ill-suited to poor, unstable and divided countries’ (Diamond 1992:27).