Although the Philippines transitioned from authoritarian rule in 1986, the rule of law and application of justice are haphazard and heavily favor political and economic elites. Long-term violent insurgencies have continued for decades, though their threat to the state has diminished in recent years. Impunity remains the norm for violent crimes against activists and journalists, and President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs since 2016 has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings.
- Candidates aligned with President Duterte dominated May’s midterm elections. Despite reports of vote-buying and some election-related violence, the polls were generally perceived as successful and credible, and the results as a signal that Duterte would be able to accelerate his political agenda.
- In July, sedition cases were filed against top opposition figures including Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, incumbent senators Leila de Lima and Risa Hontiveros, former senators Antonio Trillanes IV and Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, and six senatorial candidates who ran and lost in the May midterm elections.
- In February, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority was established as the governing body of the new autonomous region in Mindanao called the Bangsamoro, marking an important step toward peace in the restive region.
- After 30 years of litigation, the Sandiganbayan—the Philippines’ anticorruption court— dismissed for lack of substantial evidence forfeiture cases worth billions of dollars against the late dictator’s wife, Imelda Marcos, and her children.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The president is both head of state and head of government, and is directly elected to a single six-year term. Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippine Democratic Party–People’s Power (PDP-Laban) won the 2016 presidential election with 39 percent of the vote, followed by Manuel Roxas II of the Liberal Party, with 23 percent. While polling was marked by dozens of violent episodes, including a number of killings, there were fewer such incidents compared to previous election years. Vote buying was also reported.
The vice president is directly elected on a separate ticket and may serve up to two successive six-year terms. Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo of the Liberal Party won the closely contested vice presidency in 2016 with 35 percent of the vote.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
The 24 members of the Senate are elected on a nationwide ballot and serve six-year terms, with half of the seats up for election every three years. The 299 members of the House of Representatives serve three-year terms, with 241 elected in single-member constituencies and the remainder elected through party-list voting.
Midterm elections for the Senate, the House of Representatives, and local government offices were held in May 2019. Despite reports of vote buying and some election-related violence, the polls were generally perceived as successful and credible. No single party won an outright majority in either house, but the pro-Duterte parties secured majority alliances in both. The opposition Liberal Party alliance did not win a single seat in the Senate.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
The president appoints the Commission on Elections (Comelec), whose performance was generally praised in 2016 but was criticized for technical glitches and procurement issues that occurred in the 2019 midterm elections. The Comelec performs both election management and adjudication functions; frequent litigation complicates the interpretation of electoral laws and makes the already complex framework even less accessible to the public.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
The Philippines has a strong record of open competition among multiple parties, though candidates and political parties typically have weak ideological profiles. Legislative coalitions are exceptionally fluid, and politicians often change party affiliation, typically to join the dominant bloc.
In the past three decades, political dynasties have become more prevalent and more powerful, and hold many provincial governorships and a significant number of seats in the Congress.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
The Philippines has seen regular rotations of power at the national level. However, in recent years opposition politicians have faced increasing harassment, and some have been arrested on charges denounced by the opposition and rights groups as politically motivated.
In July 2019, sedition cases were filed against top opposition figures including Vice President Robredo, incumbent senators Leila de Lima and Risa Hontiveros, former senators Antonio Trillanes IV and Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, and six senatorial candidates who ran and lost in the May midterm elections. Trillanes faces legal proceedings in a number of other cases, including on charges of rebellion that were revived after Duterte voided the amnesty granted to him in 2010 for leading mutinies when he was an officer in the navy. Leila de Lima, one of the most outspoken critics of President Duterte’s war on drugs, had been arrested in 2017 on charges of accepting money from drug dealers. She remains in jail nearly three years after her arrest, and is recognized as a prisoner of conscience by a number of international rights groups.
Duterte cracked down on the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), declaring them terrorist organizations after peace talks failed in 2017. In 2018, the government filed a petition in court to declare 649 individuals CPP and NPA members, which would effectively designate them as terrorists. The list included actual members of the CPP, as well as other critics of the president, a former party-list member of Congress, and the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. Corpuz’s name was removed along with those of several dozen other rights defenders when the list was trimmed in 2019. Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the list a “virtual government hit list,” citing a history of people accused of NPA involvement being assassinated by state security forces and progovernment militias.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
Distribution of power is heavily affected by patronage and kinship networks. In the past 30 years, political dynasties have expanded. Party lists are frequently dominated by traditional political families, and recent elections have resulted in an increasing concentration of power in the hands of a few families. Election-related funding also contributes to the concentration of power: there are no limits on campaign contributions and a significant portion of political donations come from a relatively small number of donors.
The activities of armed rebel and extremist groups and martial law also continued to affect politics in the south of the country in 2019. Duterte announced in December, however, that the security situation in Mindinao had improved and that martial law there would expire a year’s end.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
While women make up about a quarter of the legislature, political life is dominated by men, and few women are elected without following in the footsteps of a male relative. Muslims and indigenous groups are not well represented; perceptions of relative socioeconomic deprivation and political disenfranchisement, along with resentment toward Christian settlements in traditionally Muslim areas, have played a central role in the Philippines’ Muslim separatist movements.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the party-list portion of the electoral framework for the House of Representatives, traditionally meant to ensure representation for marginalized or underrepresented groups, could also be open to other groups, including national political parties, provided that they did not stand in the single-member constituency contests. A number of party-list groups gained seats in 2019 not by representing national sectors or interests as intended, but through substantial support from kinship networks in single geographic regions, and links with the Duterte administration.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
While elected government officials and legislative representatives determine state policies, the president is able to dominate policymaking due to a political system that grants significant powers to the executive branch. A few dozen families continue to hold a disproportionate share of political authority.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Government corruption and impunity for corruption is a serious problem. The courts and other anticorruption institutions have failed to hold powerful politicians and their associates to account for serious allegations.
The official anticorruption agencies, the Office of the Ombudsman and the Presidential Anti-Graft Commission (PAGC), have mixed records. The PAGC lacks enforcement capabilities. The Ombudsman, which is tasked with acting on complaints filed against government workers and officials, is poorly resourced and relies on the solicitor general—the chief counsel of the government—to launch prosecutions. It has focused on major cases against senior government officials and those involving large sums of money, some of which languish for years in the Sandiganbayan (anticorruption court). In August 2019, the deputy ombudsman claimed that the Philippines was losing around 700 billion pesos ($13 billion), or around 20 percent of the country’s total budget appropriation, annually, due to corruption.
President Duterte has fired numerous officials due to corruption, including the interior minister in 2017, but his anticorruption drive had ultimately led to few convictions. In 2018, the Sandiganbayan acquitted Senator Ramon Revilla Jr. of charges of embezzling over $4 million in government funds during his last term, although one of his aides was convicted. Revilla was again elected to the Senate in the 2019 midterm polls.
In November 2018, the Sandiganbayan found former first lady Imelda Marcos guilty of corruption for improperly moving $200 million into Swiss foundations as governor of Manila in the 1970s and sentenced her to between 6 and 11 years in prison. Marcos posted bail and filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, which had not yet heard her case at year’s end. In August 2019, after 30 years of litigation, the Sandiganbayan dismissed a $2 billion forfeiture case against Imelda Marcos and alleged cronies on charges of ill-gotten wealth. In October, the same court division dismissed a $20 million civil case against members of the Marcos family stemming from allegations of ill-gotten wealth during the Marcos years. Of the 43 cases filed by the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) against the Marcos family in 1987, 22 cases have now been dismissed, with 1 indefinitely archived, and 20 remaining.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to a pattern of cases over several years in which the courts and other anticorruption institutions have failed to hold powerful politicians and their associates accountable for alleged malfeasance.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
Government transparency remains limited despite some positive initiatives. Local governments have been required to post procurement and budget data on their websites, and in 2012 the national government began participatory budgeting at various levels. Duterte issued an order establishing the country’s first freedom of information directive in 2016, but it mandates public disclosure only in the executive branch and allows major exemptions.
President Duterte has refused to release a filing known as a statement of assets and liabilities and net worth (SALN); all previous presidents made the disclosure, pursuant to a 1989 law.
|Are there free and independent media?
The constitution provides for freedoms of expression and the press. Private media are vibrant and outspoken, although content often lacks fact-based claims or substantive investigative reporting. The country’s many state-owned television and radio stations cover controversial topics and sometimes criticize the government, but they too lack strict journalistic ethics. While the censorship board has broad powers to edit or ban content, government censorship is generally not a serious problem in practice.
The Philippines remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, and the president’s hostile rhetoric toward members of the media exacerbates an already perilous situation. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in May 2019 said attacks and threats on the Philippine media have continued relentlessly throughout the Duterte administration, and that there had been no major efforts by state agencies to investigate serious incidents or otherwise address the problem. A coalition of media groups reported in May that from June 30, 2016 to April 30, 2019, there were 128 documented attacks and threats against the press, including physical attacks; threats, including death threats and bomb threats; smearing journalists as conspiring against the government; “red-tagging,” or alleging that targets harbor communist sympathies or connections in order to increase harassment against them; and DDoS attacks on alternative-media sites. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), six journalists have been killed in the Philippines in connection with their work between 2016 and 2019.
Other obstacles to press freedom include Executive Order 608, which established a National Security Clearance System to protect classified information, and the Human Security Act, which allows journalists to be wiretapped based on suspicion of involvement in terrorism. Libel is a criminal offense, and libel cases have been used frequently to quiet criticism of public officials. In February 2019, a government spokesman said journalists had been wiretapped as part of an investigation into allegations that a group of critical outlets were plotting to oust Duterte; the outlets and international press freedom advocates rejected the claims.
In 2018, the government revoked the registration of the online news site Rappler, which has been critical of Duterte’s war on drugs, for violation of regulations that forbid foreign entities from exerting any control over domestic news outlets. Reporters for Rappler, accused by Duterte of being part of a “fake news outlet,” were banned from the presidential palace and from all official presidential events, proscribing government officials from granting them interviews. By February 2019, the editor in chief, Maria Ressa, had been arrested twice and had posted bail for 11 different charges including tax evasion, libel, cyberlibel, and violations of Securities and Exchange Commission regulations.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Freedom of religion is guaranteed under the constitution and generally respected in practice.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Academic freedom at the country’s many public and private schools is generally respected. However, in July 2019, authorities closed 55 indigenous primary schools in the Davao region on allegations that these nonprofit schools were teaching leftist ideology.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
There are no significant impediments to free and open private discussion. The internet is widely available. Rights groups have expressed concern about threats against and censorship of anonymous online criticism and the criminalization of libelous posts, but this has yet to have a major impact on private discussion.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Citizen activism and public discussion are robust, and demonstrations are common. However, permits are required for rallies, and police sometimes use violence to disperse antigovernment protests.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Civil society has been historically robust in the Philippines, which hosts a range of active human rights, social welfare, environmental, and other groups. However, assassinations of civil society activists have continued, and President Duterte’s public threats against those who oppose his policies have exacerbated an already dangerous atmosphere of impunity. Environmental and land rights activists operate at a particularly acute risk. The international environmental rights group Global Witness reported in its most recent statistics that 30 land and environmental defenders were killed in the Philippines in the year 2018 alone.
In November 2018, a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) memorandum, ostensibly to protect nonprofit organizations from money laundering and terrorist financing abuse, mandated that nonprofit organizations disclose past and present funding sources, and specify the projects and activities funded. Rights groups criticized the memorandum as an unnecessary government intrusion, and in January 2019, the seven lawmakers who make up the Makabayan bloc filed a motion in the lower house calling for further scrutiny of its proposals.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
2 / 4 (−1)
Trade unions are independent, though less than 10 percent of the labor force is unionized. Collective bargaining is common among unionized workers, however, and strikes may be called as long as unions provide notice and obtain majority approval from their members.
Labor and professional groups have experienced increased harassment, including red-tagging, in recent years, particularly those representing farmers and lawyers. Leaders of such groups have been targeted amid the broader increase in extrajudicial killings that has taken place in the Philippines over the past decade. In June 2019 Dennis Sequena, a labor organizer, was shot and killed while meeting with workers in Cavite Province.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to a rise in threats and violence against labor activists in recent years.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
Judicial independence has deteriorated during President Duterte’s administration. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Maria Lourdes Sereno, a harsh critic of the president, was ousted in May 2018 when the court voted eight to six to grant a petition by the solicitor general to cancel Sereno’s 2010 appointment, due to allegations that she had failed to disclose some of her assets. The decision was sharply criticized by the opposition as politically motivated and a brazen attack on the independence of the judiciary. Sereno moreover argued that her removal was improper, because the only means of removing a Supreme Court justice prescribed by the constitution is through congressional impeachment proceedings.
Judicial independence is also hampered by inefficiency, low pay, intimidation, corruption, and high vacancy rates.
Three judges were assassinated in 2019, according to a tally maintained by Rappler.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
The justice system fails to guarantee due process rights. Arbitrary detention, disappearances, kidnappings, and abuse of suspects are common. Lawyers and prosecutors have been the targets of deadly violence, with Rappler documenting dozens of murders since 2016.
The police and military have been implicated in corruption, extortion, and involvement in the illegal drug trade. In October 2019, Oscar Albayalde, the national police chief, was charged alongside 13 police officers with involvement in a 2013 operation involving the recycling and reselling of confiscated methamphetamine. Separately, in the drug war, the police have used watch lists to identify targets for extrajudicial execution.
Martial law and the suspension of habeas corpus was in effect throughout 2019 in the southern region of Mindanao, though Duterte announced late in the year that martial law would not be renewed there for 2020.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
The Philippines has been afflicted by long-running insurgencies, and more recently, violent extremism in Mindinao. Since 2016, President Duterte has waged a violent war on drugs that has led to widespread extrajudicial killing.
Authorities stated in July 2019 that 5,526 people had been killed in Duterte’s antidrug campaign as of June 30, 2019. However, human rights groups, drawing in part from a 2017 police report of “deaths under investigation,” in 2019 put the number of related deaths at as many as 27,000. The victims include civilians and children who were deliberately targeted. Convictions for extrajudicial killings and other such crimes are rare, and Duterte has appeared to encourage the actions. In February 2018, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that it would conduct a preliminary examination into the war on drugs. In response, President Duterte withdrew the ratification of the Rome Statute, ending the country’s participation in the International Criminal Court (ICC) effective in March 2019. In June, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed concern about the “extraordinarily high number of deaths” and “persistent reports of extrajudicial killings” in Duterte’s drug war. With drug users fearfully turning themselves in to police en masse to avoid extrajudicial attacks, jails and prisons have become dangerously overcrowded, leading to the spread of disease and heightened violence.
The police and military routinely torture detainees, and a lack of effective witness protection has been a key obstacle to investigations against members of the security forces.
Conflict in Mindanao has caused severe hardship, more than 120,000 deaths, and the displacement of tens of thousands of people since it erupted in 1972. Both government and rebel forces have committed summary killings and other human rights abuses. In 2017, a group of Islamic State–linked foreign fighters and local militants attacked the city of Marawi; more than 1,200 people were killed in a five-month siege of the city. Heavy fighting subsided in 2018 due to the end of the siege.
In July 2018, pursuant to a 2014 peace treaty with the Moro Islamic Liberation (MILF), President Duterte signed the landmark Bangsamoro Organic Law, which created a self-governing region called the Bangsamoro, replacing and adding territory to the former Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. In February 2019, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority was constituted as the governing body until elections are held in 2022. However, some militant groups that had broken away from MILF continued to carry out attacks even after the law was signed.
In August 2018, President Duterte ended peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines–New People’s Army–National Democratic Front of the Philippines (CPP-NPA-NDFP), dashing hopes that the 50-year violent insurgency could see a peaceful end during his administration. Deadly clashes between the NPA and the Philippine army continue to occur regularly throughout the country, though the violence has declined in recent years.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Provisions mandating equal treatment are upheld inconsistently, and some groups lack legal protection. LGBT+ people face bias in employment, education, and other services, as well as societal discrimination. In a landmark vote in 2017, the House of Representatives passed the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression Equality bill, which would protect against discrimination on those grounds, but the Senate has failed to approve it.
Indigenous rights are generally upheld, but land disputes and local development projects regularly cause friction and sometimes lead to violence. Indigenous people often live in conflict areas and are targeted by combatants for their perceived loyalties.
The law mandates that at least one percent of public jobs be reserved for people with disabilities, but this is poorly upheld. Women face discrimination in employment.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Citizens enjoy freedom of travel and choice of residence, with the exception of areas affected by violent conflict. Martial law in Mindanao enabled the military to set up roadblocks and checkpoints, though it is set to be lifted beginning in 2020. In June 2018, President Duterte announced a campaign against loitering, which led to the arrests of thousands of people in public places in Manila.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
Private business activity is often dependent on the support of local power brokers in the complex patronage system that extends throughout the country. Outside of conflict zones, individuals are generally able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors, notwithstanding the domination and corruption of the economic dynasties.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
Most individuals enjoy personal social freedoms. However, divorce is illegal in the Philippines, though annulments are allowed under specified circumstances, and Muslims may divorce via Sharia (Islamic law) courts.
Domestic violence is a significant problem, and while spousal rape is a crime, very few cases are prosecuted.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
The Philippines is a source country for human trafficking, with some Filipinos taken abroad and forced to work in the fishing, shipping, construction, or other industries, or forced to engage in sex work. The country’s various insurgent groups have been accused of using child soldiers.
The legal minimum wage in the agricultural sector in some regions falls far short of what is necessary for a family to avoid poverty. Violation of minimum wage standards is fairly common. Children have been reported working as domestic laborers. There is a shortage of labor inspectors; authorities have acknowledged the problem but say they have limited funds to address it.
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Global Freedom Score58 100 partly free
Internet Freedom Score61 100 partly free