Freedom in the World
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Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo won a second six-year term as president in elections held in May 2004. She is credited with boosting tax revenues and stabilizing the budget deficit, but has been less successful in tackling the Philippines' rampant crime and chronic corruption, whose burdens fall heaviest on poorer Filipinos. Her administration also has struggled to reign in armed Islamic groups making their bases in the southern jungles.
The Philippines won independence in 1946 after being ruled for 43 years by the United States and occupied by the Japanese during World War II. It held US commonwealth status from 1935 until its independence. Once one of Southeast Asia's wealthiest nations, the Philippines has been plagued since the 1960s by insurgencies, economic mismanagement, and widespread corruption. The country's economic and political development was set back further by Ferdinand Marcos's 14-year dictatorship. Marcos was finally chased out of office in 1986; he was succeeded by Corazon Aquino, who had previously been cheated out of victory in an election rigged by the strongman's cronies. Though she came to symbolize the Philippines' emergence from authoritarian rule, Aquino managed few deep political or economic reforms while facing seven coup attempts. Her more forceful successor, former army chief Fidel Ramos, ended chronic power shortages, privatized many state firms, and trimmed bureaucratic red tape.
With the popular Ramos constitutionally barred from running for reelection, Estrada, who was vice president, won the 1998 presidential election behind pledges to help poor Filipinos. Almost from the outset, the Estrada administration was dogged by allegations that it was corrupt and that it gave favorable treatment to the business interests of well-connected tycoons. The House of Representatives impeached him on these and other grounds in November 2000, but Estrada's supporters blocked prosecutors from introducing key evidence during his trial in the Senate. The resulting massive street protests and public withdrawal of support by military leaders forced Estrada to resign in January 2001.
As vice president, Arroyo became president under the constitutional line of succession. In the first major test of her administration's popularity, Arroyo's coalition won 8 of 13 contested Senate seats and a majority in the House in the May 2001 legislative elections. Nevertheless, Arroyo was dogged by questions about the legitimacy of her unelected administration, while her establishment image - she is the daughter of a former president of the Philippines - made her an easy political target for populist backers of former president Estrada.
In the May 2004 presidential election, Arroyo eked out a narrow victory over her main rival, former film star Fernando Poe, Jr. According to the official vote tally released in June, Arroyo won 12.9 million votes (40% of the total), compared to Poe's 11.8 million votes (37%). The other three candidates each garnered 10% or less of the total vote. Poe's supporters waged demonstrations after exit polls indicated his likely loss, alleging that Arroyo's party had rigged votes, but these accusations were never proven true.
Far from the political bickering in Manila, the southern Philippines continues to be wracked by Islamic militancy. Abu Sayyaf continues to engage in terrorist activities, including bombings and kidnappings. Although it claims to be a Muslim secessionist group, its activities appear to be motivated mostly by the financial gains made by ransoms. Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional terrorist group with ties to al-Qaeda, is believed to have training grounds on the southern island of Mindanao.
Meanwhile, Arroyo's government has made little progress in reviving stalled talks with Communist rebels, who have been waging a low-grade rural insurgency since 1969. The Communists' extortion of local businesses and attacks on military and civilian targets in the countryside have helped cripple rural development. The general security problem is compounded by the high level of corruption in the security forces. The administration has been more successful on the economic front, however. Its program to combat tax evasion led to improvements at the Bureau of Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. The higher tax receipts that resulted helped stabilize the budget deficit, which although still large, was running some PHP 1.5 billion (about US $27,000,000) below target in the first ten months of 2004.
Citizens of the Philippines can change their government democratically. The Philippines has a presidential system of government, with the directly elected president limited to a single six-year term. The legislature is bicameral: the 24 members of the Senate are elected on a nationwide ballot and serve six-year terms. The 264 members of the House of Representatives serve three-year terms; 212 of them are elected by district and 52 of them are chosen by party list. The ruling People's Power Coalition is headed by Arroyo's party, the National Union of Christian Democrats (Lakas); the main opposition party is the Struggle for a Democratic Philippines (Laban). Elections in the Philippines are free and fair.
Corruption, cronyism, and influence peddling are widely believed to be rife in business and government. Despite recent economic reforms, a few dozen powerful families continue to play an overarching role in politics and hold an outsized share of land and corporate wealth. The Philippines was ranked 102 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The private press (most print and electronic media) is vibrant and outspoken, although newspaper reports often consist more of innuendo and sensationalism than investigative reporting. Although many television and radio stations are government-owned, they are still outspoken (though they too lack strict journalistic ethics). The international organization Human Rights Watch called the Movies and Television Review and Classification Board's threats against television broadcasts showing lesbian relations in June 2004 "a blatant assault on freedom of expression." Although the censorship board does have broad powers to edit or ban content, in general, government censorship is not a serious problem. However, the Philippines is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work, according to the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines. Several journalists were killed in 2003 and during the first ten months of 2004. Many were ostensibly victims of revenge killings after reporting on crimes committed by local government officials; some others had been outspoken supporters of the government's fight against illegal drugs, or had criticized government officials for not doing enough to curb the drug trade. The government does not restrict Internet use.
Filipinos of all faiths can worship freely in this mainly Christian society, and church and state are separate. However, Muslims say that they face economic and social discrimination in mainstream society at the hands of the country's Roman Catholic majority. The general consensus, nevertheless, is that the discrimination is based on culture, not religion. There are also reports of reverse discrimination (against Christians) in areas such as Mindanao, where Muslims are in the majority; Muslim-majority provinces lag behind Christian-majority ones on most development indicators.
University professors and other teachers can lecture and publish freely.
Citizens can hold protests, rallies, and other demonstrations without government interference. The law requires that groups request a permit before holding a rally, but this law is often ignored in practice. The Philippines has many active environmental, human rights, social welfare, and other nongovernmental groups. Trade unions are independent, and they may align themselves with international trade union confederations or trade secretariats. Collective bargaining is widespread, and strikes may be called, though unions must provide notice and obtain majority approval from union membership before calling a strike.
Despite many gains since the Marcos era, the rule of law continues to be weak. The judiciary, while generally independent, is hampered by corruption and inefficiency. Low pay for judges and prosecutors is often cited as a major factor in perpetuating corruption such as bribery. The constitution sets time limits for court cases, but because of backlogs, and because these limits are not mandatory, they are mostly ignored. Independent observers do not believe that the judicial system adequately guarantees defendants' constitutional rights to due process and legal representation.
The rule of law is not necessarily respected in the Philippines. Reports of arbitrary and unlawful detention or arrest in harsh prison conditions, disappearances, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings, and abuse of suspects and detainees continue. Although torture is prohibited by the constitution, it remains "an ingrained part of the arrest and detention process," according to the U.S. State Department's human rights report for 2003, released in February 2004. Members of the poorly disciplined Philippine National Police (PNP) are regularly described by the official Commission on Human Rights as the country's worst rights abusers. Most notably, PNP officers continue to be accused of illegal killings of criminal suspects, although officials frequently allege that these killings occur during shootouts. The PNP is under the jurisdiction of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
The long-running conflict between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the separatist Islamic rebel group, has caused severe hardship for many of the 15 million Filipinos on southern Mindanao and nearby islands. Amnesty International in April accused Filipino forces of summary killings, disappearances, torture, and illegal arrests during counterinsurgency operations on Mindanao. MILF guerrillas are widely accused of killings and other abuses and have attacked many Christian villages. Separately, the smaller Abu Sayyaf group has kidnapped and tortured many civilians and beheaded some of its captives. Islamic militants are suspected in a string of bombings on Mindanao in recent years, including two bombings in Davao City in March and April 2003 that killed at least 38 people.
In the countryside, the 10,000-strong New People's Army (NPA), the military arm of the Communist insurgency, continue to engage in executions, torture, and kidnappings, according to the U.S. State Department report. The army and pro-government militias operating in Mindoro Oriental and other provinces are responsible for summary killings, disappearances, torture, and illegal arrests while fighting Communist rebels, according to Amnesty International.
Minorities have equal representation in the political system. However, members of the Philippines' indigenous minority have limited access to some basic government services and are far less integrated into mainstream society than other minorities. This is more the result of the geographical remoteness of the areas that they tend to inhabit, however, than of legal or entrenched societal discrimination. Because their preferred areas of the country are also favored by the militant rebels, indigenous people suffer disproportionately from the country's armed conflict.
Citizens may travel freely, and there are no restrictions on employment or place of residence. The government generally respected the privacy of its citizens. The poor security situation takes a serious toll on individuals' ability to operate private businesses, however. Street crime, drug trafficking, kidnappings, extortion, and terrorist violence all conspire against business interests.
Filipino women have the same rights as men according to the law, though this is not always borne out in practice. Women have made many social and economic gains in recent years, and more women than men now enter high school and university. In the job market, though, women face some discrimination in the private sector and have a higher unemployment rate than men, according to the U.S. State Department report. Rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment on the job, and trafficking of Filipino women and girls abroad and at home for forced labor and prostitution continue to be major problems despite government and civil efforts to protect women from violence and abuse. There are reports of bonded labor (especially of children) in underground sectors such as prostitution and drug trafficking. The NPA, MILF, and Abu Sayyaf have also been accused of using child soldiers.