By Paul D. Hutchcroft
Source Link: The Daily PCIJ
No country in Asia has more experience with democratic institutions than the Philippines, dating back to the fledgling Assembly created by the revolutionary republic that declared independence in 1898, after more than three centuries of Spanish rule. The United States’ rapid defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War led to a protracted colonial conquest of the Philippines, in the wake of which the United States embarked on its first major overseas experiment in “nation-building.” Elections proceeded from the municipal level to the provincial level to the October 1907 convening of a Philippine National Assembly, bringing together prominent elites from throughout the lowland Christian Philippines.
Several key elements of Philippine democracy can be traced to the U.S.-colonial era. The first is patronage-infested political parties that rely heavily on pork-barrel public-works projects run through national legislators. Under U.S. governor-general William Howard Taft’s “policy of attraction,” which was intended to woo the landlord class away from the revolutionary struggle and toward collaboration with the United States, the economic elite of the Spanish-colonial era was transformed into a political-economic elite that continues to wield power today. Because representative institutions in the Philippines emerged before the creation of strong bureaucratic institutions, it was easy for patronage- hungry politicos to overwhelm the nascent administrative agencies of the colonial state. Taft liked to evoke images of New England–style deliberative democracy, but the end result is better thought of as a Philippine version of Tammany Hall.
Second, the colonial political system ensured exclusion of the masses and control by a national oligarchy nurtured by U.S. rule. The franchise was limited to a tiny electorate and did not begin to expand substantially until the late-colonial and early-postcolonial years. By this time, the dominance of the national oligarchy was so well-entrenched that challenges from below faced monumental odds.
A third major legacy is the provincial basis of national politics, as influential provincial elites thrived in the national arenas established by U.S. officials. Finally, the strong presidency of the modern Philippines began with the emergence of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, when President Manuel L. Quezon presided over a weak National Assembly and enjoyed largely uncontested executive authority.
These legacies were the foundations from which Philippine politics evolved after independence in 1946.
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Paul D. Hutchcroft, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has written extensively on Philippine politics. He is author of Booty Capitalism: The Politics of Banking in the Philippines (1998), and is completing a book on patronage structures and territorial politics in the twentieth-century Philippines.