Skip to main content

Plumbing the Past: The Impact of History on Philippine Institutions and Democracy

Aries A. Arugay, University of the Philippines in Diliman; Glenn A. May, University of Oregon; Vicente L. Rafael, University of Washington; Joel Rocamora, Institute for Popular Democracy (Manila); and Hazel M. McFerson, George Mason University (commentator)

Date & Time

Jul. 26, 2006
2:30pm – 5:00pm ET


Observers today depict a mood of gloom and resignation in the Philippines, grounded in the belief that the country's political institutions are struggling. Why are they struggling? This Asia Program event examined one possible explanation: Philippine history. Spanish and American interventions have made a significant imprint on Philippine institutions, and this event considered how several centuries of Spanish colonial rule (1565-1898) and several decades of U.S. occupation (1898-1946) have impacted the capacities of Philippine democratic institutions today.

The panel's two historians described how Spain and the United States shaped the institutions that would come to characterize Philippine democracy. Citing the argument that a democracy cannot exist without a nation-state, the University of Washington's Vicente Rafael focused on how Spanish colonial rule hastened the development of the Philippine nation-state and nationalism. Colonial conquest redefined the spatial dynamics of the archipelago. Whereas previously, the Philippine islands were comprised of disparate tribal chiefdoms, the Spanish conquest created a "geographically bounded space." Additionally, linkages were established—geographic ones between Spain, the Philippines, New Spain, and the larger world; vertical ones that created a new central bureaucracy; economic ones fostered by the Philippines' involvement in the galleon trade; and religious ones linking converts to Christianity. These linkages solidified a growing national conscience, culminating in the emergence of Philippine nationalism in the late 19th century.

Glenn May of the University of Oregon argued that U.S. efforts to introduce democratic institutions in the Philippines in the early 20th century had the unintended consequence of reinforcing preexisting (undemocratic) realities. These democracy promotion efforts failed, he argued, because of the limitations of these new institutions. U.S. officials expanded the Philippine public school system, dispatching American teachers to open schools in remote areas. However, Philippine society at the time was highly agrarian, and poor students were obliged to drop out of school to work in the fields. Meanwhile, soon after occupying the Philippines, U.S. officials held elections and inaugurated a national assembly—yet participation in government was restricted to an educated male elite.

Philippines-based speakers addressed current affairs on the archipelago, considering how today's institutional challenges are shaped by the past. Joel Rocamora of the Institute for Popular Democracy asserted that contemporary Philippine politics are mired in a "systemic" crisis—the political system's capacity to respond to the demands of the poor and to attract tax revenue is declining, and political violence is widespread. These problems are compounded by what Rocamora described as a "crisis of representation," or a lack of national leaders—a reality he attributes to the Philippine political structure developed by the United States in the early 1900s. This arrangement emphasizes subnational political enclaves, in which substantive political deliberations occur through negotiations within local political channels. To this day, "national" simply means ascending coalitions of local political clans. With few national leaders, political parties suffer. The result is dictatorship, populism, and the success of recognizable but incompetent politicians—such as movie stars.

Aries Arugay of the University of the Philippines agreed that U.S. occupation policies help account for the problems faced by the Philippines today. For example, the occupation spawned a legacy of coercion, manifested in recent times by a Philippine military more fit for enforcing internal order than for promoting external defense. Today, political reform has brought success—such as a civilian-run military—but implementation of reforms in other areas has lagged. Ultimately, Arugay declared, the Philippines cannot simply blame colonialism for its democratization challenges. The nation must learn from its mistakes and address its "big deficit"—good leaders who can build institutions.

Commentator Hazel McFerson of George Mason University argued that reforms passed during the period of U.S. civilian administration of the Philippines all too often "never benefited the people." For this reason, she insisted that while capacity-building within the political realm is important today, this institutional strengthening must also be extended across Philippine society as a whole. Reforms must empower the middle class, professionalize the media industry, and strengthen public education so that impoverished children no longer miss out on its benefits.

Drafted by Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Assistant
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program, Ph: (202) 691-4020


Hosted By

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

Event Feedback

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.