Isabella Farrington is a first year politics and international relations major, whose experiences in the program are the focus of this spring’s segment of the series.

This post is the third of our spring segment, Diggin In.  If you have not yet done so, please read this introduction for some brief context. 

Rising sophomore Bella Farrington dug into the research on the Philippines for her case study of its state of democracy for Comparative Politics this year.  This research will appear in two parts. This part sets the context for the analysis, assesses the democratic conditions and evaluates one of the most essential elements of the system — its elections.  The source list appears at the end of the concluding post.



Aristotle (2000), in his Nichomachean Ethics, claims that the most ideal form of government is the combination of an oligarchy – an aristocracy with an advantage to “the few” – and a democracy – a form of government with an advantage to the majority – known as a polity (138, 140). He asserts that a government with this composition incorporates the virtue of an aristocracy needed for good governance, and motivations for the common good through rule by the multitude (171). Of both democracy and oligarchy, he warns of the dangers that each poses in isolation. Specifically, democratic regimes tend towards the tyranny of the majority, while oligarchies risk governance by officials’ whims, opposed to the rule of law (Aristotle 2000, 149). The Philippines’ democratic structure, reflecting that of the United States, aligns with the polity model, but where virtue is not balanced with a view for the common interest.

The history of Philippine development possesses a noteworthy impact on the state’s current status of democracy. First, the most defining of the nation’s democratic history is how the Philippines overcame an oppressive dictatorship under Mr. Marcos Ferdinand in 1986 through the “People Power” revolution and adopted a democratic system mirroring that of the United States (Dressel 2011, 537). A democratic transition such as this is an impressive feat in itself, especially with the significant amount of citizen involvement resembling a bottom-up transition, a typically rare case due to collective action obstacles (Clark et al. 2019, 123). Second, the Philippines held high rates of economic growth under the Aquino administration that followed Mr. Ferdinand and presently houses one of the largest economies in the world (Fernandez 2021, 189; IDEA 2021, 8). Modernization theory states that high economic development leads to more complex social infrastructures that contradict dictatorial rule and encourage democratic reform as a “civil society” is created (Clark et al. 2019, 76; Dressel 2011, 531). Despite the rare bottom-up democratic transition and significant economic growth, the Philippines has shown to contradict these preconditions of democracy, exhibiting clear undemocratic governance.

Current Standings of Democracy in The Philippines

Present research on Philippine democracy identifies a persistent deterioration of democratic values, institutions, and motivations, despite the rare democratic transition from dictatorial rule and the presence of democratic preconditions. Certain aspects of democracy within the Philippines have provided positive outlooks for success, such as the formidable civic engagement and the inclusion of civil rights within the constitution post-Marcos rule (Dressel 2011, 530). However, as the 2021 Global State of Democracy Report (GSoD) measures, the Philippines is a “backsliding” democracy – “the sustained and deliberate process of subversion of basic democratic tenets by political actors and governments” (IDEA IV). The Philippines’ backsliding consists of an erosion of checks of government, impartial administration, and of fundamental rights, despite having relatively clean elections (8). Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippines has shown increases in militarization of pandemic response, entailing violations of human rights, free media, and separation of powers (9).

Violations of democratic values have not been attributed to the non-existence of democratic mechanisms of governance, but the ineffective structural and institutional compositions that have led the Philippine democracy to be variously labeled “defective,” “illusory,” “illiberal,” and “weak” accompanying patron-client, land-based oligarchy, and “weak state” explanations (Dressel 2011, 531; Calimbahin and Teehankee 2020, 98; Sidel 1997, 948- 49). While widely accepted, there are some critiques on the limitations of clientelist and land-driven explanations. For instance, the scarcity of historical grounding of the patron-client model (Sidel 1997, 948-49). By being aware of these limitations, a more immersive and cohesive analysis can be made that recognizes the relevant influences of clientelism, failing institutions, and corruption as well as new angles on the decline of Philippine democracy.

The Philippines can be justly classified as an oligarchy working under the guise of a weak democracy defined by severely lacking democratic institutions. The Philippine case phenomenon is defined greatly by political, economic, and social systemic complications. For instance, the presence of authoritarian individuals and methods of governance have prevailed despite free and clean elections, enabled by clientelism, charisma, and other undemocratic political strategies. The authoritarian political culture has also contributed to economic inequality, as elites are not held accountable for maintaining monopolies on wealth and resources. Finally, undemocratic motivations, including economic and political corruption, have served as detriments to human rights protections and improving the livelihoods of Philippine citizens. Underlying the sum of these factors is not a lack of democratic institutions, but their severe ineffectiveness, weakened by authoritarian priorities and politicians.

Democratic Elections and Authoritarian Politicians

In a functional democratic system, clean elections are foundational to representative government. The GSoD measures clean elections as “the extent to which elections are free, aggregating measure of electoral management body (EMB) autonomy and capacity, evidence of voting irregularities, government intimidation during elections, and the extent of electoral competition,” (IDEA 2021, 14). Moreover, elections require certain infrastructure to support credibility, including “political party pluralism, inclusive suffrage, a vibrant civil society, a free and independent media, respect for civil liberties, institutional checks and balances, and a robust rule of law,” (14). These facets demonstrate not only the complexity of democracy but may also explain observations about the Philippines’ backsliding democracy. The GSoD Indices determine the Philippines have acceptable scores on clean elections, though poorer scores within civil liberties and checks on government (IDEA 2021, 8). Considering the apparent necessities for clean elections (respect for civil liberties, institutional checks and balances, robust rule of law), these results seem contradictory. The explanation for this contradiction can be seen as authoritarian rule has come to power through “supremely democratic electoral exercises,” (Bello 2020, 692). Philippine elections have been clean, free, and without substantial claims of fraud, though authoritarian politicians have still managed to gain power through them. This is largely due to the undemocratic political strategies used by candidates that ensure authoritarian rule.

Authoritarian governance has come to power through seemingly democratic elections as politicians have utilized undemocratic political tactics. Authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte was elected to office with wide margins of victory, despite presenting clear authoritarian methods and agendas to the public, as with his dehumanizing “war on drugs” (Bello 2020, 693). Duterte was able to infiltrate office through clean elections by using charismatic politics.

Presenting a “combination of menace and charm,” Duterte convinced the citizenry that he had the strength to not only take out crime but also control exploitative elites (703). In other terms, Duterte utilized “strongman” leadership tactics to “speak for the people while simultaneously endorsing social intolerance” (Ragragio 2021, 859). Duterte exemplifies how politicians use personality to connect with and bolster citizenry support by appealing to and rallying around issues that directly impact citizens’ daily lives. Additionally, social and familial networks have been used to gain access to voters and through proximity that increases clientelist political exchange, offering resources in exchange for support of leadership (Fernandez 2021, 181; Cruz et al. 2017, 3007; Sidel 1997, 961). This may be used to classify the broader state system, including inter-elite relations where politicians bargain for commitment on policies and program agendas (Fernandez 2021, 188; Cruz et al. 2017, 3006). The heavy prevalence and influence of strongman, charismatic, and clientelist politics within the Philippine government allow authoritarian politicians and leaders, such as Duterte, to gain power despite the presence of clean democratic elections. Moreover, within the office, these tactics have led leaders to further weaken the democratic infrastructure of the Philippines.

The election of authoritarian individuals has contributed to and has been enabled by a lack of government accountability and the promotion of authoritarian methods of governance. Duterte has left a legacy of weakened democratic infrastructure. The elitist advantages of social and familial networks, by encouraging clientelist politics (and, in turn, positioning elites with the power to bypass democratic norms of governance and participate in corrupt practices, such as the buying of votes) inherently undermine the democratic qualities of clean elections, even if the processes themselves are democratic. Duterte has thus been able to weaken checks and balances, the rule of law, and overall government accountability (Fernandez 2021). More broadly, these tactics have not only enabled an elite-run political atmosphere but have illuminated the pressing need for strengthened democratic institutions (Rodan 2021; Calimbahin and Teehankee 2020, 237). The weakening of democratic institutions that ensure representative government, and consequently the ability of citizens to hold their government accountable for their actions, has transformed the Philippine democracy into a more oligarchic polity. While democracy can often be defined simply by free and clean elections, the Philippine case disproves this simplistic definition, illustrating the importance of not only clean elections but supportive infrastructure, the most important being government accountability.



Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind