In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics of the Philippines: From Rizal to Duterte

  • Introduction
  • Brains of the Nation
  • American Empire and Philippine Politics
  • Caudillos and the Authoritarian Temptation
  • Administration and Government

Political Science Politics of the Philippines: From Rizal to Duterte
Richard Javad Heydarian
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 April 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0333


The heartland of former Spanish East Indies and once America’s sole colony in Asia, the Philippines is a land of mind-bending paradoxes, where swift changes have gone hand in hand with obstinate continuities. The Southeast Asian nation witnessed the birth of Asia’s first modern nationalist movement, initially led by the progressive sections of the Creole class and the so-called ilustrado mestizos, but reaching its apogee in the final years of the 19th century under the command of (Tagalog-dominated) provincial gentry and a broad coalition of petty bourgeois nationalists. In contrast, advanced state-formation came relatively late to the island nation, which has a limited history of large-scale polities in the precolonial era compared to neighboring Indonesia (Majapahit Empire) or Cambodia (Khmer Empire). A century since the advent of ‘first Filipinos,’ the country’s nation-building project remains glaringly unfinished, hobbled by persistent ethnolinguistic divides and Islamist and Communist movements that are among the world’s longest-running such insurgencies. For almost five centuries, Catholicism stood as the dominant religion in the country, but recent decades have seen homegrown evangelical groups become major forces in the country’s political landscape with the advent of denominational ‘bloc voting.’ A major entrepot during the trans-pacific Galleon Trade, the country became a regional economic powerhouse from the late 18th century up until the mid-20th century. Building on bouts of liberal reforms during Spanish colonialism and Commonwealth institutions under American tutelage, the Philippines also boasts among the oldest democratic institutions in the postcolonial world. The past half century, however, witnessed the country’s decline to the “Sick man of Asia” following decades of political instability and absence of sustained economic development. Amidst massive inequality and rampant corruption, the country has repeatedly relapsed into various permutations of authoritarian rule, from the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship to the resurgent populism of Rodrigo Duterte in recent years. In international politics, the Philippines has undergone a similarly turbulent trajectory, repeatedly caught in between rival empires, from Spanish–American Wars in the late-19th century to its strategic flirtation with a rising China despite its formal military alliance with America. What has remained largely constant is the composition of the country’s ruling elite, thanks to its remarkable geopolitical adaptability. The upshot is a weak state enfeebled by powerful interest groups and checked by a vibrant civil society. Accordingly, the study of Philippine politics should cover its troubled nation-state-formation, cacique-dominated political economy and attendant authoritarian temptations, as well as the unique brand of populist and liberal topes in its political discourse.

Brains of the Nation

Unique among its neighbors but similar to its Latin American cousins, as Anderson 2007 explains, the Philippines’ founding fathers were largely a mixture of creole, Chinese-Filipino mestizo and upwardly-mobile “Indigenous” intelligentsia, who were steeped in Enlightenment values and came of age under the shadow of post-1848 revolutionary movements in Europe. Schumacher 1973, Joaquin 2005, and Mojares 2006 cover the flowering of the fin de siècle “Propaganda Movement” and its main publication, La Solidaridad, in the late 19th century, while Anderson 2007 explores the nexus between Spanish anarchism, Latin American revolutions for independence, especially in Cuba, and the Philippine Revolution of 1896. The period also saw the publication of the Philippines’ most influential political novels, namely Jose Rizals’ Noli me tángere (1887) and El filibusterismo (1891), which irrevocably reshaped the country’s political imagination and its place in an emerging postcolonial world; the reprinted and English translations, Rizal 2006 and Rizal 2011 respectively, are accordingly annotated here. Guerrero y Francisco 2010 discusses the social milieu and broader political and intellectual relevance of Rizal’s works. In contrast Ileto 1997 discusses the broader role of masses and mass culture in resisting Spanish colonialism. The section also includes arguably the first work on political economy and administrative reforms by a Filipino scholar, Gregorio Sancianco Y. Goson’s El progreso de Filipinas, which was originally published in 1881 in Madrid; accordingly, Sancianco 2010 is a reprinted version of the 1923 edition of the book. On his part, another Filipino illustrado, Isabelo de los Reyes, published what is arguably the country’s first ethnographic study, the award-winning El folklore Filipino (1889), which would inform the author’s as well as his country’s radical politics and first modern labor movements in the early 20th century, from Union Obrera Democratica to the Union del Trabajo de Filipinas and its many Marxist derivatives throughout the century. De los Reyes 2012 is the English translation of the pioneering work annotated here.

  • Anderson, Benedict. Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination. London: Verso, 2007.

    A pioneering work on the influence of international anarchism on Filipino revolutionaries, including Jose Rizal, as evidenced in his second and more radical novel, El filibusterismo, and the direct impact of late-19th-century Cuban War of Independence on the Katipunan movement and especially its leader, Andres Bonifacio, who opted for a timely armed revolt against a collapsing Spanish empire.

  • De los Reyes, Isabelo. El folk-lore filipino. Translated by Maria Elinora Peralta-Imson and Salud C. Dizon. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2012.

    In this republished and translated edition, the author provides a pioneering critique of what, a century later, Edward Said would famously describe as “Orientalism”—namely the essentialization of Indigenous cultures through the prism of European colonialism. The work also provides deep insights into the adoption and adaptation of superstitious beliefs from the Iberian Peninsula and Europe into the Philippines; distinct, hybrid and entwined aspects of Indigenous folklore across various ethnolinguistic groups; and the Husserlian “lifeworld” of the Filipino people.

  • Guerrero y Francisco, Leon Ma. The First Filipino. Manila, the Philippines: Guerrero Publishing, 2010.

    First published in the early 1960s, the award-winning biography of Jose Rizal by this statesman-writer remains a classic account of the late-19th-century Filipino revolutionaries and their contribution to the creation of a Philippine nationhood.

  • Ileto, Reynaldo. Pasyon and revolution: In Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840–1910. Quezon City, The Philippines: Ateneo De Manila University Press, 1997.

    Widely considered as a masterpiece in historical study of the emerging Philippine nation, the book analyzes the multifarious resistance to Spanish political and ideological colonialism throughout the 19th century, and, most crucially, the role and agency of masses in adapting European religious traditions to distinctly precolonial belief systems and local practices.

  • Joaquin, Nick. A Question of Heroes. Quezon City, The Philippines: Anvil Publishing Co, 2005.

    Widely seen as the most influential Filipino novelist of the 20th century, Nick Joaquin provides a unique and unorthodox account of ten figures, from Father Jose Burgos to Artemio Ricarte, who contributed to development of the Filipino nation. The author leverages his mastery of the Spanish language and deep familiarity with original materials from the Spanish colonial era for a highly nuanced and granular analysis of the life and times of Filipino revolutionaries.

  • Mojares, Resil. Brains of the Nation: Pedro Paterno, T. H. Pardo De Tavera, Isabelo De Los Reyes and the Production of Modern Knowledge. Quezon City, The Philippines: Ateneo De Manila University Press, 2006.

    Arguably the most comprehensive analysis of the circumstances as well as the unique character of key intellectual and political figures who contributed to the creation of a common Filipino consciousness. It’s arguably the best survey of the emerging “intelligentsia” or ilustrado class in the second half of the 19th century in the Philippines.

  • Rizal, Jose. Noli me tángere. New York: Penguin, 2006.

    In Harold Augenbraum’s authoritative translation of this late-19th-century classic, the Philippines’ preeminent founding father and most prominent novelist, Jose Rizal, provides the most devastating and consequential critique of “friarocracy,” namely the hegemonic influence of clerical establishment in Spanish-controlled Philippines. The publication of the book spurred protests and a widespread desire for greater national autonomy, if not outright independence from Madrid.

  • Rizal, Jose. El filibusterismo. New York: Penguin, 2011.

    Building on his first novel, which remains his best known work, Rizal explores the temptations of a more radical and anarchist response to colonial oppression in the Philippines. Eerily prescient, the book seemingly foresaw the tragic outcome of a violent revolutionary movement and reflects the author’s ambivalence toward a full-fledged revolt against Spanish colonial rule—a clairvoyance for the violent, authoritarian tendencies that will emerge under a long series of Filipino strongmen and self-styled nationalists over the next century and beyond.

  • Sancianco, Gregorio. El Progreso De Filipinas. North Carolina: Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010.

    In this republished edition, in the original Spanish, the author provides a pioneering critique of the Philippines’ political economy in the final decades of Spanish imperium. The author’s analysis of the Philippines’ colonial economy and its oppressive, extractive patterns of production would inspire future works, including Jose Rizal’s famous Sobre la indolencia de los filipinos (Manila: Nueva Era, 1890), which, in turn, served as a foundation for influential postcolonial works such as Al-Atlas’s The Myth of the Lazy Native (London: F Cass, 1977).

  • Schumacher, John N. The Propaganda Movement, 1880–1895: The Creation of a Filipino Consciousness, The Makers of a Revolution. Manila, The Philippines: Solidaridad, 1973.

    A classic account of the ‘Propaganda Movement’ and illustrado nationalists in the final decades of the 19th century.

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