Local Government

Philippines Table of Contents

The national government in the 1990s sought to upgrade local government by delegating some limited powers to local subdivisions and by encouraging people to participate in community affairs. Local autonomy was balanced, however, against the need to ensure effective political and administrative control from Manila, especially in those areas where communist or Muslim insurgents were active. In practice, provincial governors gained considerable leverage if they could deliver a bloc of votes to presidential or senatorial candidates. Control over provinces generally alternated between two rival aristocratic families.

During Marcos's authoritarian years (1972-86), a Ministry of Local Government was instituted to invigorate provincial, municipal, and barangay governments. But, Marcos's real purpose was to establish lines of authority that bypassed provincial governments and ran straight to Malacaņang. All local officials were beholden to Marcos, who could appoint or remove any provincial governor or town mayor. Those administrators who delivered the votes Marcos asked for were rewarded with community development funds to spend any way they liked.

After the People's Power Revolution, the new Aquino government decided to replace all the local officials who had served Marcos. Corazon Aquino delegated this task to her political ally, Aquilino Pimentel. Pimentel named officers in charge of local governments all across the nation. They served until the first local elections were held under the new constitution on January 18, 1988. Local officials elected in 1988 were to serve until June 1992, under the transitory clauses of the new constitution. Thereafter, terms of office were to be three years, with a three-term limit.


The 1987 Constitution retains the three-tiered structure of local government. There were seventy-three provinces in 1991. The province was the largest local administrative unit, headed by the elected governor and aided by a vice governor, also elected. Other officials were appointed to head offices concerned with finance, tax collection, audit, public works, agricultural services, health, and schools. These functionaries were technically subordinate to the governor but also answered to their respective central government ministries. Lower ranking functionaries, appointed by the governor, were on the provincial payroll.

Chartered cities stood on their own, were not part of any province, did not elect provincial officials, and were not subject to any provincial taxation, but they did have the power to levy their own taxes. As of 1991, there were sixty-one chartered cities headed by a mayor and a vice mayor. The mayor had some discretionary power of local appointment.

Municipalities were subordinate to the provinces. In 1991 there were approximately 1,500 municipalities. At the lowest level, with the least autonomy, were barangays, rural villages and urban neighborhoods that were called barrios until 1973. In 1991 there were about 42,000 barangays.

Various reorganization schemes have been undertaken to invigorate local government. One of the most far-reaching and effective was the creation of a Metro Manila government in the mid-1970s to bring the four cities and thirteen municipalities of the capital region under a single umbrella. Metro Manila is an example of what geographers call the Southeast Asian primate city, a single very large city that is the center of industry, government, education, culture, trade, the media, and finance. No other Philippine city rivaled Manila; all others were in a distinctly lesser league. Continued rapid population growth meant that the boundaries of Metro Manila were expected to expand in the 1990s.

During martial law, the provinces were grouped into twelve regions, and that arrangement was continued in the Apportionment Ordinance appended to the 1987 Constitution. Because these regions did not have taxing powers or elected officials of their own, however, they were more an administrative convenience for the departments of the national government than a unit of genuine local importance. In 1991 approximately 90 percent of government services were provided by the national government. Attempts by Aquino to decentralize delivery of some services were resisted by members of Congress because such moves deprived them of patronage.

The single biggest problem for local government has been inadequate funds. Article 10 of the Constitution grants each local government unit the power to create its own sources of revenue and to levy taxes, but this power is "subject to such guidelines and limitations as the Congress may provide." In practice, taxes were very hard to collect, particularly at the local level where officials, who must run for reelection every three years, were concerned about alienating voters. Most local government funding came from Manila. There is a contradiction in the Constitution between local autonomy and accountability to Manila. The Constitution mandates that the state "shall ensure the autonomy of local governments," but it also says that the president "shall exercise general supervision over local governments." The contradiction was usually resolved in favor of the center.

Regional Autonomy

By the 1990s, Philippine nationalism had not fully penetrated two regions of the country inhabited by national minorities: the Muslim parts of Mindanao and the tribal highlands of northern Luzon. Some Muslims and hill tribespeople did not consider themselves Filipinos, although they were citizens. Muslim separatism has a very long history. The Spaniards, Americans, and Japanese all had difficulty integrating the fiercely independent Moros into the national polity, and independent governments in Manila since 1946 have fared little better. The Moro insurgency has waxed and waned but never gone away. Enough Muslims participated in the 1987 elections to elect two of the twenty-four senators, but continuing land disputes were major factors preventing reconciliation between Christians and Muslims in Mindanao. The grievances of tribal groups, such as the Ifugao and Igorot, in northern Luzon were of more recent origin, having been stoked by ill-considered Marcos administration dam-building schemes that entailed flooding valleys in the northern Luzon cordillera where the tribal groups lived. When Aquino came to power, she was confronted with a Moro National Liberation Front demand for separation from the Philippines, and a Cordillera People's Liberation Army allied with the New People's Army. Aquino boldly negotiated a cease-fire with the Moro National Liberation Front, and her constitutional commissioners provided for the creation of autonomous regions in Muslim parts of Mindanao and tribal regions of northern Luzon.

Article 10 of the Constitution directed Congress to pass within eighteen months organic acts creating autonomous regions, providing that those regions would be composed only of provinces, cities, and geographic areas voting to be included in an autonomous region. Congress passed a bill establishing the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao with Cotabato City designated as the seat of government, and Aquino signed it into law on August 1, 1989. The required plebiscite was set for November 19, 1989, in thirteen provinces in Mindanao and the island groups stretching toward Borneo. The plebiscite campaign was marred by violence, including bombings and attacks by rebels. Aquino flew to Cotabato on November 6, 1990, to formally inaugurate the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. She had already signed executive orders devolving to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao the powers of seven cabinet departments: local government; labor and employment; science and technology; public works and highways; social welfare and development; tourism; and environment and natural resources. Control of national security, foreign relations, and other significant matters remained with the national government. Because many of the provinces to be included actually had Christian majorities, and because the Moro National Liberation Front, dissatisfied with what it perceived to be the limitations of the new law, urged a boycott, only four provinces (Tawitawi, Sulu, Maguindanao, and Lanao del Sur) elected to join the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Cotabato City itself voted not to join. So, a new capital had to be identified. In 1991 Maranaos, Maguindanaos, and Tausugs were disputing where the capital should be. Indications were that the government of the autonomous region would not have supervisory power over local government officials.

Congress passed a similar law creating a Cordillera Autonomous Region, but in a referendum held in five provinces (Abra, Benguet, Mountain, Kalinga-Apayao, and Ifugao) on January 29, 1990, autonomy failed in all provinces except Ifugao. The reasons for rejection were thought to be fear of the unknown and campaigning for a no vote by mining companies that feared higher taxation. In 1991 the Supreme Court voided the Cordillera Autonomous Region, saying that Congress never intended that a single province could constitute an autonomous region.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress