Since the 1986 Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) People Power Uprising that toppled the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, civil society mobilization has occupied an increasingly prominent role in contemporary Philippine politics. The restoration of democratic rule aided in the proliferation of social forces and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that now form one of the most robust and politically active civil societies in Asia. Throughout their existence, Filipino civil society organizations (CSOs) have wielded considerable mobilization and coalitional power in pressing demands for good governance, advocating policy reforms, and even challenging the legitimacy of elected governments. With an affinity with democracy, civil society is considered appropriate and effective for channelling popular discontent against corrupt and abusive governments. Different civil society groups have been at the forefront of the Philippines’ struggle for good governance, social justice, and sustainable development.
There is consensus among some scholars and policymakers that a strong civil society is one of the most effective bulwarks against threats to democracy. The celebrity status of civil society members makes them the heroes of ongoing stories of democracy-building around the world. As Asia's oldest democracy, the Philippines confirms—to a large extent—the inexorable relationship between steady progress towards democratization of regimes and the density and health of civil society.
Not all actions by Philippine civil society in the post-Marcos era adhered to constitutional rules and promoted democratic consolidation. During the Philippines’ tumultuous period from 2001 to 2010, civil society and rival factions mobilized and collaborated with elites and other political actors— engendering an atmosphere of heightened and polarized conflict. This prolonged democratic crisis started with the opposition against populist president Joseph Estrada resulting in his extraconstitutional removal in 2001. Known as the country's “lost decade of democracy”, social forces claiming to be civil society were front and centre in a contentious and vicious political cycle that included the removal of a democratically elected president—and subsequent military coup plots, impeachment crises, and violent repression of protests during the tenure of Estrada's successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001–10).
In this chapter, I discuss the political issues confronted by CSOs in the Philippines since the country's “lost decade of democracy”.