Civil Society, Political Alliance-Building, and Democratization in the Philippines: An Instructive Example for the MENA Region?
Protesters Mark 28th Anniversary of Philippines People Power

The MENA and Southeast Asia regions have undergone and continue to undergo massive political transitions.  Differences in the process and outcomes of their transitions can be viewed through the lens of a “civil society infrastructure” and the qualitative differences in both these regions. This essay series engages a variety of issues regarding the roles and impact of civil society organizations (CSOs) in these two regions during the transition and pre-transition periods as well as in instances where the political transition is completed. Read more ...


Democratization in the Philippines is often considered the textbook example of a democratic transition that was brought about by civil society activism. In February 1986, popular demonstrations commonly referred to as People Power were followed by the crumbling of the authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos.[1] Starting from the late 1980s, civil society representatives, including NGO leaders, leftist activists, and public intellectuals, have occupied influential positions in successive democratic governments, which has allowed them to contribute to the formulation of reformist laws and policies.[2] A closer look reveals, however, that Philippine civil society actors have been able to exert this level of political influence only because they have forged alliances with powerful, and sometimes highly controversial, political elites, including traditional political families, established political dynasties with access to land and economic wealth, populists, and even the military.  

Civil Society Influence and Political Alliance-Building in the Philippines

Much of the literature on civil society assumes that civil society is a sphere that is highly autonomous from the state, the family, and the market and that this autonomy constitutes an essential precondition for civil society groups to realize their political potential.[3] The case of the Philippines contradicts this assumption. On closer inspection, the fall of Marcos, after massive popular demonstrations on Metro Manila’s Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), can be traced to a complex process of political coalition-building in which not only civil society but also the powerful Catholic Church, the business community, and the traditional political elite played a vital role.[4] Moreover, alongside peaceful demonstrations, a military mutiny staged by the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) also played a key role in Marcos’ fall. Military intervention thus constituted “the dark side of EDSA.”[5]

In the post-authoritarian period, civil society actors as different as NGOs, liberal democratic organizations, and leftist associations, with (former) ties to the Communist underground, have joined highly fluid and ideologically broad-based electoral coalitions and supported the electoral campaigns of traditional political elites, former military officers, and populists—a pattern that Abinales has called “coalition politics.”[6] Where such electoral coalitions have been successful in bringing a candidate to power, civil society activists who played an important role in mobilizing support for the latter’s electoral campaign have often been appointed to high-level decision-making posts. In particular, civil society representatives have held positions in successive Presidential Cabinets.[7] This “cross-over leadership,” as the phenomenon has become known locally as well as internationally,[8] has allowed civil society leaders to act as heads of important state agencies, such as the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) or the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), thereby enabling them to enhance the quality of social services provided by the state.[9] In an interview, a prominent leftist civil society leader described this strategy of political alliance-building as “political judo,” or, in other words, as a way to use the strength of civil society’s adversaries from the political elite to achieve political objectives defined by civil society.[10]

... various civil society actors have also used the strategies of political alliance-building and “cross-over leadership” in order to get access to state resources.

Since donor support to civil society dwindled from the late 1990s onwards, various civil society actors have also used the strategies of political alliance-building and “cross-over leadership” in order to get access to state resources. For instance, civil society groups with representatives or allies in the bureaucracy or the parliament have often been more likely to benefit from development projects contracted out by the state, or from so-called “pork barrel funds,” priority development funds allocated by the president to loyal supporters in Congress. Various civil society actors have thus become involved in patron-client ties, and, in some cases, quarrels over particularistic spoils and preferential access to state resources have led to serious conflicts and frictions between and among civil society groups.[11]

In 2001, the Philippines saw a reprise of People Power when an ideologically broad-based spectrum of civil society groups, including development NGOs, leftist activists, and liberal democratic groups, mobilized large-scale demonstrations to demand the ouster of populist President Josef Estrada on corruption charges.[12] The protests swept to power Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA), a member of the traditional political elite. Despite its success, People Power II caused serious frictions within the national civil society, given that Estrada’s ruling coalition had been supported by prominent civil society leaders as well.[13] Moreover, the ouster of Estrada was highly problematic from a democratic point of view, given that he had come to power on a broad electoral mandate, leading Thompson to speak of “uncivil” society in the Philippines.[14] This appears all the more justified if one considers the role played by the army in making EDSA II succeed. Notably, it was only when the Chief of the Army Staff withdrew his support from Estrada that the latter finally fell, leading to categorizations of the ESDSA II demonstrations as a “civilian-military uprising,”[15] or as an uprising that had “equal ingredients of civilian and military participation.”[16]

Philippine People Power and the Role of the Military

As can be seen from the elaborations above, both in 1986 and in 2001, People Power in the Philippines required a substantial military component to succeed.[17] Moreover, with regard to the way how military intervention in the Philippines has sometimes been perceived in the light of the historical experiences of EDSA I and EDSA II, Spaeth has argued that one of the “unintended and unfortunate legacies of People Power (has been) that a coup, popular or otherwise, is considered a legitimate―glorious even―way to transfer power.”[18] This has had severe negative repercussions on the prospects for democratic consolidation in general and the long-term democratic potential of civil society in particular.

The concept of a “Coup Cum Revolution” has been floating within restive military circles since the first People Power revolt, with several rebellious military groups that succeeded the RAM, such as the Young Officers Union (YOU) and, more recently, the Magdalo group, trying to re-create EDSA for the purpose of toppling elected governments.[19] On 24 February 2006, the twentieth anniversary of the first EDSA uprising, the Philippine Armed Forces (AFP) foiled an attempted Coup Cum Revolution plotted by rebel military officers against the government of Arroyo.[20] Some prominent civil society actors, including public intellectuals, NGO leaders, leftist activists and even members of the Catholic Church, reportedly supported the attempt to oust the President with the help of the military.[21] The local weekly Newsbreak accused the civilian groups involved in the endeavor of “romancing the military.”[22] Popular protests planned at different places in Metro Manila failed to draw large crowds and were quickly quelled by security forces loyal to Arroyo,[23] showcasing an increasing divide between many elitist civil society leaders and the broader society. Some civil society leaders were also present during the Manila Peninsula Rebellion.[24] During this other military uprising against Arroyo, junior rebel officers belonging to the Magdalo group laid siege to the Manila Peninsula Hotel in the capital’s financial district of Makati, hoping that their intervention would snowball into a reprise of “People Power”.[25]

Civil Society in the Philippines: An Instructive Example for the MENA Region?

The Philippines and the countries of the MENA region differ greatly in terms of their historical legacies as well as their cultural and religious conditions. Nevertheless, reflecting on the possible implications of the Philippine experience for the MENA region appears worthwhile, given that the Arab Spring has led to renewed academic enthusiasm about the presumed role that civil society mobilization may be able to play in processes of democratic transition.[26] Concurrently, “Western” development assistance to civil society in the MENA region and the broader Middle East has also been on the rise since the Arab Spring.[27]

If the case of the Philippines is any measure, civil society actors rely on strategic alliances with political elites in order to be able to exert profound political influence, and popular demonstrations led by civil society are dependent on at least tacit military support to succeed. 

If the case of the Philippines is any measure, civil society actors rely on strategic alliances with political elites in order to be able to exert profound political influence, and popular demonstrations led by civil society are dependent on at least tacit military support to succeed. A cursory look at the MENA region shows a rather similar pattern. During the Arab Spring, civilian protests toppled authoritarian regimes only in those countries where the military chose not to crack down, or even sided with the protesters.[28] In Tunisia, the most frequently cited success story of the Arab Spring, the armed forces refused orders by Ben Ali to open fire on unarmed demonstrators. The military then moved to protect the protesting crowds from security forces loyal to the President, thus actively contributing to the removal of the authoritarian regime.[29] In Egypt, the military enabled the success of the public protests against authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 by refusing to crack down on the demonstrators and terming the latter’s demands as legitimate.[30] In mid-2012, the Egyptian armed forces allowed for popular elections won by the Muslim Brotherhood,[31] but they moved to assume direct political control soon afterwards.

No regime change occurred in Algeria, even though the country did witness popular protests during the Arab Spring and even though its civil society was arguably more vibrant than Tunisian civil society under Ben Ali.[32] In early 2011, the National Coordination for Change and Democracy (NCCD), an alliance of civil society groups and political opposition parties, was organized and called for reforms. But it failed to achieve substantial democratic change, given that the opposition was internally divided and the military had a vital political and economic interest in preserving the existing political regime.[33] As Volpi has noted, Algeria’s system of entrenched “neopraetorianism” left “little chance for a protest-induced regime-change scenario in which the military stands by and lets a revolt run its course.”[34]

Under the current political system of durable authoritarian rule, some civil society actors establish working relations and personal connections with members of the ruling elite to realize concrete policy changes. Some women’s rights groups, for instance, engage with parliamentarians, state ministries, and members of the Cabinet to improve the political representation of women and change the country’s discriminatory Family Code.[35] In the run-up to the elections of 2014, presidential contender Ali Benflis as able to mobilize some degree of civil society support.[36] While Benflis promised political change and was a major opponent of incumbent President Bouteflika, he was clearly a member of the established political elite himself, having served as the country’s prime minister from 2000 to 2003.[37]

Moreover, the case of the Philippines also shows that a “post-people power system” can be highly unstable and prone to military interventions,[38] both in their purer forms and in the form of Coups Cum Revolution. In the MENA region, this pattern is particularly evident in the case of Egypt. In June 2013, and, thus, not even two and a half years after the ouster of Mubarak, the Egyptian military toppled elected President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and assumed direct political control, following considerable civil society mobilization.[39] In an article published in Foreign Affairs, Encarnación has compared the military intervention against Morsi to the toppling of Joseph Estrada in the Philippines through People Power II, as well as to the temporary military ouster of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, which occurred in 2002 after massive civil society mobilizations. According to Encarnación, all these three events constituted “civil society coups,” which, as he concludes, are “seldom, if ever, a good thing for democracy.”[40] Other authors have characterized the ouster of Morsi as a “Civil Society Coup,”[41] or as a “Coup Cum Revolution”[42] as well.

... the case of the Philippines also suggests that the strategy of political alliance-building can lead to severe fragmentations within civil society itself,

As shown above, the case of the Philippines also suggests that the strategy of political alliance-building can lead to severe fragmentations within civil society itself,[43] and that civil society groups who rely on state resources can easily become involved in patron-client ties. This finding may also be relevant for rentier economies in the MENA region and the broader Middle East, where the state acts as the main provider of resources and income for many. Again, the case of Algeria is telling in this regard. In a reaction to the Arab Spring, the Algerian regime in late 2012 issued a new Law on Associations, which severely curtails the ability of NGOs and other civil society organizations to receive foreign funding.[44] At the same time, the Algerian rentier state coopts and divides civil society groups with the help of selective financial allocations, usually in the form of annual subventions.[45] For instance, the regime uses particularistic financial allocations in order to create loyal “clones” of popular civil society associations, which it perceives as being too critical.[46] In addition to this, many Algerian civil society groups also experience tensions due to political affiliations, both actual and perceived. Some rights-based associations, for example, have reportedly split because some of their members have sympathized with opposing political parties.[47]

In sum, cursory evidence from the MENA region thus seems to confirm the finding from the Philippine case that forging alliances with political elites can enable civil society actors to gain access to valuable material resources and exert substantial political influence. However, whether such civil society influence is good or bad for democracy will depend on the particular types of power constellations and the specific political deals that civil society actors choose to enter into.

[1] For such a positive view on the role played by civil society in the democratization of the Philippines see, for example, Karina Constantino-David, “From the Present Looking Back: A History of Philippine NGOs,” in G. Sidney Silliman and Lela Garner Noble (eds), Organizing for Democracy. NGOs, Civil Society, and the Philippine State (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998), pp. 26-48; Aurel Croissant, “Demokratie und Zivilgesellschaft in Ostasien,” Nord-Süd aktuell, Vol. 17, No. 2 (2003), pp. 239-260; G. Sidney Siliman and Lela  Garner Noble, “NGOs in Context. Introduction,” in G. Sidney Silliman and Lela Garner Noble (eds), Organizing for Democracy (1998), pp. 3-25; Mary Racelis, “New Visions and Strong Actions: Civil Society in the Philippines,” in Marina Ottaway and Thomas Carothers (eds), Funding Virtue. Civil Society Aid and Democracy Promotion (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2000), pp. 159-187.

[2] Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso, State and Society in the Philippines (Pasig City: Anvil Publishing. Inc., 2005),pp. 239ff.; David Lewis, “Crossing Boundaries between ‘Third Sector’ and State: life-work histories from the Philippines, Bangladesh and the UK,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1 (2008), pp. 128ff.

[3] Michael Edwards, Civil Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004); for a prominent example see Jean L. Cohen Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (Cambridge, MA/London: MIT Press, 1997).

[4] For superb elaborations on these processes of political coalition building see, for example, Eva-Lotta E. Hedman, In the Name of Civil Society. From Free Election Movements to People Power in the Philippines (Manila: Manila University Press, 2006); Mark R. Thompson, The Anti-Marcos Struggle: Personalistic Rule and Democratic Transition in the Philippines (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

[5] Yabes, Griselda 2009, The Boys from the Barracks. The Philippine Military After EDSA, Updated Edition, Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, Inc., p. 10. On the important role played by the military in the ouster of Marcos see also Miranda, Felipe B. and Ciron, Ruben F., 1987, ‘Development and the Military in the Philippines: Military Perceptions in a Time of Continuing Crisis’, in J. Soedjati Djiwandono and Yong Mun Cheong (eds), Soldiers and stability in Southeast Asia, Singapore: ISEAS, pp. 163f.; Selochan, Viberto 1991, ‘The Armed Forces of the Philippines and Political Instability’, in Viberto Selochan (ed.), The Military, State, and Development in Asia and the Pacific, Boulder, CO/London: Westview Press, pp. 97f.

[6] Patricio N. Abinales, “Coalition Politics in the Philippines,” Current History, Vol. 100, No. 645 (2001), pp. 154-161.

[7] Patricio N. Abinales, “Coalition Politics in the Philippines”; Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso, State and Society in the Philippines  (2005), pp. 239f.; David Lewis, “Crossing Boundaries between ‘Third Sector’ and State” (2008), pp. 128ff.

[8] David Lewis “Crossing Boundaries between ‘Third Sector’ and State,” (2008), p. 128; interview with an international expert, Manila, September 28, 2009; interview with a scholar of the Atteneo de Manila University, Manila, October 14, 2009.

[9]Patricio N. Abinales and Dona J. Amoroso, State and Society in the Philippines (2005), pp. 239ff.; David Lewis, “Crossing Boundaries between ‘Third Sector’ and State” (2008), pp. 128ff.; interview with a well-known leftist civil society leader, October 9, 2009; interview with an NGO expert and scholar of the University of the Philippines, Manila, December 9,/2009.

[10] Interviews with a well-known leftist civil society leader, October 9, 2009 and December 1, 2009.

[11] For instance, struggles revolving around the leadership of the DAR and development projects financed by the agency have often led to conflicts within the civil society-based agrarian reform community. See interview with a well-known leftist civil society leader, October 9, 2009. Similarly, the creation of the Alliance for Rural Concerns (ARC), a civil society group that aligned itself with a traditional political family in order to gain political influence and access “pork barrel funds” created serious rifts within many agrarian reform NGOs and peasant groups. See interviews with agrarian reform advocates, Manila and Baccolod, September to December 2009.

[12] See, for example, Jennifer C. Franco, “The Philippines. Fractious Civil Society and Competing Visions of Democracy,” in Muthiah Alagappa (ed.), Civil Society and Political Change in Asia. Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press (2004), pp. 126ff.; Carl H. Landé, “The return of ‘People Power’ in the Philippines,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2001), pp. 88-102.

[13] See especially Jennifer C. Franco, “The Philippines. Fractious Civil Society and Competing Visions of Democracy (2004), pp. 126ff.

[14] Mark R. Thompson, “People Power Sours: Uncivil Society in Thailand and the Philippines,” Current History, Vol. 107, No. 712 (2008), pp. 381-387; for other critical assessments of the ouster of Estrada through People Power II see also Eva-Lotta E. Hedman, In the Name of Civil Society (2006), pp. 167-186; Anthony Spaeth, Anthony, “Oops, We Did it Again,” TIME, January 29,.2001,,8599,2054385,00.html.

[15] Jennifer C. Franco, “The Philippines. Fractious Civil Society and Competing Visions of Democracy” (2004), p. 126.

[16] Griselda Yabes, The Boys from the Barracks (2009), p. 248.

[17] On this point see also Claudia Derichs and Mark R. Thompson, Dynasties and Female Political Leaders in Asia: Gender, Power and Pedigree (LIT Verlag, 2013), p. 175f.

[18] Anthony Spaeth, “Oops, We Did it Again” (2001).

[19] See especially Griselda Yabes, The Boys from the Barracks (2009); see also: William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy. Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 141f.

[20] Marites Vitug and Glenda Glora, “Failed Enterprise,” Newsbreak, March 27, 2006, pp.12-14; Miriam Grace A. Go, Aries Rufo, et al., “Romancing the Military,” Newsbreak, March 27, 2006, pp.18-21.

[21]Miriam Grace A. Go, Aries Rufo, et al., “Romancing the Military,” Newsbreak, March 27, 2006; Sonny Melencio, “The February ‘Coup d’Etat’ and the Left’s alliance with the Military,” Socialistworldnet, October 30, 2006, Interviews with civil society leaders who, according to their own accounts, supported the ouster of Arroyo with the help of the military, Manila, September to December, 2009; interview with a Catholic scholar, Manila, October 2009; interview with an international expert with a long working experience in the Philippines, Manila, September 2009; interview with an General of the Philippine Marines, who played an important role in foiling the February 2006 coup attempt, Manila, November 11, 2009; interview with a military expert, Manila, December 7, 2009.

[22] Grace A. Go, Aries Rufo, et al., “Romancing the Military” (2006).

[23] See, for example, Sheila S. Coronel, “The Philippines in 2006: Democracy and Its Discontents,” Asian Survey, Vol. 47, No. 1 (2007), pp. 175-182.

[24] Thea Alberto, “Released Manila Pen civilians form new group,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, December 13, 2007,; interview with a civil society leader arrested during the Manila Pen Rebellion, Manila, December 4, 2009; interviews with a civil society activist present during the Manila Pen Rebellion, Manila, September to December 2009; interview with a leading rebel military officer involved in the Manila Pen Rebellion, Manila, December 14, 2009.

[25] Inquirer Bureaus,”Manila Pen Caper. Elsewhere, local gov’t troops choked off support for Trillanes,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, December 1, 2007; and interview with a leading rebel military officer involved in the Manila Pen Rebellion, Manila, December 14, 2009.

[26] Francesco Cavatorta, Arab Spring: The Awakening of Civil Society. A General Overview (Barcelona: European Institute of the Mediterranean [IEMed], 2012), See also Joel D. Adriano, “Lessons in misguided people power,” Asia Times Online, February 24, 2011.

[27] Timo Behr and Aaretti Siitonen, Aaretti, Building Bridges or Digging Trenches? Civil Society Engagement after the Arab Spring, The Finish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA) Working Paper, January 2013, p.4.

[28] Daniel Silverman, The Arab Military in the Arab Spring: Agent of Continuity or Change? A Comparative Analysis of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper, ULR:, accessed 08/07/2015.

[29] Ibid., pp. 2; 9f.

[30] Ibid., pp.10f.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Frédéric Volpi, “Algeria versus the Arab Spring,,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 24, No. 3 (2013), pp. 107ff.; with reference to Jack Brown’s observations on the strength of civil society in Algeria and Tunisia respectively.

[33] Frédéric Volpi, “Algeria versus the Arab Spring” (2013) pp. 207-212.

[34] Ibid., p.112.

[35] Interviews with women’s rights groups in Algiers, September 2014 and March 2015.

[36] Karim Aimeur, “Ça bouge du côté de Benflis,” l’Expression, November 27,; “Des militants du FLN et la société civile appellent Ali Benflis, ” El Watan,November 18, 2013,; Wael Hasnaoui, “Algérie: La société civile s’est réveillée,” Le Monde, April 17, 2014,

[37] Isabelle Mandraud, “En Algérie, Ali Benflis, l’homme du changement » issu du sérail,” Le Monde, April 3, 2014,

[38] Joel D. Adriano, “Lessons in misguided people power” (2011).

[39] Thomas Demmelhuber, “Kann ein Putsch demokratisch sein? Normativer Etikettenschwindel in Ägypten,” Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft, 61 (January2014); W.J. Dorman, “Egypt’s ‘civil society coup’ and the resilience of the post-1952 order,” openDemocracy, October 10, 2013,

[40] Omar G. Encarnación, “Even Good Coups Are Bad. Lessons for Egypt from Venezuela, the Philippines, and Beyond,” Foreign Affairs (July 2013),

[41] W.J. Dorman, “Egypt’s ‘civil society coup’ and the resilience of the post-1952 order” (2013).

[42] Islam Al Tayeb, “Fallout for Turkey over events in Egypt,” IISS Voices, November 22, 2013,; Bessma Monami, “Morsi’s Last, Lonely Days in Power,”, July 9, 2013,

[43] On this point see also Jennifer C. Franco, “The Philippines. Fractious Civil Society and Competing Visions of Democracy” (2004).

[44] Human Rights Watch, Algeria: Bureaucratic Ploy Used to Stiffle Accociations. Billed as Reformist, 2012 Law Hindering Independent Groups (2013),

[45] Interviews with civil society associations in Algiers and Oran, September 2014 and March 2015. See also Andres Liverani, Civil Society in Algeria. The political functions of associational life (Oxon: Routledge, 2008).

[46] Interview with a local scholar, Algiers, September 14, 2014; interview with an independent journalist, Oran, September 11, 2014.

[47] Interviews with civil society associations, Algiers, March 2015.