This is guest post by Aya Watanabe, a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University. It is based on the paper in the Asian Journal of Comparative Politics.
The Philippines is the longest-lived presidential country in Asia. At the same time, it has experienced a protracted civil war with Muslim rebels since the 1970s. The conflict dynamics were related to the political struggles that unfolded within the Philippine government. Nevertheless, much of the existing literature on civil war termination tends to regard civil war as a two-party phenomenon, fought between a government and a rebel group. Although a growing literature exists on how multiple rebel actors affect the outcome or duration of civil wars, only a few studies have examined the impact of dynamics or interactions within government actors on civil war termination.
I examine how relationships between various government actors influence peace processes, using the Mindanao conflict as a case study and drawing on the ‘veto player’ framework presented by Tsebelis (2002) and Cunningham (2011). The Mindanao peace process provides an excellent case study as it involves active political struggles with changes both in government and among the three governmental branches —the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. Both the Gloria Macagapal-Arroyo (2001-10) and Benigno Aquino III (2010-16) administrations were engaged in a peace process with the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) to achieve a political settlement of the Mindanao conflict. The Aquino administration reached a comprehensive peace agreement, but the peace negotiations fell through under Arroyo. What caused the differing outcomes under these two administrations? What effect did political struggles within the government have on the peace process? To answer these questions, I will provide an overview the political system and identify institutional and partisan veto players in the Philippine political setting.
The Philippine political system and veto players
The Philippines has a presidential system with the bicameral legislature composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The judiciary is active toward the government against the backdrop of the authoritarianism of the Marcos regime. Therefore, there are four institutional veto players in the Philippines: the president, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the judiciary.
Partisan veto players have little influence over government decision-making since party discipline is so weak that many legislators shift their alliances to a strong candidate’s camp in every presidential election. (Kasuya 2008). Having identified the four institutional veto players, I will examine what defines the preferences of each veto player on the peace process.
The preference of the institutional veto players on the peace process
Elected through a nationwide constituency, the president is responsible for pursuing the interests and welfare of the nation. This responsibility includes the resolution of civil war as well. If the president resolves a civil war that has hindered economic development and created national security threats, the accomplishment would be remarkable.
The House of Representatives
80% of house members are elected through single-member districts (SMD). Various scholars have pointed out that SMDs tend to cultivate personal votes (Cain et al., 1987;). To cultivate personal votes, candidates tend to rely on providing private or public local goods and services to constituencies. This tendency enables presidents to hold a grip on the House since the president controls the financial authority necessary for pork-barrel distributions. In fact, the Arroyo camp held more than two-thirds of the seats throughout her tenure, although her net satisfaction rates dropped to around -40% after 2005. Aquino also won stable support from the House, maintaining more than 80% of the seat shares during his tenure. Both presidents’ stable grip on the House indicates that the House is more likely to be supportive of the president’s policy agenda, and rarely functions as a veto player.
The Senate is more independent than the House due to the plurality-at-large voting system and Senators’ career aspiration for the presidency or vice-presidency. Their personal attributes in gaining votes and their career aspiration provides senators with few incentives to cooperate with a president who does not have stable support from the people. Thus, senators are less likely to be responsive to the president than the House, and could be a veto player on the president’s policies including the peace process. Upon deciding their attitude towards the president’s policies, what matters is which presidents they are dealing with and whether they are popularly supported or not.
There exist two conditions for the judiciary to be counted as a veto player: judicial independence from political maneuvering, and the power to influence government and legislative activities (Cox and McCubbins, 2001: 32–33). The Philippine judiciary fulfills these two conditions through the expansion of its authority in the 1987 Constitution.
As for its response toward the peace process, the judiciary sees the public’s response as a central factor in ruling a decision even if it goes against government policy (Helmke 2010; Tate 1994).
Having defined the preferences of each veto player, I will provide an overview of how the peace negotiations proceeded under the Arroyo and Aquino administrations.
The peace process under Arroyo (2001-10)
The government and the MILF forged an agreement on security and development issues at a relatively early stage of the Arroyo administration, but it took time to reach an agreement on the political issue. The negotiation resumed in 2005, and the negotiating parties managed to reach the peace agreement on this issue in July 2008. At the negotiating table, the MILF demanded that local elections be postponed in the Muslim-dominated areas.
Arroyo responded quickly to this demand by making a statement calling for prompt action on the issue by Congress. Although the House passed the postponement bill, this met stiff opposition and did not go through the Senate.
The domestic situations became bitter as the content of peace negotiations became public. Opposition movements were initially led by local officials, but allies and opponents of the President expressed skeptical views on the issue in the Senate as opposition movements gained momentum. Against this backdrop, local officials and several senators filed petitions to halt the signing of the peace agreement.
The Supreme Court (SC) responded quickly by issuing the Terms of Reference a day before the signing was scheduled. After that, the SC began oral arguments to examine the constitutionality of the peace agreement. The SC reached its decision in October 2008, emphasizing the enormous consequences of the peace agreement on the public interest. This decision indicates that the SC sees public opinion as a critical factor affecting its decision.
The peace process under Arroyo fell through due to the difficulties President Arroyo faced in gaining support from the Senate and the judiciary.
The peace process under Aquino (2010-16)
Though Benigno Aquino III adopted a positive stance towards resolving the Mindanao conflict through peaceful means, the negotiations only started moving forward a year after Aquino assumed the presidency. Once the peace negotiations had resumed, the Aquino administration forged several critical political agreements with the MILF in three years. The negotiating parties reached the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro in March 2014.
The Senate responded favorably to the peace process. After the negotiating parties agreed on the Framework Agreement in October 2012, President Aquino issued Executive Order 120 to establish the Bangsamoro Transitional Agency. The Senate adopted a resolution two days later, enabling the negotiating parties to proceed with the negotiations in a timely manner. Also, the Aquino administration sought the postponement of local elections in Muslim dominated-areas as Arroyo did. The Senate President at that time expressed full support for the postponement, although he had strongly criticized the Arroyo administration on the same issue.
The Aquino administration was careful not to make the judiciary a veto player since there was no direct judicial response on the peace process as there was under Arroyo. This can be seen in the removal of Chief Justice Corona, who was appointed by Arroyo on the eve of her stepping down from the presidency. Aquino criticised Corona on several occasions for being biased towards Arroyo. Against this backdrop, the House took action to impeach the Chief Justice over alleged graft and removed Corona. Although the presidential office emphasized that the House acted independently, one of the Liberal Party’s leaders revealed that ‘he [the President] felt Corona was the last stumbling block to his core reform agenda and that he did not want to spend the next five years clashing with the Supreme Court’ (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2011). This statement indicates that Aquino clearly viewed the Chief Justice as a veto player over his policy agenda, and that his removal got rid of one of the hurdles that he was likely to face in pursuit of his policy goals.
Second, new Chief Justice Sereno issued a call for a peaceful solution to the conflict after the Mamasapano clash which resulted in 44 deaths on the government side. Against the backdrop of mounting opposition to the peace process, the Chief Justice made a rare public statement, urging the public to stay calm and avoid leaning toward war in resolving the conflict. This indicates that the Chief Justice not only supported a peaceful resolution to the Mindanao conflict, but also that she did not see any legal problems with the peace process.
The Senate and the judiciary supported the peace negotiations under Aquino, enabling the negotiating parties to conclude several political peace agreements in a timely manner.
The Mindanao peace process has provided rich insights into how government dynamics can influence the peace process between government and a rebel group. On the one hand, President Arroyo faced a tough Senate which had little incentive to support the president’s peace policy due to her deteriorating popularity after 2005. Also, the judiciary saw the public’s perception of the issue as one of the important factors when it handled the case, the social situation not being conducive for the eight-year peace-making efforts to bear fruit.
On the other hand, the stable satisfaction rate and congressional situation of the Aquino government made the Senate supportive of the peace process, which was represented by the different Senate responses to the local elections postponement under Arroyo and Aquino. As for the SC, the removal of Corona and the support from Sereno helped the Aquino administration to proceed the peace negotiations.
The differing responses from the Senate and the judiciary show that government dynamics have an impact on negotiated civil war settlements in addition to the rebel group variations as pointed out by Cunningham (2011).
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Cox GW and McCubbins MD (2001) The institutional determinants of economic policy outcomes: Presidents, parliaments, and policy. In: Haggard S and McCubbins MD (eds) Presidents, Parliaments, and Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 21–63.
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Philippine Daily Inquirer (2011) House majority gets over 140 signatures to impeach Chief Justice Corona. 12 December. Available at: https://www.dowjones.com/products/factiva/ (accessed 26 May 2017).
Tsebelis G (2002) Veto Players: How Political Institutions Work. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.