Senate of the Philippines

The Philippine Senate: From statesmen to showmen

James Patrick Cruz

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The Philippine Senate: From statesmen to showmen

David Castuciano/Rappler

Political analysts have observed a decline in the quality of the Philippine Senate over the years. The shift from a chamber filled with statesmen to one dominated by entertainers and political dynasties has become evident.

“There is one dream that we all Filipinos share: that our children may have a better life than we have had. To make this country, our country, a nation for our children,” former senator and human rights activist Jose Diokno said. 

“I am not a dove nor am I a hawk. I am a Kalaw, a truly Filipino bird,” former senator Eva Kalaw said, opposing the dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos and the US for wanting to send Filipino troops to the Vietnam War.

“Independence, like freedom, is never granted. It is always asserted and affirmed. Its defense is an everyday endeavor – sometimes in the field of battle, oftentimes in the contest of conflicting wills and ideas. It is a daily struggle that may never end – for as long as we live,” former Senate president Jovito Salonga wrote. 

These are some of the pronouncements of great Filipino statesmen from the past. 

Of late, however, the Senate has been mired in controversy, if not protracted drama. Seemingly stripped of the formality of statesmanship, senators danced and sang, while one dared groom his mustache during a hearing. In the previous Congress, one senator was even caught playing a game on his iPad while in session.

From the 8th Congress after the EDSA People Power revolution all the way to the 19th Congress, Rappler analyzed demographic trends and patterns including hometowns, gender, age, education, and professions. Have these factors affected the composition of the Senate?

Manila-centric Senate

The data showed that since the 8th Congress, most of the senators came from Luzon, specifically Metro Manila, a vote-rich region. Only a few came from Mindanao and the Visayas.

Ateneo political science department chair and professor Carmel Abao attributes this to the proximity of candidates from the capital region to the seat of power, giving them the advantage of having more resources and networks to launch their national campaigns.

Regions like Calabarzon and Central Luzon – also vote-rich – have frequently seen their candidates in the Senate. Abao noted that campaigning in the Visayas and Mindanao is more challenging due to logistical and population density issues.

The large number of senators coming from Manila, according to University of the Philippines political science professor Jean Franco, also affects the discussions and priorities in the Senate, which tend to be national in focus.

She noted, however, that the lower chamber, where district representatives are elected and which represents mostly local issues, balances the agenda of the chambers.

With the current dominance of senators from Metro Manila, Franco also hopes for more diverse representation across other regions of the Philippines, reminiscent of the time when senators were elected by district under the Jones Law. 

Enacted by the US Congress, the Jones Law aimed to promote autonomy for the Philippines which was colonized by the Americans. It established the Philippine legislature, which comprises the Senate and the House of Representatives. This bicameral Congress governed the country from October 1916 to November 1935.

Chamber dominated by male seniors

Despite comprising nearly half the Philippines’ population, women remain underrepresented in the Senate.

Abao and Franco both said that the dominance of men in the Senate reflects a societal preference for male leaders over females. 

“The Congress and Senate reflect our society’s gender inequality. It’s still a system that’s favorable to men,” Abao said.

There has been a gradual increase in female representation, but women senators remain a minority, and the country has yet to see a female Senate president.

The 18th and current 19th Congresses had the highest number of women senators in history, with seven seats occupied by women. These milestones, however, have not translated into substantive policy advancements for women, Franco and Abao said.

Many women senators, they noted, hail from political dynasties or are associated with influential male politicians like Makati’s Jejomar Binay, the late Renato Cayetano of TaguigPaterosMuntinlupa, former president Ferdinand E. Marcos of Ilocos Norte, and Manuel Villar of Las PiñasMuntinlupa.

Incumbent Senator Grace Poe, meanwhile, is the adopted daughter of the late Fernando Poe Jr. and Susan Roces, former king and queen, respectively, of the national box office. Fernando Poe Jr. ran for president in 2004 but lost to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in an election marred by allegations of cheating, most notably the infamous “Hello Garci” scandal.

The Philippine Senate: From statesmen to showmen

Historical data on senators since the 8th Congress also show a trend of more senior lawmakers in terms of age. From the 8th to the 12th Congress, senators aged 50 to 59 dominated the upper chamber. Starting the 13th Congress, however, the Senate saw an influx of relatively younger legislators in their 40s. 

In the 15th and 16th Congresses, there were at least seven and eight senators, respectively, who were “senior citizens.” By the 18th Congress, however, there were again at least 11 senators in their 50s. 

The two scholars attributed the success of elder politicians to their long-established national presence, as well as their capacity to launch a national campaign.

In the 19th Congress, most of the senators, eleven in total, are in their 50s. Six senators are in their 60s, while another six are in their 40s.

The eldest senator in the present chamber is Cynthia Villar, 73, while the youngest is her son, Mark, at 45. Fifteen out of the 24 senators are Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. The other nine senators belong to Generation X, born between 1966 and 1980.

The minimum age to be a senator in the Philippines is 35 years old. 

Given the low number of young lawmakers, Franco said that “young people should push for representation in the Senate.” The median age of the Philippine population is 24.5 years old, the youngest in the region, according to the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office report in 2021.


The Philippines does not have a stringent educational requirement for aspiring senators or elected officials in general. The 1987 Constitution says that as long as you can read and write, you’re good to go. 

Despite this, the majority of senators, especially during the 8th Congress, have held post-graduate degrees, mostly in law. This trend continued up to the current 19th Congress.

Abao, however, said that the high educational background of senators has not produced “evidence-based policymaking.” 

“To what extent do they utilize available knowledge in their decision-making? Because that’s not very obvious,” she said.

Without naming names, Abao pointed out that some lawmakers, for example, have used the Bible to argue against the reproductive health law in a secular setting and have relied on personal experiences in discussions on divorce.

“Formal education is necessary but not sufficient. Someone might have extensive formal education but lack rootedness in society and empathy for the people affected by their policies,” she said. In other words, knowledge that is rooted in society, and which can be incredibly valuable, is not dependent on a college degree. 

While many senators in the 19th Congress flexed their master’s and doctorate degrees from premier institutions, at least four senators did not complete college, among them, Lito Lapid, Imee Marcos, Bong Revilla Jr., and Raffy Tulfo. 

Imee claims to have earned a degree from Princeton University, but the institution told Rappler previously in an email, that she did not finish her degree.

Other senators who made it to the Senate’s table despite not having college degrees were Anna Dominique “Nikki” M.L. Coseteng, journalist Francisco Tatad, actor-turned-politician Joseph E. Estrada, and incumbent President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. College degrees, however, are not the be-all and end-all of successful or meaningful legislation, much less success in life.

Tatad, an accomplished journalist, was barred from pursuing his degree at the University of Santo Tomas for allegedly “insulting” school authorities, the Varsitarian reported. Following this, he worked as a reporter for Agence France-Presse.

Meanwhile, Bongbong, like his sister, claimed to have a college degree from Oxford University, but clarified that the special diploma given to him in 1978 “was not a full graduate diploma.”

For Franco, who used to work in the Senate, the quality of legislation cannot be solely attributed to educational attainment. Senators have staff, a secretariat, a bill drafting division, and receive input from the executive and experts, she said.

Thus, a senator’s performance cannot be judged by bills alone. Wit can be tested when lawmakers defend their respective bills on the floor, she said. 

Lawyers, celebrities

Throughout history, the Philippine Senate has been dominated by lawyers. During the 8th Congress,14 of the 24 Senate seats were occupied by lawyers. 

Abao explained that this trend reflects the public perception that legal expertise fits well with legislative work.

She, however, noticed that the professional backgrounds of elected senators are not diverse enough to adequately mirror sectoral needs and interests. Based on the labor department’s February 2024 survey, the majority, or 60% of Filipinos worked in the service sector, 21% in agriculture, and 18% in the industry sector. 

For Franco, one doesn’t have to be a lawyer to be a senator. Ideally, a senator, according to Franco, should also be a policy wonk, someone who understands the issues, and looks at laws based on evidence. 

The Senate has also been a hub for “career politicians” – many of whom have transitioned from local to national roles. These include Imee Marcos, Joel Villanueva, Nancy Binay, Sherwin Gatchalian, and Miguel Zubiri. Many of them come from political dynasties. 

Filipino voters, according to Franco, have a penchant for electing celebrity senators. Even in the 1950s, celebrities were elected, but their numbers surged post-1986 due to the restoration of media freedom after Marcos’ repressive Martial Law.

Abao said that the Senate, and politics in general, have become a retirement haven for aging celebrities.

“When you’re an older celebrity, your career path often leads to politics because it also relies on popularity. It’s easy to win an election if you’re a celebrity, so many of them [go that route],” Abao said in a mix of Filipino and English. 

Under the 19th Congress, there are four from the action film industry who became senators: Lito Lapid, Bong Revilla, Jinggoy Estrada, and neophyte lawmaker Robin Padilla, who led the senatorial race in 2022, besting other longtime politicians. 

The Philippine Senate: From statesmen to showmen

Other previously elected celebrity senators are Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, Ramon Revilla, Joseph Estrada, Nikki Coseteng, and Agapito “Butz” Aquino.

Former media personalities have also made their mark in the Senate. Notable examples include broadcast journalist Orlando “Orly” Mercado, writer Blas Ople, former diplomatic reporter Tatad, Raul Manglapus, and Noli de Castro of ABS-CBN. 

In the 19th Congress, there are three of them: Senators Risa Hontiveros, Raffy Tulfo, and Loren Legarda. 

Military representation in the Senate is not quite common. Among the select few who have transitioned from battlefield to the Senate are former commander of the AFP’s National Capital Region Defense Command Rodolfo “Pong” Biazon, Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan II, and Antonio “Sonny” F. Trillanes IV

There were also a couple of former policemen who made it to the Senate like Robert Barbers, Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, Alfredo Lim, and most recently Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa.

Few businessmen are present in the Senate. Under the 19th Congress, there’s the mother and son tandem of Cynthia and Manny Villar. Their family owns the Philippines’ biggest home builder, Vista Land. The family’s patriarch, Manny, who was recognized by Forbes as the richest Filipino in the country in 2024, also used to be Senate president. 

Despite the educational backgrounds and professional qualifications of many senators, the quality of legislation and debate in the upper chamber has remained cause for concern. 

As political analysts suggested, the Senate’s demographic trends highlight the exclusivity of the chamber and the need for more inclusive representation.

“Demographics should suggest inclusivity, age matters, gender matters, education matters to the extent that the discourse is evidence-based, as well as professional background,” Abao said. 

“If you want better policy, I guess we should go for better inclusion, better representation, not just [be] dominated by political families,” the Ateneo professor added. 

Abao emphasized that the capability and the causes championed by senators are what truly matter. 

Basta marunong kang makinig, marunong kang magsalita, marunong kang mag-isip, puwede kang maging senador basta may dala-dala ka,” she said. (As long as you know how to listen, speak, think, you can be a senator as long as you carry something with you.)

There aren’t too stiff requirements to be a senator in the Philippines. One can run for the Senate so long as an individual can read and write, is a registered voter, at least 35 years old on election day, a natural-born Filipino citizen, and a resident of the Philippines for at least two years immediately preceding the day of election. 

While these criteria may seem less stringent compared to corporate jobs, the role of senators is crucial because decisions – from bills they file and vote for, to the issues they scrutinize – have a significant impact on the lives of thousands of people.

As the 2025 midterm elections approach, the question remains: What kind of senators will Filipinos elect? Will they continue to favor politicians in the traditional mold or will they opt for greater inclusivity and representation? –

1 comment

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  1. ET

    The trend of favoring traditional politicians is expected to continue. President Marcos Jr., a traditional politician proficient in high-tech disinformation and allegedly significant wealth of unknown origin, is anticipated to surround himself with like-minded individuals. Achieving greater inclusivity and representation seems unattainable unless a genuine and transformative social change occurs.

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James Patrick Cruz

Patrick Cruz is a researcher and writer for Rappler’s governance cluster. Before transferring to Rappler's Research team, he covered local governments focusing on Metro Manila.