FFE Magazine

Barangay Election Day – Has it always been this Way?

Good day! Poll-fever has recently visited the Philippines once again because of the just-concluded barangay (village) elections. Students enjoyed their extended holiday as voters fulfilled their duty of electing officials to lead their own barangay for another 3 years. I did my duty first thing that morning to avoid the crowd!

For this week in history, we’re not particularly looking at any date except 28 October 2013. But I was interested to know how our ancestors have elected their leaders in the past. Did they also use indelible ink? Did they vote on paper? Was it always been so intense?

Let’s take a peek, shall we?

Pre-Hispanic period

Clues surrounding the origin of the term ‘barangay’ and accounts by Spanish explorers say that the earliest barangay were coastal communities made up of 30-100 families. As a social unit, the barangay was very fluid. This means that the number of members and their territory was changeable.

The early barangays were headed by a datu or chief. There were two ways to become a datu during that time: either they inherited the title (for barangay ruled by Muslim royal houses) or were chosen by the people. Either way, a candidate for datu must prove him or herself worthy of the title.

How did candidates prove their worth? By being a brave warrior who protects or a wise counselor who advises the members of his or her barangay. The ancient barangays were concerned about the practical things in life, such as their survival against enemy tribes and against the forces of nature. Warriors and spiritual leaders provided answers to a villager’s basic needs like food and cures for affliction, which made them the only fit candidates for the role of community leader.

Datu Piang of Moroland, one of the most powerful Muslim datus during the American period

Whenever a datu had to be chosen by the people, every member of the barangay was allowed to have his or her say. After this, the village council, comprising of former datu and the elder members of the barangay who were considered the wisest, conferred among their own group. All these factors were considered before a datu was chosen… this means that all candidates for the title of datu must be known personally by the villagers.

Spanish colonisation

While the datu was chosen out of a villager’s personal reasons, the cabeza de barangay (barangay chief) system introduced during the Spanish era completely threw the Filipino’s sentiments out of the window.

The first cabezas were from the elite class of the pre-Hispanic barangay. But instead of ruling a barangay, they ruled the barrio, the smallest socio-political unit under the Spanish colonial government. To keep the cabezas in tow, the Spaniards created bigger social units that influenced the cabeza’s decisions. The highest of these was the Governor-General who was always appointed by Spain.

Kabesang Tales, a former cabeza turned rebel played by Teody Belarmino in the 1962 film ‘El Filibusterismo’

There were no elections during this period in our history since the cabeza was purely inherited by families. Without an heir to the title, another person is appointed by the Governor, who was himself appointed by the Governor-General.

This system of appointments was kept until the Americans took over and changed our government system to a democracy. This meant everyone was again given the chance to elect whom they wanted.

Democratic system

Under the American system, members of a barrio can vote for their leaders through a local election. But instead of a cabeza, our ancestors voted for a capitan del barrio or barrio captain to head the village.

The first barrio election was held on 7 May, 1899 in Baliuag, Bulacan, supervised by American General Henry W. Lawton. The ballot system was used, the same system that saw the first Philippine Assembly formed in 1907.

This local elections system was kept until Martial Law was declared in 1972, which saw the elections suspended at all levels of government.

Modern ballot boxes being cleaned for the 2013 Barangay Elections in La Union

Modern elections

We have been following the story of the local elections in the Philippines at different points in our history, but the first ever barangay election was actually held on 17 May 1982. It’s because the term ‘barangay’ was only made official that year through the Barangay Elections Act.

Since 1988, however, many changes were made to the rules of the barangay elections. These changes included the length of office, day and month of elections, and how often the elections are held. In the current system, we vote every 3 years for 8 candidates running for a seat in the barangay council: 1 captain and 7 councilors.

The barangay captain is basically the head of the barangay – he makes sure that the law is being followed and justice served. He also takes care of development planning in terms of infrastructure and social work, oversees the operation of basic facilities in the neighbourhood and designates how the barangay’s fund should be spent. The 7 councilors act in various capacities according to the captain. They help the captain fulfill the following duties that are within the rights of the consituents:

  • Promote peace and order
  • Maintain cleanliness of the neighbourhood and uphold projects to beautify the area
  •  Promote well-being and protect the rights of the residents
  • Maintain government and barangay-owned infrastructure and properties
  • Adopt measures to curb crime and eliminate drug addiction


Barangay meetings around the Philippines

28 October 2013 marks the 8th year the barangay election was held in our country. It also marks the first time election of Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) or Youth Council was postponed since it was established in 1992. Why was it postponed? Unfortunately, it seemed that some SK officials already knew how to magically make funds disappear. Graft and corruption at such an young age is a heartbreak. But let’s have enough of the bad news.

More than just a day for exercising democracy, this day celebrates an institution that has been alive since the dawn of our country’s history. An institution that values a person’s worth and our confidence in their leadership for the sake of a prosperous future.


In many ways, the barangay election of our ancestors and our modern barangay election are similar in that every person has a say on who is fit to lead the community. However, an important ingredient has been lost through the years – the value we place in a person’s true and practical worth to fill that position. We have lost touch with our sense of community – our belief that our single vote can make a difference for our fellows. By exercising our right to vote, we can be models for the youth and those who have lost hope in the elections.

That’s it for today’s special on the history of the local elections. Personally, do you think it is still worth it to vote for barangay officials? Has it become too much of a chore? Are barangay officials actually doing their jobs? If money and reputation were not an issue, will you run for a position in the barangay level? Why or why not? Share your thoughts by commenting below!



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