With newfound freedom in 1946, Filipinos elected Manuel A. Roxas, leader of the Liberal Party and one of the seven members of the Constitutional Convention who drafted the 1935 Constitution, as the first president of the independent republic in April 1946. His presidency was focused on rebuilding the cities and municipalities torn by the war, redistributing lands as wealthy landowners returned to reclaim their estates, and confronting the Hukbalahap, which by this time was tagged as a socialist-communist organization. The economy grew at a rapid pace, immediately after the war.
Close economic ties between Manila and Washington continued after the war on the back of agreements providing for preferential tariffs for American exports and special treatment for US investors in the Philippines. In the 1946 Philippine Trade Act, the Americans were granted duty-free access to the Philippine market and special rights to exploit the country’s natural resources. Because of the Trade Act, the Philippines suffered a huge trade deficit with the influx of American imports. In 1949, the Philippine government was forced to impose import controls, after getting the consent of Washington.
Roxas’ two-year presidency ended with his death, following a heart attack while delivering a speech at Clark Air Force Base in Pampanga province in April 1948. Vice president Elpidio Quirino succeeded Roxas as president and defeated Jose P. Laurel to keep his post in the 1949 presidential race. It was during Quirino’s term that the Minimum Wage Law was enacted and the Central Bank was established to stabilize the peso and consumer prices. The country’s gross national product grew by an average of 7.7 percent annually in the early 1960s, on the back of the double-digit increase in the manufacturing sector.
In the 1953 presidential election, Ramon Magsaysay, who had served as defense secretary under the Quirino administration, won by a landslide. The charismatic Magsaysay initiated peace talks with the Hukbalahap, which would later evolve into a communist organization. He became popular for opening the gates of Malacanang Palace to ordinary people. He died in a plane crash on Mount Manunggal in Cebu in March 1957, which to this day remains a mystery to many Filipinos.
While the standard of living in the Philippines was below that of the Western World, the country was often cited as the second richest economy in Asia, after Japan in the 1960s. However, ill-advised economic policies, poor governance and rapid population growth in the country would allow other Asian economies such as Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand and China not only to catch up with but to leave the Philippines behind in the race towards industrialization.
Vice President Carlos P. Garcia assumed the country’s top government post following the death of Magsaysay. Garcia was known for his First Filipino Policy and Austerity Program, which put the interests of Filipinos ahead those of foreigners. Under his austerity measures, he encouraged temperate spending, which resulted in less imports and more exports. His nationalist policies, however, perpetuated the business interests of the ruling elite in the country and did not encourage local businesses to be competitive. Garcia lost to his vice-president in the 1961 presidential poll. Protectionist policies allowed local manufacturers to control the economy from 1949 to 1962, discouraging them from becoming competitive.
Diosdado Macapagal, father of incumbent President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was the president from 1961 to 1965. Before he became president, he authored the land reform program as a legislator and was vice-president to Garcia. As president, Macapagal began a five-year socio-economic program by removing imports control and liberalizing foreign exchange. It was Macapagal who declared June 12 as the national Independence Day. In 1962, the Macapagal administration began devaluing the peso by half to around 3.90 to the US dollar.
Macapagal initiated a shift in investments from the light industries to chemicals, steel and industrial equipment. He was also one of the proponents of the MAPHILINDO, a trade bloc of three South East Asian countries – the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia. This bloc later expanded to what is now the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). By 1965, foreign capital was present in nearly a third of the country’s capital stock.