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In the Philippines: Elections in Mindanao a Go/No Go for August 11?

July 23, 2008

The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is the only region in the Philippines with elected officials above the provincial level and the election for its regional government is scheduled for August 11th. Since the last election in 2005, the Governor, Vice Governor, and members of the Regional Legislative Assembly have served their full three-year terms and many led by Governor Datu Zaldy Ampatuan are now running for re-election. However, efforts to reach a political settlement with a Muslim separatist revolutionary group may lead to delay in these elections. On Tuesday, July 22nd — less than 3 weeks before election day — President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo announced that she would support postponement of the ARMM elections per the request of the negotiating panel of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

In fact, progress towards establishing peace with the MILF had recently picked up after a period of dormancy. On July 16th, the two panels met in Kuala Lumpur and ironed out the last details on a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on Ancestral Domain, which resolved an almost two year stalemate. They meet again on July 24th to schedule the formal signing of the MOA, which geographically covers the current ARMM plus other areas to be added to a Bangsamoro Juridical Entity (BJE).

But many of those interested in the peace process had been calling for postponing the ARMM elections, fearing that another three-year term for incumbent officials would delay any peace settlement as it would be difficult to cut their terms short if the ARMM was dissolved into a BJE. The civil society organization, Mindanao Alliance for Peace claimed that holding the ARMM election is a sign that the government is not sincere in its peace negotiations with the MILF. One faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), led by Cotabato City Mayor Muslimin G. Sema, issued a joint statement with the MILF that concluded the election is a “grave obstacle to the on-going GRP-MILF Peace Process and the GRP-OIC-MNLF Tripartite Talks” (the latter is for the full implementation of the Final Peace Agreement the MNLF signed with the government in 1996).

While peace advocates tend to support the notion of postponing the August 11th ARMM election, electoral reform advocates are appalled. Preparations had been ongoing for modernization of the ARMM’s election using ATM-like Direct Recording Election systems in the province of Maguindanao, and Optical Mark Readers in the other provinces. Enormous energy (not to mention, money) has been expended in machine acquisition, testing, and customization, training of election personnel, and mock elections to demonstrate the new technology to voters. Civil society groups have also been increasing their efforts to monitor the polls.

The focus on this election was not only to benefit the ARMM’s citizens, but to also prepare for nationwide modernization for the scheduled May 2010 general elections (which will include not only President and Vice President and half the nation’s Senate, but all members of the national Congress and all provincial, city, and municipal executive and legislative officials). The incredible task of trying to modernize a hitherto paper-based system in over 300,000 voting places requires more than a year of preparation, and election reformers want the lessons learned from the ARMM modernization experience to inform the process leading up to May 2010. It is no wonder that Commissioners and staff have stated that their preference is to continue as planned.

However, postponing the ARMM elections is up to Congress, which would have to pass a law to change the election date and extend the term of incumbent officials. Delaying ARMM elections is nothing new: the past two ARMM elections were overdue by two and one years, respectively.

On July 28th, Congress will reconvene and on the next day Speaker of the House Prospero Nograles (who is himself from Mindanao) will gather all Representatives from Mindanao. If they reach a consensus, they will commit to the speedy passage of the requisite legislation (which will presumably be followed by Representatives from Luzon and the Visayas). The Senate will be harder to crack. Senator Richard Gordon, a staunch advocate of electoral reform, has been vociferous in his opposition in general to any delay in modernization, and in particular to the delay in the August 11th ARMM polls.

This is the state of the tempest, 48 hours after it blew up. Peace advocates in and out of government expect the elections to be postponed. Electoral reform advocates are betting that time is too short to pass legislation, so the election will push through as scheduled. And, in Manilas fervid political atmosphere there are many other interpretations of events. One is the idea that postponement is a way of sneaking in moves towards constitutional amendments that is necessary for a peace agreement, but suspected of being designed to keep President Arroyo in power past her constitutionally mandated term limit of 30 June 2010.

Election officials and monitors need to be able to predict what will happen in the next two weeks. If the elections were to proceed as planned, with feverish preparations culminating in widely watched results with a successful modernization, the peace process would have been slightly slowed but not fatally wounded. After all, Governor Zaldy Ampatuan has stated his willingness to step down from his post if the peace process required it. But now that President Arroyo has endorsed postponing the elections, pushing elections through, would inflict grave damage on the peace process. Failure to get the requisite legislation through Congress would cast doubt on the Executive Branch’s ability to implement any peace agreement reached with the MILF since all peace agreements would require legislative action. Thus, the stakes have been raised, the credibility of the negotiating process is at stake, and in the end the power and prestige of the presidency should be sufficient to cause the elections to be postponed.

And what of ARMMs citizens? The leadership, particularly of the Ampatuan clan (Regional Governor Zaldy Ampatuan and his father, Maguindanao Provincial Governor Datu Andal Ampatuan), are well-served in either scenario. If the election goes forward, Governor Zaldy is universally expected to win re-election, thus demonstrating the clan’s political leadership over the region. If the election is postponed, Governor Zaldy Ampatuan is able to remain as regional governor without the trouble of actually winning an election. As for the average citizen, while we do know from a Social Weather Stations survey last February that they felt that electoral modernization would improve the August 11 elections, there is no real way to gauge their thoughts on the possibility of postponement as part of the peace process.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundations Country Representative in the Philippines. His past analysis of events there can be read here. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org.

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