Notes from the Field

Observing Basilan’s Special Elections in the Southern Philippines

June 16, 2010

When I was asked to observe the special elections in Maluso town on Basilan island in Southern Philippines, the first thing that came to my mind is that it would be an eye-opening, informative experience. First, the place, part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), is known to be a bailiwick of the Islamist separatist group Abu Sayyaf – five days ago the group beheaded three, some military officials say two, Filipino villagers in the mountains of Basilan in what analysts and police officials said was a desperate attempt by Abu Sayyaf to show the incoming Aquino administration that they are alive and still pose a threat. Second, Basilan is one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines, and as an election monitor, I was also interested in studying how elections – successful or not – can affect people in a place like Basilan.

Last month, on the day of national elections on May 10, the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) in Basilan, already tense given the dangerous location of the polling precinct of Maluso, suspended the elections in that precinct and called for new special elections on June 3, due to security concerns for inspectors and monitors after intimidation and threats from warring political parties in Maluso were reported.

Against this backdrop some of my family and friends suggested I go instead to Lanao del Sur to observe, where I have relatives and where other special elections were also to be held. But I knew it was it was important that I join local partners in Maluso to help observe the elections, given how much was at stake. Having observers is important in any electoral process: they not only help boost public confidence in the process, but also serve as witnesses to provide real assessments and recommendations on any shortcomings or hiccups that should be addressed in the future.

I landed in Zamboanga City and was met by Mario, The Asia Foundation’s local governance project coordinator there. The next day, I was at the Zamboanga port on my way to Basilan island. Our partner organization, Basilan Advocates for Peace, Environment, and Sustainable Development Association (BAPESDA), provided me with my guide, Basir. When we arrived in Isabela, the capital of Basilan, I met some people from BAPESDA and we had breakfast beside the cathedral where the bombing that left nine people dead took place in April. We soon departed for Maluso town, first dropping by the police station to collect two police escorts.

The trip from the provincial capital of Isabela to Maluso was quite an experience: the lush, still hillsides made the mountains look peaceful. Despite this natural beauty, I was quickly reminded of the glaring poverty that plagues this area: unfinished roads, shortage of electricity and clean water, and houses sprinkled over the hills made of simple tarpaulins. My guide told me that the remote road we were on is well known for ambush attacks, and as a result, the military has set up checkpoints every 500 meters to provide security for travelers.

When we arrived early at the polling precinct, I saw that many of the problems encountered in the May 10 elections earlier in Manila were already happening here: the clustering of precincts, which required many voters to vote at a new location, was initially confusing, while others became impatient waiting in the long queues.

Philippine elections

Voters wait in long lines outside of the precinct building to vote in Basilan's special elections on June 3.

There was also no waiting area, so voters crammed into small, hot places waiting their turn. The Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machine wasn’t functioning well, so the election inspector decided that the people would still mark their vote on the ballot, but the inspectors would themselves insert the ballots into the PCOS machine afterwards. With such a large presence of military and police officials, some police officials even acted as election inspectors themselves.

When I went inside the precinct building, I saw that a heated discussion was taking place. One of the volunteers from the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV) was insistent that the other poll watchers, volunteers of the outgoing mayor of Maluso, Sakib Salajin, step out of the room. To pacify the situation, PPCRV’s provincial coordinator in Basilan, Joy Meraveles, informed her volunteers that it was not their role to meddle in the concerns of the poll watchers.

However, this news got the attention of Mayor Salajin, who was angered when he heard that his poll watchers were being shooed away. He angrily told the PPCRV volunteers that if his volunteers had to step out, PPCRV volunteers should also leave. Concerned that this misunderstanding could give the impression that the PPCRV volunteers were biased toward a particular political affiliation, the regional PPCRV director removed his PPCRV shirt so that he would not be a target for an angry member of the opposition. Aside from the PPCRV volunteers who were actually voting in this precinct, the rest left.

One of the PPCRV volunteers was not happy with how the mayor dealt with the situation, and tempers flared. A fistfight erupted between the PPCRV volunteer and the mayor’s volunteers. Because of the commotion, people panicked and started running for safety. I was waiting for a gunshot or a warning shot to stop the chaos, but fortunately, no shots were fired. When the commotion ended, the military caught and arrested one of the PPCRV volunteers with a knife and a bundle of 50 peso bills. I was told that the money came from politicians. I asked the PPCRV officials later if they screened the volunteer, and I was told that the arrested volunteer’s ID and uniform were dated for the May 10 elections. Investigations into the events are still ongoing.

Because of the incident, voting was suspended for 15 minutes and subsequently, vote results were lower that expected – only 40 percent of the registered voters actually cast their votes. Some of the voters got scared and did not return to vote, thinking that there might be retaliation for what happened. The incident also soured the image of the PPCRV in Basilan, which was considered one of the most trusted poll watchdog groups in the Philippines.

The overall assessment from the Philippine National Police (PNP) is that the special elections in Basilan were peaceful with a “minor” incident of violence. BAPESDA echoed the PNP’s assessment stating that the incident is considered normal in the province. They told me that the large military and police presence, combined with the existing election-time gun ban, contributed to peaceful elections.

Despite this success, and a national election considered more peaceful despite some violence, this incident reveals that some areas in Mindanao are still in the process of learning how to conduct peaceful and honest elections. Basilan and the rest of the ARMM – Lanao del Sur, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao, and Marawi City still have to go through two elections before the 2013 midterm polls; the Barangay elections this October and the ARMM regional elections in 2011. There is hope that these incidents will help voters learn how to carry out honest and peaceful elections in the future; elections free of gunshots and fistfights.

Tani Basman is The Asia Foundation’s Assistant Program Officer for electoral reform in the Philippines. He can be reached at tani@asiafound.org.

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