Notes from the Field

Maguindanao Holds ‘Relatively Peaceful’ Manual Village Elections

October 27, 2010

After the successful first-ever nationwide automated elections in the Philippines in May, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) still held its breath for more than five months as it prepared for the nationwide barangay and Sangguniang Kabataan elections in October.

The barangay (the native term for a “village” previously known as barrio during the Spanish occupation of the Philippines), is the smallest political and administrative division of the Philippines. The Sangguniang Kabataan (youth council) is the local youth legislature in each barangay. As the barangays are small administrative units composed of only 50 to 150 families each, the COMELEC opted to revert to the manual system of voting – where voters had to write down the names of their preferred candidates. A major consideration in this move was the huge amount of money involved in obtaining the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) voting machines, as well as the gargantuan task of sending printed ballots and customized compact flash cards to the different polling places.

According to the COMELEC, more than 50 million voters had registered to vote for their respective punong barangays (chief) and barangay kagawads (counsellors). A total of 42,025 barangay chairs, and 294,175 barangay counselors were elected during Monday’s nationwide polls. The elections were relatively peaceful and successful, according to statements by the Philippine National Police (PNP), the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and the COMELEC immediately after the polls. Some civil society organizations on the ground, however, declared that the elections were still marred by the old problems – vote-buying prior to the elections, snatching of ballots, and violence. Prior to the elections, incidents of election-related violence were recorded, although statistics reveal that this year’s barangay elections saw a relatively peaceful pre-election environment, as it had fewer campaign-related incidents compared to that of the barangay elections in 2007.

In the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the Philippine army’s Task Force H.O.P.E. (Honest, Orderly, and Peaceful Elections) was reactivated, and it was not surprising that all of the barangays in this region had been placed under the PNP’s list of “areas of concern.” The region is known for election irregularities and violence, and has always been placed under the close watch of COMELEC during elections. Voter turn-out in barangay elections is traditionally lower than for national polls; nevertheless, AFP soldiers were still deployed to man checkpoints and maintain order.

To ensure that the elections ran smoothly and were free of violence, extra police forces were placed in Maguindanao, the site of the infamous Nov. 23, 2009, massacre, which claimed the lives of 57 people when members of the Ampatuan clan allegedly murdered journalists and supporters of its rival Mangudadatu clan. Civil society organizations in the province had also strived to keep the peace, building on the gains of previous concerted efforts to reduce election violence during the run-up to the May 10 elections earlier this year. On October 19, I attended a peace summit organized by the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV). Gathering more than 300 barangay-level candidates from each of Maguindanao’s municipalities, the peace summit served as a venue for the candidates to express their eagerness to keep the elections violence-free. Last-minute issues regarding the barangay elections were also raised to COMELEC Commissioner Rene Sarmiento, who attended the summit.

On election day, I visited several barangays in Maguindanao that were tagged as hotspots by the PNP. In the town of Datu Salibo, all of the polling precincts were already closed at 10:30 a.m. due to reports of indiscriminate firing (officially, voting should not be closed until 3:00 p.m.). In Datu Unsay, several people formed a barricade in front of the municipal compound and publicly requested intervention from President Aquino, claiming that only members of the Ampatuan clan were allowed to run for the barangay seats.

Voters barricade barangay elections

Voters attempt to stop elections in Datu Unsay, Maguindanao.

In Northern Kabuntalan municipality, an attempt of a supporter of one local candidate to snatch the precinct ballot box resulted in a chaotic fist-fight which left the chairman of the Board of Election Tellers (BET) injured. The PPCRV was able to capture and send reports on these incidents to its provincial command center in Cotabato City. Samsodin Amella, a PPCRV volunteer, admitted that there were some violent incidents in Maguindanao on election day, but despite these acts of violence, many barangays did conduct peaceful electoral exercises.

Maguindanao residents, civil society organizations, and government officials welcomed the news that elections were peaceful, with only a few irregularities being attributed to the manual system of voting and the inherent nature of clan conflicts. However, the clamor of the people is unified in the hope that in the future, casting votes in their province even at the barangay-level will be fully automated, as experienced during the nationwide elections in May. At the end of the day, we can only await, with bated breath, yet another national electoral exercise. Whether or not this will employ an automated voting system will be part of the nation’s waiting process. But no matter how advanced voting technology is, cheating and other election-related irregularities may only be addressed by enhancing the transparency of the electoral procedures and bolstering the vigilance of the citizens in guarding their votes.

Mark Lester Guevarra is The Asia Foundation’s assistant program officer for Elections Programs in the Philippines. He can be reached at marklester@asiafound.org.

Write a comment:

* Required

Comments are moderated. Please be polite and on-topic.

 characters available