In The News

Polling for Peace in the Philippines

May 30, 2012

Now that I have returned from my sabbatical, one of the most exciting and challenging parts of my job is attending negotiations between the government of the Philippines (GPH) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The current round of talks, hosted in Kuala Lumpur by the Malaysian Facilitator, started Monday and features for the first time the attendance of all five governors of the provinces comprising the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Their opinions have recently been examined by the International Crisis Group, and as elected officials from the area being covered by the peace talks, it is important that they have input into deliberations.

Mindanao

Negotiations between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front resumed this week, and for the first time, featured the attendance of all five governors of the provinces comprising the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Photo by Karl Grobl.

Beyond consulting leaders, how can the opinions of ordinary citizens be taken into account? One of the glories of working on social issues in the Philippines is that there is access to a great deal of high-quality data from scientific probability samples. Social Weather Stations, Pulse Asia, and Laylo Associates are examples of organizations that regularly provide the public and analysts timely and relevant information on the opinions of citizens.

The relation between individual opinions about public issues as aggregated in surveys and political outcomes can be a tricky one. I ran into it as a freshly minted Ph.D. in American Electoral Behavior newly in the Philippines when, for the 1982 Barangay Elections, I did a survey with the standard question, “if the election were held today, who would you vote for?” In the mountains of Northern Luzon, the Cordillera, where traditional indigenous culture is still strong, I frequently got the response, “I don’t know – the elders haven’t told us yet who to vote for.”

There are lots of further questions embedded in this topic, such as is there such a thing as “public opinion” as a whole, rather than just a summation or average of individuals’ opinions?  What is the relation between opinions expressed in an interview situation and those expressed on the street or in coffee houses? What is the relation between verbal opinions and actual actions of the individual?

This line of inquiry is particularly acute when dealing with organized revolutionary movements. In December 1986, the communist New People’s Army (NPA) held a public celebratory parade down the main street of Samal province in Bataan province. When that town overwhelmingly voted in February 1987 to ratify the “Cory Constitution,” an NPA cadre shrugged off the contradiction with remarks about “false consciousness.”

Similarly, Father Conrado Balweg, leader of the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army (CPLA), told me while I was preparing to do a survey on Autonomy for the Cordillera in 1987 (supported by a grant from The Asia Foundation to the University of the Philippines Baguio’s Cordillera Studies Center) that I was wasting my time – what mattered was the revolutionary analysis and action of the CPLA. At least in this case he was clearly mostly wrong, since the autonomy that the CPLA has had (until now) as the centerpiece of its political platform depended on ratification in a plebiscite, which never happened.

Since small numbers of activists are able to cause internal wars, the relationship in conflict between mass opinion and political outcomes can be particularly problematic. This ability of a few to carry on fighting is one of the reasons why so many of the sub-national conflicts we see are so long-lasting. In Afghanistan, Southern Thailand, and Mindanao, the Foundation conducts sample surveys to get people’s opinions, and we wish to make them useful for improving development as well as being scientifically sound.

Colin Irwin in his peace polling (Northern Ireland and elsewhere) has tried to square the circle by having the political negotiators on both (all) sides specify the questions they want to put to the public in aid of a peace process. The results are published in full as part of the public communication process. In this way the negotiations are still confidential but the public does get a sense of what the negotiators are wondering about and negotiators get a feel for the shape of public opinion.

For myself, I see polling as part of building an “inclusive enough” coalition for a peace settlement. The concept comes from the 2011 World Development Report and has been suggested for the GPH-MILF peace process. The notion that it is difficult to sell Mindanao peace to the average Filipino can be pernicious – better to ask the citizenry and then transmit that information to the political class. Of course, particular leaders of influence need to be involved: to gauge their reaction to the views of citizens, what they think about particular issues in the negotiations, and how consultations can improve a peace outcome. Both the government and the MILF have been assiduously talking to a wide variety of stakeholders in Mindanao and throughout the country.

Building peace is a long, complex process involving many steps and a wide variety of tools. One way to involve the citizenry is through surveys. Negotiators and others involved in peace processes need not slavishly follow public opinion, but it is indeed best to take it into account.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines, and represents the Foundation as part of the International Contact Group for the GPH-MILF negotiations. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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