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Can Reforms Rid Southern Philippines of Election-Related Violence for Good?

January 16, 2013

Four months from now, the Philippines will once again be in the spotlight as citizens exercise their right to suffrage in congressional and local elections. It is because of this right that people and the institutions of the government must ensure that an enabling environment is provided for an effective electoral process.

In every democratic space, elections serve as venues for competition among political elites. How these elites compete in the game, however, is quite a different story. In the long conflict-affected region of southern Philippines, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), in particular, stories of election fraud, violence, and corruption test the limits of our laws and institutions. For example, in July of last year, during general voter registration in the ARMM, there were cases of minors registering as voters, harassment of an election monitor volunteer in Parang, Maguindanao, and sporadic cases of violence, including the killing of a registrant in Lumbaca-Unayan in Lanao del Sur, killing of an election officer in Latuan, Basilan, and a bomb explosion near a voter registration office in Shariff Aguak.

These cases, in addition to cases of irregularities and violence stretching back decades, point to electoral dysfunction that strengthens the argument that ARMM is indeed a “failed experiment.” This was acknowledged by no less than President Aquino in his speech during the signing announcement of the Framework Agreement on Oct. 7, 2012:

“The ARMM is a failed experiment. Many of the people continue to feel alienated by the system, and those who feel that there is no way out will continue to articulate their grievances through the barrel of a gun. We cannot change this without structural reform.”

Despite the fact that most (including myself) consider that “autonomy” has not successfully solved the problems of Muslim Mindanao, it has been repeatedly put forth as a “solution” (in the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, the 1987 Constitution, and the 1996 Final Peace Agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front – MNLF).

A root cause of both the dysfunction and the persistence of this failure lies in how the ARMM functions as a reserve bank of votes for national elites – politicians centered on Manila. As long as ARMM is perceived to be a place where the birds and bees vote, it will continue to be manipulated by the powerful, instead of run in the interests of its citizens.

Elections throughout the Philippines suffer from problems of vote-buying, “flying voters” (voting multiple times in several locations), and accusations of cheating in the elections.  But what really distinguishes parts of Mindanao is the level of violence – which has in the past led to outright failure of elections in certain localities.

Citizens certainly recognize the problem of peace and order. In a 2011 survey in Mindanao conducted by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), 34-59 percent of respondents from different areas identified “security problems” as the most important problem of Mindanao, more than the “economy” (with proportions ranging from 19-25%).

In correlating security and elections, some people are willing to give up electoral choice to obtain greater security. SWS data show that more people in ARMM prefer only one unopposed candidate in an election since it reduces campaign violence and insecurity, compared to the rest of the country where majorities say that it is important to have at least two candidates for every position so that everyone has a choice.

Encouragingly, the aggregate data on election-related violence in the May 2010 elections showed a significant reduction compared to previous elections. In the 2010 elections, PNP recorded a total of 180 incidents compared to 229 recorded election-related violent incidents in the 2007 elections – a reduction of over 21 percent.

In the 2010 national elections, The Asia Foundation recognized the importance of community participation in addressing election-related violence, and we were able to support several innovative interventions in some areas considered as “election hotspots,” leading to more peaceful elections. While the role of civil society organizations in addressing election-related violence has been important – from conducting monitoring activities and peace initiatives to facilitating rido (clan violence) resolutions – the active role of the Commission on Elections in ensuring that all mechanisms are in place to conduct the election process and the strong involvement of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and Armed Forces of the Philippines in these volatile areas were instrumental in reducing the risk of violence and insecurity there.

So, in 2013, what can be done together to address election-related violence?  Over the past year, we witnessed how the current administration has utilized considerable political capital to:

  • open new possibilities in ARMM governance – from the appointment of Governor Mujiv Hataman to forging a framework agreement with the MILF;
  • improve national government assistance to the region through the Transition Investment Support Plan (TISP);
  • implement the Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan (PAMANA) program for peace and development in conflict-affected areas;
  • pursue electoral reforms by synchronizing elections in ARMM with the rest of the country this upcoming May 2013, and order a general re-registration of voters in the ARMM; and
  • appoint the new PNP chief, Alan Purisima, with marching orders to ensure clean and peaceful elections through the Secure and Fair Elections (SAFE) initiative in 2013.

This current window for reform provides the urgent opportunity to introduce critical governance and electoral reforms in the ARMM region, much-needed to improve the chances of a successful transition to the new Bangsamoro in 2016. Indeed, there is high hope that the upcoming elections will be safer, cleaner, fairer, more credible, and more peaceful. All eyes will definitely be on the first round of elections for the Bangsamoro in 2016.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered on Jan. 16. 2012, in Cotabato City at the Partners Meeting on Addressing Election-Related Violence in Mindanao. Nadine Ragonjan is program officer, Haironesah Domado assistant program officer, and Steven Rood is country representative for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. They can be reached at nragonjan@asiafound.org, hyro@asiafound.org, and srood@asiafound.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

View all posts by Haironesah Domado

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