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Cautious Optimism in the Philippines as Elections Considered ‘Generally Peaceful’

May 15, 2013

In the lead up to the Philippine midterm elections on May 13, the Philippine National Police (PNP) identified 15 provinces as priority areas where there was a risk of election violence. These areas have a history of intense political contestations and recorded election-related violent incidents, which are further exacerbated by the presence of private armed groups, loose firearms, organized crime, and other threat groups. During the campaign period until the day of the elections, recorded incidents of election violence totaled 81, which involved shootings (67 of the 81 cases), explosions, ambush, grenade throwing, strafing, and harassment.

Philippine elections

A police officer distributes pieces of paper containing verified names of voters at the Pagagawan Elementary School in Datu Montawal town, Maguindano Province on election day. MindaNews Photo by Ruby Thursday More

The PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) heightened their presence in advance of elections, and also on the day of elections at polling stations and across towns in these areas to ensure peaceful, orderly, safe, and fair elections. They formed a Joint Security Coordinating Center to coordinate activities for the Secure and Fair Elections (SAFE) 2013 program. They sustained their campaign against private armed groups, intensified checkpoint operations, and strictly implemented the gun ban.

The PNP also conducted several peace caravans, a unity walk, media activities, and an information drive. Upon the orders of PNP Chief Director General, Alan Purisima, the PNP initiated peace covenants between rival parties. The Asia Foundation’s local partners were instrumental in facilitating peace covenants in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

To help strengthen the partnership between PNP and the local civil society groups in the ARMM ahead of the elections, The Asia Foundation convened top-level PNP officers with Mindanao-based NGOs in a conference to address election violence in Cotabato City in January 2013. The event was hailed as a milestone because it was the first time that civil society-PNP engagement had been this extensive in strategizing to prevent election violence in advance. Aside from a series of peace covenant signings, the PNP and civil society groups were able to identify and jointly implement feasible interventions in anticipation of election-related violence that may occur in their respective areas. Through the Foundation’s support, PNP-civil society engagements included the conduct of regional and provincial peace summits on election monitoring as well as trainings on early warning and early response which led to the formation of several ad hoc groups that were tasked to conduct preliminary and responsive actions to avert and reduce the incidents of election-related violence in close coordination with other deputized agencies of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) whose duties are to guarantee the security of the whole election proceedings.

This was followed by a Strategic Communication Workshop in February 2013 to assist the police force at the national and regional offices on how to effectively communicate the critical facets of SAFE 2013 and generate public support in safeguarding the electoral process.

Despite prevailing efforts, several issues created anxiety among both the PNP and the local partners as they worked together during the critical pre-election period. In addition to the problems related to the delay in the delivery or possible malfunctions of Precinct Count Optical Scan machines, other practical issues were cited to provoke violence during electoral contests. These included the limited capacity of the PNP to secure some areas where management of security is highly contested; technical problems in the polling process where some allies and supporters of families with rido (clan violence) meet each other in one polling precinct; and the tendency for criminality and lawlessness to ride on election hype that could eventually sabotage the election processes. The complexity of these localized conflicts combined with limited capacity in the state security apparatus accounts for the unpredictability of election-related violence incidence in ARMM, which may then be the reason for the discrepancy in the list of election hotspots provided by COMELEC during elections.

In Lanao del Sur province, for instance, where most towns are included in the list of election areas of concern due to rido, election watchdogs and security forces considered the May 13 Election Day as the most peaceful so far in the history of the province with only seven casualties involved, one of which resulted in death. It is important to recognize that while this particular achievement can be attributed to the strong presence of the civil society, security forces of the 103rd Philippine Army Brigade covering around 40 towns in the province had also acknowledged the contribution of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the success. Lanao del Sur has several areas – prominent is the Camp Bushra in Butig – that are dominated by MILF. The signing of the guidelines for mutual understanding for ceasefire-related functions on May 13 between the government and MILF peace panels held in April 2013 have certainly defined the ground movement and behavior of each parties at the onset of Election Day, especially in extreme locations where lines between civilians and combatants can seem blurred.

The leadership of the PNP and AFP are one in saying that the midterm elections were generally peaceful. Civil society groups echo similar assessment. However, we do not want to be caught off guard. As much us we Filipinos value our right of suffrage, we put greater premium on the lives of people who have every right to live in peaceful communities. With the counting of final electoral results still underway and the election period still not over until June 12, 2013, the PNP and AFP, together with civil society, remain vigilant.

Nadine Ragonjan is a program officer and Haironesah Domado is an assistant program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. They can be reached at nragonjan@asiafound.org and hyro@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

View all posts by Nadine S. Ragonjan

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