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Changing the Landscape of Politics in the Philippines

October 14, 2009

By Maria Isabel T. Buenaobra

On the night of Sept. 1, 2009, Vicente Valera, former governor of Abra – a province in Northern Luzon in the Philippines – was arrested in his posh Rockwell condominium in Makati, Metro Manila. Valera is now the prime suspect in the murder of Congressman Luis Bersamin, Jr. The murder took place Dec.16, 2006, just prior to the campaign season for the May 2007 local elections, and is widely seen as election-related. Investigators are still looking into the motives behind the Bersamin slaying; they have not ruled out political motives related to unrest in Abra nor the rumors that Bersamin would run for another term.

Bersamin served as vice governor of Abra from 1998 to 2001, prior to his two successful runs for a congressional seat. A lawyer, Bersamin also served as the municipal mayor of Bangued town from June 1997 to March 1998, his first entry into the political arena after a career in banking that spanned 17 years.

Unfortunately, Bersamin’s case is not unique in Abra. In the so-called “murder capital of the north,” there have been at least 30 political figures killed in Abra since 2001. Nor will his death be the last election-related killing in the Philippines, unless the landscape of Philippine politics changes.

Now, with May 2010 elections rapidly approaching, watchdog groups and the Philippine National Police anticipate that the level of election-related violence will only rise. Candidates, government officials, and election officers are increasingly targeted. Reports from the Consortium on Electoral Reform’s monitoring teams, the Bantay-Eleksyon (Election Watch) project found that there were over 300 incidents of election-related violence during the 2007 national elections – 129 people were killed and 177 were wounded. Aside from Abra, there are other “hotspots” around the country, including portions of western Mindanao, that have historically high concentrations of electoral fraud and violence.

What makes such places “elections hotspots?” Things like: intense political rivalry between contending parties; the employment of partisan armed groups by candidates in the area; the presence of threatening domestic groups such as the communist New People’s Army; and a history of political or election-related violence. Abra has the unfortunate distinction of seeming to exhibit all these characteristics, making its political landscape volatile.

The 2007 election-related violence in Abra was so bad that the Commission on Elections had to assume control of the province. Since the province of Abra has consistently appeared on the list of “election hotspots” since 2001,  it became clear to my organization, The Asia Foundation, that an assessment of election-related violence was necessary there to understand the nature of political violence and to help minimize it in the next elections. With our support, the Ateneo School of Government is now conducting such a study. The results will provide guidance in ways to address it.

To complement this work, the Foundation collaborated with the local NGO, Abra Multisectoral Group, to convene the Abra Leaders Peace Summit. The summit, held in late August in the Philippine National Police provincial headquarters, gathered representatives of local governments, the Philippine National Police, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, local NGOs like the Concerned Citizens in Abra for Good Government, local media, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Abra, academic institutions, and community leaders to solicit commitments to lessen election violence and ensure peaceful elections in 2010. Abra Governor Eustaquio Bersamin, Congresswomen Cecille Luna, 13 municipal mayors, and several provincial board members and councilors attended the summit. It was the first such summit in Abra and organizers plan to conduct follow up activities that will culminate in the Abra Peace Week in December 2009, where local candidates will have the opportunity to sign pacts committing to peaceful elections in 2010.

At the summit, I spoke with Eustaquio Bersamin, who is the brother of slain Congressman Luis Bersamin, Jr. He told me how his brother’s death had caused the family to honor his legacy in a number of ways. For example, immediately following the murder, Eustaquio himself, who had been living in the United States for more than 30 years, renounced his American citizenship, reclaimed his Filipino birthright, and returned to become governor by a landslide in the 2007 elections. He spoke with fervor in his eyes about his interest in mobilizing public support for good governance measures. He even invited us to visit his office to continue chatting. However, with a long 10-hour drive from Abra back to Manila, I asked for a raincheck and promised to visit his office on my next trip.

As I left the summit, I spoke to Lt. Colonel Ignacio Madriaga, Commanding Officer of 41st Infantry Batallion in the Philippine Army. He spoke passionately of the need for collaboration to establish peace in Abra. He has appealed to development partners and nongovernmental organizations to help change public perceptions of what he calls “men in uniform,” so that people know they can be trusted. He knows whereof he speaks. In the May 2007 midterm elections, communist rebels wiped out a seven-man Army team in an attack in the remote town of Boliney, Abra. He told me that one of his soldiers escaped and was able to bring back the ballot boxes to the town center. I shook his hand, affirming my shared hope that Abra, and the other election hotspots, will one day cease to be playgrounds of warlords and blood politics.

Maribel Buenaobra is The Asia Foundation’s Director of Programs in the Philippines. She can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: Good Governance
Related topics: Elections


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