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Amid Tensions, Lanao’s Butig Municipality Holds Violence-Free Election

May 11, 2016

By Anna Tasnim Basman, Derkie Alfonso

In the Philippines, violence has always been an issue of great concern come election time, and May 9 was no exception, especially in Lanao del Sur, one of the five provinces of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao where the risk of violence is compounded by the presence of private armed groups, local conflicts, and loose firearms.

At the bullet-scarred municipal hall of Butig, where the extremists and the military had an encounter in mid-February, tensions remain due to heavily armed security forces manning the precinct. Photo by Anna Tasnim Basman

At the bullet-scarred municipal hall of Butig, where the extremists and the military had an encounter in mid-February, tensions remain due to heavily armed security forces manning the precinct. Photo by Anna Tasnim Basman

We were part of an election monitoring team in Butig Municipality in Lanao del Sur, and understandably tensions were high. In the lead-up to elections, the province was placed under the election watchlist areas by the Philippine National Police (PNP). In February 2016, the allegedly-ISIS-affiliated extremist group Maute and the military had a fierce gun fight at Butig town hall, leaving 23 dead and thousands displaced. Weeks after the successful capture of the main camp of the terror group, Maute kidnapped and beheaded two civilians from a local sawmill industry. The situation in Butig worsened when some of the Board of Election Inspectors (BEI) backed out from participating a day before the election. Meanwhile, rumors were circulating that the extremist group’s possible retaliation against the military would take place on election day given the large concentration of security forces. However, these rumors were proven wrong.

In fact, the scene outside the town hall seemed to look just like any town in Lanao during any election period – filled with stores and kiosks selling pater and other Maranao food aimed to serve hungry voters who just finished voting or were still waiting their turn to vote, and old and young passersby and buyers busy talking about election updates. By the end of the day, no election-related violence had been reported in the municipality, thanks to the partnership of local civil society organizations and government agencies.

Women voters wait their turn to cast ballots in Butig. Photo by Anna Tasnim Basman

Women voters wait their turn to cast ballots in Butig. Photo by Anna Tasnim Basman

In order to ensure violence was kept at bay, in advance of the election, local civil society organizations and government agencies re-activated the Kasalimbago Movement, a coalition of government agencies and civil society organizations that pushes for electoral reform in Lanao del Sur, and whose task is to monitor, mitigate, and respond to election-related violence. The coalition was strengthened through its membership in the Provincial Joint Monitoring Action Committee (PJMAC), whose members include the Commission on Elections, PNP, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and the ceasefire mechanisms created under the peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

PHelectionsWomen

Butig witnessed high voter turnout among women, despite concerns about ISIS-inspired groups. Photo by Derkie Alfonso

In April, Kasalimbago Movement invited local candidates in 33 municipalities in Lanao del Sur to publicly sign a peace covenant to pledge their commitment to a peaceful conduct of elections. In the municipality of Butig where we were, the peace covenant forged between bitter political rivals, whose families also have a long-standing rido (clan dispute) proved to be pivotal in the achievement of zero violence on election day. This was particularly impressive given the already tense situation between the military and the Maute extremist group.

On election day, after a short briefing at the AFP’s 103rd Infantry Brigade (Kampo Ranao) in Marawi City, Kasalimbago dispersed its member organizations and spent the entire day monitoring the conduct of elections in various Lanao municipalities, ensuring that the candidates remain committed to their covenant, and providing real-time updates to PJMAC through a combined system of cellphones and radio communications. By the end of the day, PJMAC reconvened at Kampo Ranao to share data and assess the recently concluded elections in the province. As the election day came to an end, the Kasalimbago coalition made a preliminary assessment that the election-day violence of 2016 in Lanao province was less intense than that of 2010 (two days later, the local police declared elections in the province to be generally peaceful and orderly). The group also noted an “overwhelmingly larger participation” of women in this election than in the past.

Post-election, members of the coalition remain actively engaged in ensuring that election-related violence in the province are mitigated and properly addressed. As the people of Butig remain resilient amid a likely resurgence of the extremists, and as local civil society groups and government agencies work together to provide them with immediate security, it is imperative for the next set of leaders to provide them genuine and long-lasting peace.

Anna Tasnim Basman is assistant program officer for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines, and Derkie Alfonso is a results monitoring officer there. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].  The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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