In the Philippines: Elections in Mindanao

May. 18, 2007

By Steven Rood
The Asia Foundation

On Monday, May 14th, Filipinos voted for 17,889 different government positions at different levels, none of which included the office of President. For more than 50 years, Mindanao has had a reputation within the Philippines as having the worst electoral processes in the country. The unresolved issues about the 2004 election revolve mostly around alleged cheating that took place in various places in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The regional Governor in the ARMM was quoted on Election Day 2007 as saying that what is important is we can rectify the negative impression that here in the ARMM, there is cheating. And the ulama (religious leaders) have said that people must rise against the sarcastic perception that the ARMM is the cheating capital for elections.

Muslim citizen response this time around was quite vigorous. In early April, twelve Muslim organizations (ranging from region-wide coalitions like Citizens Coalition for ARMM Electoral Reforms and the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society, to province-based organizations like MARADECA in Lanao del Sur and Electoral Reform Advocates in Tawi-Tawi) met with the Catholic-based Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV). PPCRV is the national organization accredited by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) as its Citizens Arm, but is naturally weakest in Muslim areas of the country. Thus, the agreement to work for Clean, Honest, Accurate, Meaningful, Peaceful Elections helped fill a gap in PPCRVs coverage of all precincts throughout the country.

The Asia Foundation with funding support from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) partnered with the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) to bring 21 Asian election observers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia to the ARMM. Partnering with local organizations, they spread out across the ARMM for eight days, interviewing candidates, local officials, COMELEC, police, military, citizens, and nongovernment organizations. On Election Day, they visited more than 500 precincts. One of the most valuable aspects of such a mission is the reactions of the observers to many things that Filipinos normally take for granted.

The comment that hit the headlines, by Somsri Hananuntasuk (Director of ANFREL) was that the situation was worse than Afghanistan. Perhaps influenced by the fact that a small bomb went off at a precinct she was visiting early in the day, and that she later encountered armed men hustling ballot boxes around accompanied by tanks and a Mayor she described as a warlord, her reaction succinctly summarized the feelings of many other observers.

A Malaysian observer who had extricated himself from between two groups of armed followers of competing politicians pointed to the fact that Malaysia has had 50 years of electoral politics without any political killings. He also laughingly said that Philippine elections were not Free in fact they were quite expensive. Another Malaysian, mistaken for a local in Tawi-Tawi, indignantly watched as votes were bought (or at least paid for) quite openly. A Bangladeshi observer (who had also been near the early morning explosion) remarked that she had no idea how Filipinos chose for whom to vote, since no platforms or programs were on offer. And the Indonesians, noting the proliferation of campaign materials at voting stations on Election Day, proudly pointed to the practice in their country of using the day before the election to scrub the locality clean of posters.

Listening to this litany of woe, one is struck by the fact that none of the complaints uniquely characterizes the ARMM. As readers of this series know, we track the number of killings nationwide (currently at 130, with a month of tense canvassing [aggregating totals]) to go. In fact, the ARMM did not have a disproportionate number of killings in this election. As for programmatic content, the inclusion of actor and talented film producer Cesar Montano in the administrations Team Unity senatorial slate had nothing to do with any detailed platform of government. Campaign materials are illegally placed or handed out in voting precincts all over the country. And throughout the country the secrecy of the ballot can be called into question as flimsy ballot secrecy folders (file folders that are supposed to block the view of prying eyes) are insufficient. As one observer not in Mindanao noted, we saw voters curling their paper ballots in an attempt to prevent partisan poll watchers seeing their choices.

What is unique to ARMM, and ought not be glossed over, is the fact that conflict among clans for political power regularly overwhelms the electoral system. The overwhelming majority of voters in areas with failed elections are in the ARMM. In one well-televised incident, the COMELEC and security forces were not able to overcome objections by an incumbent mayor to the distribution of election paraphernalia in his municipality the protesters were led by his mother who sat on the pile of ballot boxes in the COMELEC office and so the people in that community did not get to cast a vote.

In fact, Asia Foundation research has shown that the main source of violent conflict in Muslim Mindano is not separatism but clan feuds. This problem is worse in ARMM than anywhere else in the country, and political disputes are the main factors initiating conflict among clans. While elections throw this dynamic into sharp relief, such feuding is a constant reality and no amount of change in election procedures (no matter how much such reform might benefit Philippine democracy) will change that.

It is only when followers are able to exact accountability from their leaders for peace and development that this will change. How residents of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao might accomplish this is a difficult, though not impossible, question.

(The author is The Asia Foundations country representative in the Philippines.)

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