Palace airs urgency to defer ARMM polls

Posted on May 17, 2011

MALACAÑANG HAS upped the ante on the postponement of elections in the autonomous Muslim region, with two Cabinet officials yesterday citing the urgency for Congress to pass the law to defer the polls in light of needed reforms in the troubled area.

Local Government Secretary Jesse M. Robredo told a briefing of reporters at the Palace that extra time is needed to completely dismantle all private armed groups in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao(ARMM) to ensure clean elections.

"If we can put in the elements of removing the influence of private armed groups, cleaning up the voters’ list, doing an honest to goodness voter’s registration program, we will have proper elections," he said.

The Palace has asked Congress to postpone the polls from Aug. 8 to May 2013 to coincide with the midterm elections. The proposal has been approved on third and final reading at the House of Representatives, but its counterpart remains pending at the Senate committee on local governments.

Senators have raised concerns over the constitutionality of delegating to the President the authority to appoint officers-in-charge to posts that will be vacated by incumbent officials whose terms will end on Sept. 30.

Mr. Robredo said 41 of the 80 private armies have been disbanded since he assumed the position of acting secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government.

Dismantling, or at the very least disarming, the rest, he said, will be pursued by establishing a satellite Philippine National Police regional command in Sulu that will have jurisdiction over "mainland ARMM" (Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur) and "island ARMM" (Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi).

"May saysay lang ang halalan kung matahimik yung lugar [Elections will make sense only if the region is at peace]... Let’s bring about an environment where people can freely choose and let’s strengthen the bureaucracy in the ARMM...," said Mr. Robredo.

He then said instability in the region, which was formed in 1991, was evident in eight previous elections that were postponed.

He also pointed out that poverty incidence has risen -- currently 38.1% from 18.6% in 1991 -- in contrast to national poverty incidence which has gone down -- currently 20.9% from 28.3% in 1991 -- with four of the five poorest areas in the country in ARMM.

Meanwhile, the government believes that foregoing elections will help along peace negotiations with rebel groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Teresita Q. Deles, presidential adviser on the peace process, said at the same briefing.

"The postponement of elections provides us with flexibility, that whatever is agreed upon, we will not have to deal with a three-year term of a newly elected government," said Ms. Deles.

Ms. Deles noted that on the part of the MILF, as well as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), there is enough indication that "at the very least they do not object to postponement, in fact that they can see that it will be conducive to a comprehensive agreement within this time frame [of 18 months]."

MILF separated from the MNLF after the latter forged a peace deal with the government in 1996 that upheld the creation of ARMM.

In the current peace talks with the MILF, however, Moro rebels are pushing the creation of a substate in Mindanao -- mainly an expanded ARMM -- with an area purportedly covering 700 villages and towns the MILF claims is smaller than its original historical territory. The Bangsamoro claim includes ARMM lands.

"What happens in the ARMM is relevant to the peace process because that is the core of the territory; the people who are the voters of the ARMM are the people who will be mainly the main constituency that will be affected by the peace process...," said Ms. Deles.

Whether elections will be postponed or not, she assured that the peace panels will continue with their mandate and time frame, but reiterated that it will be easier without the added complication of divisive elections, particularly as synchronization in 2013 still allows three years of a new mandate for a regional government.

"Usually elections are violent especially in this area... instead of this violence, hopefully during this period, all of the different sectors can focus on coming to a consensus, for a common ground, for an agreement, it is going to be a difficult agreement, and elections usually causes electoral and political polarization...," said Ms. Deles.

Interestingly, successful computerized elections in 2008 in ARMM prompted the national government to push automated polls in 2010. -- J. P. D. Poblete