Surveil -- By Amina Rasul

Bapah, Babuh, what is democracy?

Posted on September 16, 2011

Today, we will end a three-day training workshop on the methodology for conducting a citizen-led assessment of the State of Local Democracy (SoLD) in ARMM.

The Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy has joined forces with the National College for Public Administration and Governance (NCPAG) and the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) to implement the SoLD assessment for ARMM. Our friends from IDEA, Keboitse Machanga and Melida Jimenez, flew from their HQ in Stockholm to help with the orientation and training of the project team.

What are our expectations with the SoLD? There is a raging debate about the compatibility of Islam and democracy. An informal survey we conducted with our Muslim religious scholars (Ulama) showed that only a third thought that Islam is compatible with democracy, while the majority did not believe in the separation of church and state. Muslim democracy advocates argue that democratic ideals are deeply rooted in the Islamic principles of adl (justice), shura (consultation) and ijma (consensus).

IDEA has assisted local teams to conduct the SoLD in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, and Yemen. The SOLD methodology, utilized by local democracy advocates years before the Arab Spring burst forth, provided the local project teams with the capacity to explore the views of individuals about representative and participatory democratic mechanisms. Guess what they found out: Arabs and Muslims want democracy.

Some of their findings: In Egypt, civil society organizations were growing but largely concentrated in the capital and a few large cities. Perhaps this is why the people power revolution blazed quickly in the major cities but just smoldered in the remote towns.

In Morocco, they found out (surprise, surprise!) that citizens did not really trust political parties and that young people, women, illiterate citizens and immigrants were marginalized.

Sounds familiar?

The more I became acquainted with the researches and initiatives of International IDEA on democracy in Muslim countries, the more I became convinced that a State of Local Democracy assessment was sorely needed for the ARMM.

Coincidentally, as we at PCID prepared our proposal to do the SoLD for ARMM, reform-oriented Muslim civil society organizations started lobbying Congress to pass legislation to postpone the ARMM elections (scheduled last month) and to support a reform agenda for the regional government instead of spending almost 2 billion pesos for the conduct of the elections. These lobbyists maintained that the electoral process was so corrupted that no one would win who did not have guns, goons and gold.

Proclaiming that the experiment on autonomy in the ARMM had failed, President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III supported the postponement of the August elections. During his 2nd State of the Nation Address or SONA, he asked Congress to synchronize the regional elections with the national elections and allow him to appoint interim officials who would implement a reform agenda in the region. However, opposition grew as critics argued that the postponement of the ARMM election violates “the right of the people to give their consent to the people who govern them; a right that is a fundamental tenet of democracy,” noting that the regional elections had been postponed eight times in the past.

As we started organizing for the SoLD, Republic Act 10153 was passed synchronizing the elections of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) with the 2013 midterm polls. Supporters of postponement have argued that the regional government must be reformed now, while there is an opportunity to do so. RA 10153 was to provide a 21-month window of opportunity for reform.

Why is the ARMM regional government in such dire need of reform? While the Philippine electoral process has been subjected to massive manipulation (Hello Garci, the Pimentel protest against Zubiri for the senate slot, among many examples), ARMM suffered most from the endemic problems of our electoral process. Yesterday’s expose by a retired military official regarding the roles played by soldiers in manipulating the results in ARMM of the 2004 presidential elections supported the testimony of a Muslim shariah lawyer that he was tapped by former First Gentleman Miguel Arroyo to buy the election results in ARMM. All these were made easy because of the persistent conflict, clan-dominated politics, and political violence in the region. Poverty, violence, controlled elections -- all these have contributed to a huge democracy deficit in the ARMM.

National Government presented a reform agenda for the ARMM, to strengthen governance and democratic institutions. We at PCID wondered: where do the citizens come in? Were bapah and babuh (uncle and aunt) even consulted? By the way, do we really know what bapah and babuh really want? Perhaps, we assume we know what citizens believe or want. After all, these demands are constantly articulated by their leaders -- whether elective, appointive or self-appointed.

The State of Local Democracy Assessment for ARMM will now allow us to find out from the citizens in ARMM how they view democratic institutions, autonomy, and governance. For far too long, the citizens have been merely on the receiving end, with not much influence on the policies and programs supposed to benefit them. ARMM is the least served region with the most problems.

Without a doubt, democracy is failing in ARMM, a glaring reflection of the failure of democracy at the national level. In the ARMM, government institutions have become beholden to the political and war lords (particularly the Ampatuan clan, whose head is now in jail charged with the massacre of 57 innocents). Can we blame our citizens for their disenchantment with democracy, when they had suffered much under the so-called democratic Philippine government?

It became imperative for us at PCID to find a way to address these problems, but first to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the state of democracy in ARMM, especially as it is perceived by the citizens of ARMM.

We will therefore work for the next year to find out how our citizens view their situation and democracy. The timing of this research is perfect, with much attention given to the reform of ARMM.

Yesterday, the participants of the training -- coming from the ARMM provinces of Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao, and Lanao del Sur -- spent a lot of their coffee breaks discussing the Temporary Restraining Order issued by the Supreme Court on RA 10153. The SC voted 8-4. SC spokesman Midas Marquez said the TRO would prevent “confusion” should the President appoint the OICs and then the Supreme Court would find RA 10153 unconstitional.

The SC also ordered the Commission on Elections to allow incumbent ARMM officials to keep their posts on a holdover capacity should the court fail to resolve the consolidated petitions questioning the law by September 30 when their terms expire.

So now what will happen? The Comelec has said it will move to organize the elections -- but will they be able to conduct it soon or will it take six months to a year? If that’s the case, the elected officials will hold office for less than a year. That would be a mess. An expensive mess.

Regardless of the outcome of the SC’s TRO, we at PCID will proceed with our Local Democracy Assessment for ARMM. Once done, we hope that the assessment results will be used to encourage discussions and debates on how democracy can work in the region, considering the cultural, political, and developmental context of ARMM communities. Viewed through the eyes of those most affected -- the citizens of ARMM.

Maybe if bapah and babuh do end up having an idea what democracy really is, then we can have the democratic reform that will resonate and be fully supported by the citizens, not just by powerful blocks.