Surveil -- By Amina Rasul

Reform ARMM?

Posted on May 20, 2011

When Benigno Simeon Aquino III ran for president last year, his campaign was for good governance by an administration that would be transparent and accountable to the people.

He won by an overwhelming margin, a reaction of the voters to the corruption and culture of impunity that were the hallmarks of the previous administration. President Aquino III, PNoy to his constituents, promised reforms as he walked the "tuwid na landas" or straight path.

Today, a year after elections, PNoy’s constituents have started to feel frustrated by the pace set by the administration. People cry, "Nasaan ang pagbabago?" Where is change?

True, the promise to deal with corruption in government is on track. However, this does not put food on the table of the masses nor does it provide jobs at a time when jobs abroad have decreased due to the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa. Yes, Merceditas Gutierrez has resigned as ombudsman. But what of the cases filed against previous heads of government institutions?

Let us leave the national scene for now and visit the most problematic region of the Philippines: the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). ARMM is the basket case of the country: the most conflict-affected region, the poorest of the poor, the most dangerous to pregnant women and babies, and has the lowest Human Development Indicators in the country. If Local Government Secretary Robredo can share data, his department will probably show that ARMM has the most absentee local government executives. The audit conducted of ARMM finances after the Ampatuans’ reign would show an unending flood of cash disbursements with no projects to show for it.

Over the past 10 years, our discussions with Muslim Mindanao stakeholders on the subject of peace and development have always zeroed in on the lack of capacity of the ARMM regional government and local government units to serve their constituents. Frustrated and disheartened, citizens complain of lack of capacity compounded by lack of political will, whispering: How is any reform or capacity building doable in the ARMM when these measures would threaten the hold of warlords and cronies of Malacañang?

When the talks veered toward the topic of clean and honest ARMM elections and the possibility of reformists winning, disbelief and total disenchantment with the so-called "democratic electoral process" would be universal. How indeed could a candidate win in ARMM if they did not have controlled votes?

No wonder many Muslim Mindanao civil society groups support the idea of postponement of the next ARMM regional elections, slated for August this year. They say that rather than prioritizing the legality of postponement, the primary concern should be serving the interests of the Bangsamoro.

In a roundtable organized by the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy last January, former Regional Legislative Assembly (RLA) Speaker Ismael Abubakar argued for postponement, asking: "Why should we hold elections if the same political clans employing guns, goons, and gold would win anyway?" Abubakar added that the ARMM election has been such a "sham" that it is better to have the President appoint "competent men and women from Muslim Mindanao with track record."

Many participants of the RTD pointed out that ARMM elections are never truly meaningful or democratic, as warlords and/or Malacañang generally control them. How can the ARMM elections be free and fair, they wonder, when the last election did not clean the manipulated voters’ list nor put in place deterrents to vote-buying or intimidation of voters? Namfrel, CENPEG, and others are critical of the automation conducted during the last ARMM elections. There were complaints that the PCOS machines were kept in the houses of incumbent LGU officials in some ARMM provinces.

Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes Jr., however, maintains that they are ready to proceed with the ARMM elections and have P1.8 billion to cover the election expenditures. Civil society leaders say it would be much better to postpone the elections and use the P1.8 billion in election-related expenses for development projects.

The issue, they say, is not one of election, but of reform and good governance. Many reformists argue that there are many competent leaders in ARMM, but they are incapable of winning in rigged elections ruled by money and violence. Proceeding with the ARMM elections now without addressing the structural problems of the regional government will just perpetuate the corrupt system in ARMM.

And what of the peace processes? The tripartite review of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement between the GPH and MNLF, facilitated by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), has been completed. The GPH and the MNLF seek to amend the Autonomy Act so that the ARMM will be truly autonomous. One of the concerns has been the inability of the ARMM to be fiscally autonomous from the central government. "There is no genuine autonomy in ARMM because there is no fiscal autonomy, " former Regional Governor Parouk Hussin stressed, "and it is difficult to run a mendicant government." Thus, instead of elections, Hussin believes government should focus on legislation to be enacted for a more autonomous regional government.

Peace advocates believe that postponement will ensure that there will be no distractions and instability that could derail both MILF and MNLF processes. Optimists say that postponement, even for 22 months, can give enough time and space for the peace processes to result in agreements which will result in a genuine and meaningful autonomy for Muslim Mindanao.

Security experts such as retired Lt. Gen. Ben Dolorfino note that elections in ARMM may not be good for the security situation. Further, the fragile peace and order condition, tense after the killing of Osama bin Laden, may become volatile. A stable security environment is essential for the peace processes to prosper.

If the elections are postponed, who will govern? Should PNoy appoint a caretaker government? In their defense, the people of Acting Regional Governor Ansarudin "Hooky" Adiong maintain that they have managed the regional government well, after succeeding Zaldy Ampatuan (in jail for involvement in the Ampatuan Massacre). They should be given a chance to perform. However, most civil society leaders disagree, saying that there can be no pagbabago (change) with the same set of leaders, who have been tried, who have been tested, and who have already failed.

If PNoy does appoint caretakers from among his Muslim leaders, how will they be chosen? Is there a selection process? If there is, I hope it will not be the rigged selection process utilized by the Arroyo administration which endorsed Zaldy Ampatuan (the least experienced candidate from among a group that included former ARMM Governor Hussin, the late ARMM Vice Governor Dr Mahid Mutilan, former RLA Speaker Abubakar, Marawi City Mayor Omar Ali, the late business leader Datu Toto Paglas, and others) .

Even more crucial, will they be able to govern? Will elected local government officials follow their lead? Or will they draw strength from PNoy’s political will? If they do, how is this different from the past?

I am conflicted. As one Bangsamoro put it: "We cannot be slaves of the law and ignore the realities in our communities."