Surveil -- By Amina Rasul

Postponing the ARMM elections

Posted on January 28, 2011

Postponement has been the rule rather than the exception, insofar as the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) elections are concerned.

There have been eight postponements since the first set of ARMM officials was elected on Feb. 17, 1990. Only once have the elections been conducted on the date specified by law -- the 2008 ARMM elections. Lanao del Sur Representative Pangalian Balindong recently filed a bill to postpone the August 2011 ARMM elections and synchronize it with the 2013 regular elections.

We understand from various news accounts that President Benigno Simeon "PNoy" Aquino is in favor of holding the ARMM elections as scheduled. On the other hand, a poll watchdog and the speaker of the House of Representatives favor postponement. Thus, on Monday, the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy (PCID), supported by the Magbassa Kita Foundation Inc. (MKFI) and The Asia Foundation (TAF), held a roundtable discussion on the proposed postponement. The timing of the roundtable discussion was good as the Congressional Committees on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms, and on Muslim Affairs held a joint hearing on the Balindong bill the next day. PCID was invited to present the outputs of the RTD. Let me share our findings with you.

Of the arguments put forward by those in favor of holding the elections, the most compelling was on the legality of postponement. Whereas the old law (RA 6734) governing the ARMM elections specifically allowed for date of elections to be changed1, Republic Act 9054, does not allow for the same flexibility. RA 9054, as an organic act, was ratified by the residents of ARMM through plebiscite. Can an act of Congress amend the Autonomy Act, which had been ratified through plebiscite? Even if Congress amends 9054, shouldn’t that amendment be subject to plebiscite before it takes effect?

Joining the forum were over 30 Muslim leaders led by former Senator SantaninaRasul, former ARMM Governor ParoukHussin, Atty. PaisalinTago and IsmaelAbubakar, who both served as speaker of the Regional Legislative Assembly (RLA) of ARMM, former Western Mindanao Command chief Lt. Gen. Muhammad Benjamin Dorlorfino, former party-list Representative Mujiv Hataman. Fr. Eliseo Mercado, Jr, OMI, former chair of the Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development (SPCPD), also shared his insights on the subject.

Participants were divided over the issue of postponement. Five representatives of Muslim groups strongly expressed support for the conduct of elections as scheduled while 12 argued that elections should be postponed. The rest of the participants were observers, representing groups that still had to determine their position vis-à-vis the proposed postponement of the ARMM elections.

Even those who agree that elections should be postponed are split between two options: extending the term of the incumbent officials or PNoy appointing a new set of officials who will serve until new elections shall have been conducted.

Former ARMM Regional Governor Parouk Hussin started the discussions by emphasizing that the complexity of the issue "requires time and serious efforts to really delve deeper into the issue." As former regional governor and incumbent senior leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Hussin noted that although the issue to be discussed was the ARMM elections, whether to postpone or not, "to understand the problem we have to revisit certain issues, especially the issue of the creation of the ARMM by virtue of the Organic Act." He reminded participants that the present organic act was ratified in 2001 and was in fulfillment of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement between the government and the MNLF.

Fr. Mercado, Atty. Tagoand, and other leaders fear that the postponement of the ARMM election will not augur well for the already fragile democracy in ARMM. They noted that even if the proposal to postpone the election could hurdle legal infirmities, it couldn’t pass the litmus test of democracy. "The right of the people to give their consent to the people who govern them is a fundamental tenet of democracy," one added.

One participant asked why the discourse, when election nears, centers around postponement when "what we should be discussing is not how to derail the electoral process but how to ensure clean and credible elections reflecting the will of the Muslims."

The other arguments against postponement are the following:

  • Consent of the governed, in terms of seeking a mandate from the people is a fundamental precept of democracy. In a region as volatile as ARMM, those who govern the region must go through the election process. If not, the elected local government leaders may not follow or obey the ARMM regional government.
  • An area such as ARMM, in a continuing state of turmoil and violence, cannot afford the vacuum of legitimate leadership that may result if elections are not held.
  • Postponement will further weaken the autonomy of ARMM, which should be maintained and strengthened, as a product of the peace process
  • One of the main problems plaguing ARMM is the lack of autonomy as evidenced by the series of elected officials handpicked by Malacañang. For the national government to decide the future of ARMM elections is to aggravate this problem. Perhaps what needs to be done is for government and civil society to ensure that the ARMM elections are conducted fairly, accurately, and peacefully.<>

    Many agree that perennial discussions about postponing the ARMM elections are symptomatic of the many democracy and governance deficits in the region: its problematic autonomy, the history of Malacañang intervention in the "selection" of ARMM officials. "There is no genuine autonomy in ARMM because there is no fiscal autonomy," Hussin stressed, "and it is difficult to run a mendicant government."

    However, the majority of the leaders argued for postponement for valid reasons: peace and order condition, ensure that the peace process(es) do not get derailed by partisan politics, among many.

    Next week: Arguments that postponement of elections is needed to secure the peace and support reforms.

    1 R.A. 6734, Article VII Section 5: The Members of the Regional Assembly shall have a term of three (3) years which shall begin, unless otherwise provided by law, at noon on the 31st day of March next following their election.