Surveil -- By Amina Rasul

Postponing the ARMM elections

Posted on February 04, 2011

Part II

Last week, I presented the arguments against the postponement of the ARMM elections slated for August 2011, from the roundtable discussions held last Monday at Club Filipino by the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy. Representative Pangalian Balindong recently filed a bill to postpone the August 2011 ARMM elections and synchronize it with the 2013 regular elections.

Many Muslim Mindanao civil society groups, including participants to the RTD, support the idea of postponement. They say that rather than the legality of postponement the primary concern should be whatever would best serve the interests of the Bangsamoro. As one participant put it: "we cannot be slaves of the law and ignore the realities in our communities."

Former Regional Legislative Assembly Speaker Ismael Abubakar, a convenor of PCID, argued that the postponement of the ARMM elections would provide President Aquino with the opportunity to reform the ills plaguing ARMM. The culture of impunity and corruption, which had led to the massacre of 58 innocents at the hands of members of the powerful Ampatuan clan, has been cited as clear manifestation that the rot has festered and must be incised before another election takes place.

"Why should we hold elections if the same political clans employing guns, goons, and gold would win anyway?" Abubakar asked, adding that ARMM election is a "sham"so it is much better to have the President appoint "competent men and women from Muslim Mindanao with track record."

Many participants agree that ARMM elections are never truly meaningful or democratic, as warlords and/or Malacañang generally control them. The more important topics that should be discussed are reforms in ARMM; the issue is not one of election, but of good governance.

Postponing the elections will ensure that there will be no distractions and instability that could derail both MILF and MNLF processes. Optimists who believe that the peace process between government and the MILF will be concluded within the next two years also argue that postponement can give space to the peace processes, paving the way to a real, meaningful, autonomous government in ARMM.

Further, 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 initialed. A meeting will be held in Jeddah fairly soon to sign the agreement which seeks to strengthen the Autonomy Act by amending RA 9054. 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, legislation needs to be enacted for a more autonomous ARMM regional government.

Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Dolorfino and other military officials note that frequent elections in ARMM, (there have been two elections in the last 15 months) are not good for the security situation. Lt. Gen. Raymundo Ferrer of Westmincom had also said that elections in August would make the already tense situation in Maguindanao more volatile, after the assassination of Vice-Mayor Alex Tomawis.

There are concerns with the electoral system too. 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. More importantly, the voters’ lists of ARMM still need to be purged of ‘ghost’ voters. Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes Jr, however, maintains that they are ready, that they can automate in time, and that he can draw from the commission’s savings of P1.8 billion if necessary to augment the P400-million budget provided by Congress.

Hold over government or appointed caretakers?

If the elections are postponed and a holdover government continues, many ask whether they truly have a reform agenda. In defense, the office of Regional Governor Ansarudin "Hooky" Adiong maintains it has managed the affairs of the autonomous region well, after succeeding Zaldy Ampatuan who is in jail for involvement in the Ampatuan Massacre. A holdover government (as called for by the Balindong bill) will allow the Adiong administration time to implement its reform agenda. Better, postponement will save the government some P2 billion in election-related expenses that could be used for development projects.

However, those who do not agree with the notion of officials retaining their positions reiterate the President’s platform of pagbabago (change), saying that there can be no pagbabago with the same set of leaders, who have been tried, who have been tested, and who have already failed.

One participant notes that there are many competent leaders in ARMM, but they are incapable of winning the ARMM elections because the system is ruled by money and violence. However, will appointees be able to govern properly, without the people’s consent? Will elected local government officials follow their lead?

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In the meantime, as we Muslims of the Philippines wrangle about our leaders being elected or appointed, I can’t help but watch with awe the swift developments in the Middle East and North Africa. Arab youth are taking to the street, clamoring for political reform and real democracy. In mid-January, rioting led to the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Like a game of dominos, Egypt followed suit where hundreds of thousands of Egyptian youth have been rioting for two weeks now. Strongman Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been forced to say he will not run for a new term in the coming September elections to defuse the violence threatening to conflagrate not just Egypt but the Arab world. In Jordan, King Abdullah this week appointed a new Prime Minister, Marouf Al Bakhit, to take "practical, swift, and tangible steps to launch a real political reform process." The appointment has not mollified Jordanian youth. Al Bakhit has close ties to the military and is not perceived as one who will usher in democracy.

I asked my young Bangsamoro friends, out of curiosity (with no desire to start a revolution) -- why are your Arab brothers and sisters taking action in their demand for democratic space, they who have not been under democratic rule? Why have our own Bangsamoro youth, nurtured in a democratic Philippines, been too accepting of their oppressive rulers? Last election, young Bangsamoro flying voters were busy selling votes. There were no protests after the Ampatuan Massacre. One young leader said: "We vote with our feet. We are new heroes, Brave Overseas Filipino Workers." Another said, "Too tired, too afraid, too hungry." My children said, "It’s easy to escape to Manila." Another said, which was frightening to me: "We have our own ways to deal with oppressors." Ahhh.