By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter and  Jomel R. Paguian

VILLAGE and youth council elections in the Philippines were generally peaceful, the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel) said in a statement on Monday, amid reports of shooting incidents in many areas in the country’s south.

“While observers from all over the country reported the usual cases of voters being unable to find their names on the lists, observers also cited the importance and usefulness of the Commission on Elections’ (Comelec) precinct finder as well as the voter assistance desks in facilitating the conduct of the voting process,” the local election watchdog said in a statement.

Comelec Chairman George Erwin M. Garcia also said the elections were “generally peaceful.”

“In general, if you observe from 5 in the morning when we opened the early voting in Muntinlupa and Naga City until this time, our election was generally peaceful throughout the country,” he told a news briefing after voting closed at 3 p.m.

While there were incidents of violence, especially in the Bangsamoro region, there were no problems reported in other election hotspots like Abra, Mr. Garcia said. “In the 365 areas under the ‘red category’ of areas of concern, no cases of violence were reported,” he said in Filipino.

Five people died, while at least four were hurt in separate shooting incidents in the provinces of Maguindanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte, according to reports from the Philippine National Police.

More than 336,000 positions were contested in this year’s local elections, including the village captain post, whose roles range from resolving neighborhood disputes to ensuring the delivery basic government services.

Azer Lanario, a 19-year-old college student from Pampanga in northern Philippines, vied for a local youth council post with the hope of making a “community that is fair.”

“Change should start at the community level,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “This is the easiest way to help build a society that is fair.”

In a noon report, the Council for Climate and Conflict Action Asia said an explosion was heard near the precincts in the village of Bugawas in Datu Odin Sinsuat town in Maguindanao del Norte that sent voters running.

The village chairman of Poktan in Butig, Lanao del Sur was shot and killed by inside the precinct during a fight with a rival candidate who was a relative, while a supporter of a candidate in Diamaru in Malabang town was wounded in a stabbing incident as ballots were being released in the municipal gymnasium.

The group said six people including an incumbent village chairman were hurt in shooting and hacking incidents outside the polling precincts in Lahi-Lahi, Tuburan town in the island province of Basilan.

Namfrel said voter turnout was high, especially among senior citizens.  “In general, regular voters outnumber Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) voters, reflecting the fact that there are more regular-age voters registered than SK voters.”

WhWhile villages are the smallest local government unit in the Philippines, the posts are highly contested because larger political groups use them to boost their support base in national elections.

Kontra Daya, which has been monitoring Philippine elections for more than a decade, said the “dirty and rotten electoral system” in the country continues to reign, as it monitored reports of harassment, violence, red-tagging and vote buying “done by members of rival political factions and dynasties to ensure they remain in power.”

This time, village politicians have resorted to online platforms to boost their campaign, with “reports of electoral fraud being done through online means, such as vote-buying through online payment platforms and fake news being propagated online against certain candidates,” it said in a text message.

“The online nature of campaign season has only helped solidify the rottenness of the election cycle.”

Under the law, village and youth council elections must be nonpartisan, and candidates are barred from joining political parties. Relatives of elected or appointed officials up to the second degree of consanguinity are barred from seeking youth council posts.

Many candidates seemed to tie themselves closely to the ruling administration, Kontra Daya said.

Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., who voted in a school named after his late father in the northern province of Ilocos Sur, said the results of this year’s village elections could determine the outcome of national elections.

“If you’re running for mayor and the majority of the barangay officials are on your side, are helping you, that is a big thing,” he told reporters, based on a transcript from his office. “It will make it much easier to be elected at the local level.”

“The dirty games played in the national elections seem to be reflecting itself in the barangay-level elections as well,” Kontra Daya said.

Randy P. Tuaño, dean of the Ateneo School of Government, noted declining interest among voters in village elections.

“There’s a lack of interest among many voters given the lack of awareness campaign on the part of the National Government on the importance of the barangay and SK structures in government,” he said via Messenger chat.

John Ryan R. Canlas was among the first-time voters in the elections this year, which was suspended several times under ex-President Rodrigo R. Duterte. The village elections were held in 2018.

“The elections got delayed for many years. Current barangay officials have been too relaxed in their positions; we haven’t felt them,” the 25-year-old voter from Metro Manila said. “I think it’s time for some new faces and for some to return as well.”

“The elections today showed the enthusiasm of the public in choosing the next set of barangay leaders, especially after the pandemic,” Jan Robert Go, who teaches political science at the University of the Philippines, said via Messenger chat. “This meant either wanting to replace ineffective leaders or retain those who performed well.”

Mr. Go said a lot of functions have been given to village officials “but they have limited resources to fully accomplish those responsibilities.” “This is why we only see them doing the usual stuff — basketball leagues, waiting sheds and all these mini-programs that only work to promote their next campaign.”

The many roles that villages assume under the Local Government Code include the operation of farm produce collection and buying stations, health and day care centers.

They also maintain facilities such as multipurpose halls, pavements, plazas, sports centers and similar facilities.

Joy G. Aceron, convenor-director of watchdog G-Watch, said village officials should interact with civil society groups.

“It is crucial that barangays are engaged by civil society organizations and that there is joint capacity-building toward shared goals,” she said via Messenger chat.

Mr. Tuaño said election winners should empower the people by holding village assemblies and creating local committees. “This could bring some hope in terms of governance for economic and social development.”