Election campaign filled with propaganda and heated debates is nothing to the Philippines, a country that enjoys relative success of sustained democracy since ending the authoritarian rule 30 years ago. Philippines’ political landscape may however change considerably as a result of the 9 May general elections where more than 1,800 posts are at stake including that of the President and the Vice President, with implications to the people of the conflict-ridden region of Muslim Mindanao.
In 2014, the Philippine government under President Benigno Aquino III and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed a Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. Under the framework agreement, the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) was drafted pending ratification in both Houses (Senate and Congress). The BBL sets to establish a new political entity “Bangsamoro” to replace Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and hence increase and redefine self-determination that the Moros have longed for. The Congress and the Senate however failed to pass the BBL during Aquino’s tenure, and it is now for the next administration to take the process forward and create the conditions for lasting peace.
All presidential candidates are in favour of continuing the Bangsamoro peace process, albeit in different forms. Mar Roxas as current administration’s candidate vows to continue Aquino’s legacy and pass the Bangsamoro law in its current form. The current front runner Rodrigo Duterte (who is from Mindanao) advocates for federalism as the only option to obtain political and fiscal autonomy. Miriam Defensor-Santiago deems some provisions of the law as unconstitutional and as such, would need constitutional amendment; a legislation will not suffice. Santiago’s aim is that the BBL will be able to stand the scrutiny in the Supreme Court. Jejomar Binay also has reservations on the current draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that in its current form creates a sub state, not an autonomous region. Grace Poe is also in favour of sustainable peace in Mindanao but so far has not presented a clear platform how this can be achieved. Other campaign issues feature around corruption, pro-poor policies (staple of Philippines election campaigns), law and order, and managing disputes with China.
Local Elections in Mindanao
Citizens of the five provinces under the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) will elect a regional governor, vice governor, members of the legislative assembly, and their respective local officials. ARMM is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped region in the Philippines. It is also known for political dynasties, clan-dominated violence, and electoral anomalies. Statistics show that political clans of ARMM still dominate the elections in ARMM. Former rebels are not yet organized as an alternative political force.
The incumbent governor Mujiv Hataman is running for the post again. He is in favour of the proposed new Bangsamoro arrangement and has promised to step down once the new Bangsamoro government is in place.
Scenarios after Elections
There are several scenarios which may materialize if the law is not passed by the next administration. The most worrying is that violence will continue and escalate. MILF and other stakeholders in ARMM who are in favor of the passing the law are understandably frustrated. While MILF leaders are committed to the peace process, and some combatants have started to decommission their arms following the peace agreement, there is always the chance of some members being wary to lay down their arms as yet and resort to violence to push for changes. One cannot totally rule out even the possibility of further breakaway groups emerging as a result. The radical Bangamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters or BIFF (reportedly pledged allegiance to extremist jihadists, ISIS) might also use this as an opportunity to further their cause and could make a more conflict-afflicted Mindanao a ‘hot bed’ for extremists.
Furthermore, with this scenario there are no guarantees that the initiatives stemming from the Peace Agreement such as the joint peace and security trainings, or decommissioning of combatants and communities, would be continued.
The BBL hops to bring about more fiscal autonomy, and create alternative livelihoods for the former combatants as a way of addressing ARMM’s poor economic status. This would also be delayed. In relation to all this is also the plight of indigenous peoples or locally known as Lumads, also original inhabitants of the land like the Moros. They are often caught in the crossfire, losing their ancestral lands, and under-represented in dialogues pertaining to the new Bangsamoro entity.
If both the new government, the MILF, and parties in Congress remain committed, and are ready to build trust, there is every chance that peace continues in Bangsamoro and the law is passed. But it will take strong political will from the next government, and willingness to engage with the disillusioned local communities throughout the process.
A lot is at stake in passing the law in due course. The issue of approving and implementing the BBL is of global interest too; this peace pact demonstrates that it is possible for the Philippines to come up with a sustainable solution to a conflict involving dominantly Christian and Muslim communities. It has been very hard elsewhere in the world.