Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Postponing Philippines Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) polls not only illegal but fraught with peril

IN apparent haste, the House of Representatives voted to postpone the upcoming elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). With only days before Congress takes a lengthy Lenten break, lawmakers were under time pressure to pass House Bill 4146. It was certified a priority bill by President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino 3rd, who has been pushing for postponement of the regional polls in August and synchronizing it instead with the national elections in 2013.

We think that postponement is wrong, not to mention possibly unconstitutional and probably dangerous to peace and order in Mindanao. The reason for postponement given by the Palace is itself dubious. The President wants to institute reforms as a prerequisite for elections. The argument revolves around the belief that voters are influenced by chieftains and local warlords, and so the outcome does not reflect the will of the people.

As his own relatives pointed out, however, the President should work on reforms before, during and after the ARMM elections. Requiring political reform before holding elections sets a dangerous precedent in the Philippines, where so many changes are needed. Even Metro Manila has problems with vote buying and influence peddling, according to reports. And following the Palace’s reasoning, not even the 1986 snap elections could have taken place since it would have pushed for postponement on account of President Ferdinand Marcos lording over the country. The President’s mother, in other words, could not have campaigned that year.

Also, opinions from the Senate and elsewhere have been saying that postponement of the ARMM elections is illegal. Lawmakers and others explained that changing the schedule of elections there requires a plebiscite, not a mere amendment because the date of the polls is part of the organic act.

Worse, the government’s plan to appoint officials—instead of electing them—will not only violate the law, it will also rob Filipinos in ARMM of their constitutional right to choose their leaders. The President is right to be concerned about the undue influence of tribal leaders and local warlords, but it would be wrong to supplant them with a tyrant in Manila.

The authorities in Manila should look around the world, particularly at what is happening in the Middle East. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, people are demanding for democracy after decades of neglect and mismanagement by autocrats. Put off the elections in August, and we might see those kinds of protests in ARMM. What the Filipinos in ARMM need from Manila is not interference in their elections, but rather assistance in the delivery of the basic services and means of economic development.

Rebels and reforms

In justifying postponement, the Aquino government said that it would not interfere with the ongoing negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). And it appears that some MILF leaders don’t care if elections are postponed or not. We beg to disagree with Malacañang. Postponement and the consequent appointment of ARMM officials, will most likely stoke the embers of local political rivalries.

ARMM elections have always been marred by violence, and that threat might increase with the disruption caused by the postponement and the eventual jockeying for presidential appointments. The chaos that might result from the disenfranchisement of Filipinos in ARMM can be exploited by rebels—and other enemies of the State.

Instead of interference with the elections, what rebels and others in ARMM want is genuine reform. The Palace should watch a recent story filed by Marga Ortigas of the news network Al Jazeera, which reports on massive defections of MILF troops to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The rebels, according to the report, are barely under MILF control. Most of them are tired of fighting and just want to lead a peaceful life. The report is posted on YouTube.

On a related note, postponing the elections might make rebels more distrustful of the government. How can they trust the government or be convinced to obey the law when officials show a propensity to change the rules simply because doing so is more convenient and less expensive?

The Comelec has in fact already started the election process, holding voter registration for ARMM recently. No emergency, calamity or any other valid reason exists to scuttle the elections this year.

Better off not to synchronize

As a general rule, we recommend that voting in ARMM should not be synchronized with any national election. The increased threat of violence in the region during elections necessitates the undivided attention of law enforcers and elections officials on hotspots there.

Even in 2013, the voting in ARMM should be held days or weeks before or after the rest of the country cast their ballots. That way, Comelec and other agencies can focus on preventing the failure of elections, which has become common in many areas in ARMM. In the 2010 elections, for instance, 48 villages or barangay in Lanao del Sur declared a failure of elections because of violence. Special elections had to be held there late last year.

The 1987 Constitution provides a window for holding national elections on times other than a specific date. We believe that is essentially the same principle that allows early voting for soldiers and policemen scheduled to work on Election Day. The same idea may be applied to voters in ARMM, because that will help the authorities keep the peace.

Those who agree with this proposition might also see potential danger in synchronizing the ARMM elections with national polls in 2013. If that happens, manpower and resources would be dispersed all over the Philippines, and it will be easier for cheats and goons to do their bidding.

For now, at least, we are encouraged by some senators who have raised similar concerns about this issue. We hope that they will show more wisdom and independence from the Executive branch than their counterparts in the House. Manila Times

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