Prone to violence

Unintended scheduling irony, or the inevitable clash of religious and secular calendars? The Christmas season, according to the Catholic liturgical calendar, ended on Saturday night; the following day, the season that is perhaps least Christmas-like in spirit officially began. We are referring, of course, to the election period.

That’s the time, if sorry experience is anything to go by, when infants (in the manger or outside) are visited not as an act of homage but of publicity-seeking; when the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are set aside in favor of guns, goons and gold; and when the spirit of self-sacrifice becomes submerged in a fiesta of self-interest, self-dealing and self-promotion.

In other words, it’s another season where lists are made and checked twice, but in the end most of the rewards go to the naughty and most of the risks to the nice.

The preparations being undertaken to minimize election violence seem to underscore the period’s topsy-turviness.

Make no mistake; we think the authorities in charge are doing their job. The usual election-period gun ban took effect Sunday; the required police checkpoints are being set up throughout the country (at least one checkpoint per municipality); the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces, in their familiar role as deputies of the Commission on Elections, have prepared for many contingencies; the Comelec has been sending out the necessary notices and generating public goodwill. And yet we cannot help but feel a growing unease or impatience. Among Asian countries, we probably have the most experience in elections; why do our electoral exercises continue to be so violence-prone?

Late last year, Comelec Chair Sixto Brillantes publicly chided the PNP for releasing its list of election hot spots—problematic areas with a history of or tendency to violence—before consulting with the election agency. The Comelec, Brillantes said, had its own list, with fewer provinces included. He did not disclose the exact number, but said the Comelec list had fewer than the 15 high-risk provinces the PNP identified. But the official (consolidated?) list of hot spots released at a “command conference” the election agency conducted at its Intramuros office over the weekend identified 15 provinces—the exact same provinces already pinpointed by the PNP last November. Apparently, the Comelec has come around to the PNP’s thinking.

But what is worrying is that nothing much was made of this, whether at the command conference or afterwards. The headlines zeroed in either on the total number of hot spots, an astonishing 889 (all found in the 15 high-risk provinces), or the number of loose or unregistered firearms (the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has the most, by far, with 7,830).

Is the number of loose firearms in a region indicative of the number of election flash points in that region? Not exactly. The Ilocos region has only 680 loose firearms, according to the PNP, but it accounts for about one-eighth of all election hot spots: It has a total of 106 areas deemed prone or vulnerable to election violence.

The real issue, however, is why we continue to have election hot spots in the first place. We all know the contributing factors: intense political rivalries, a winner-take-all political system, private armies, loose firearms, government inefficiency or incapacity. What more can be done?

The PNP says it has counted 53 “private armed groups,” with under 1,000 members in all. But why do these groups continue to flourish at all? The gun ban and the mandatory police checkpoints are necessary to curb the violence, but is the stringent, time-consuming work that goes into them being used as a substitute for the dangerous work that the dismantling of private armies requires?

The intense political rivalries are often the cause of (or excuse for) election violence: Couldn’t the church, the local businesses and civil society organizations in the area force the competing political families to a covenant, a concordat, where public commitment to renounce election violence serves as an additional form of pressure?

Otherwise, if we all just depend on the gun ban and the checkpoints to stop the inevitable slide to election-related violence, we may not only share in the sense of complacency, we may actually be complicit.

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Tags: Elections , Philippines , politics , Violence

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