‘Light at the end of the tunnel’
The country passed a major hurdle on Monday, with the plebiscite to ratify a law that gives the country’s Muslim minority greater control over parts of Mindanao coming to pass without a major hitch. Hundreds of thousands trooped to polling precincts, some as early as 7 a.m., to cast their vote, notwithstanding some last-minute attempts to throw a monkey wrench into the exercise.
Early results from the manual count have been encouraging. The affirmative votes are leading the negative votes in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)—composed of the provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi—and in the cities of Cotabato and Isabela.
The biggest surprise has been Cotabato City, the battleground between supporters and oppositors of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL). Defying their mayor and other officials who campaigned hard against the BOL, the majority of residents voted “yes” to ratify it, posting a margin of more than 11,000. The city voted twice against inclusion in the ARMM in the past, but ironically remained the seat of that autonomous government. If the vote carries, Cotabato City will now be part of the new and expanded Bangsamoro region.
Sulu, where the negative votes dominated the affirmative votes, offered a sobering alternative picture. Some 301,196 voters cast their ballots out of a voting population of 375,137—a high turnout of 80.3 percent. But other residents stayed at home, no thanks to reports that violence would supposedly break out at the polls. A peace advocate blamed it on “money politics,” with politicians, on top of scaring the populace with warnings of mayhem, going around and buying off “no” votes.
A successful BOL plebiscite represents a landmark moment for the country’s Muslims, given the years of tumultuous efforts by the government and the erstwhile secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to bring a 2014 peace agreement to its logical conclusion, after it had languished in Congress until its approval last year. When MILF chair Murad Ebrahim cast his ballot in Simuay near the group’s main camp at Sultan Kudarat town in Maguindanao province, he said he never imagined that the establishment of a broadly autonomous region for Muslims would come to pass. But when the rebel group forged a peace deal with the government, he said, “We saw the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The results, made more credible by a high turnout and the peaceful conduct of the plebiscite, augur well for both BOL supporters and the country at large ahead of the second vote on Feb. 6 in Lanao del Norte province (except Iligan) and six towns in Cotabato.
On Monday, as soon as the precincts opened, reports of threats, intimidation and harassment of voters and teachers serving as board of election inspectors (BEIs), and a mob ganging up on a “flying voter,” flew thick and fast. But the day ended without any major incidence of violence or irregularity that would have otherwise cast doubt on the integrity of the exercise, or altered its outcome—a development that is to the good of everyone.
Commission on Elections chair Sheriff Abas declared the plebiscite credible despite the “small commotions.” If the peace and order situation holds, the plebiscite will go down as one of the most peaceful political exercises to have been held in the conflict-riven region. Credit should go to the military and national police for pulling out all the stops to ensure tight security throughout the exercise, even sending their own men to serve as BEIs in precincts where teachers failed to show up because of threats to their lives.
The job of the security forces is, however, far from over. The same level of security must be ensured at the second plebiscite day in February.
The Comelec itself has its work cut out for it in the coming days, as it presides over the canvassing of votes. This early, it has to address what it calls a “clerical error” in the preparation of the certificate of canvass from Cotabato City, which misstated the number of voters—an issue that BOL critics are sure to pounce on to prompt doubts in the results. Cotabato City Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi has threatened to file a complaint questioning the numbers.
The new Bangsamoro region needs all the support it can get, and Feb. 6 is another crucial day for it. After that, the real hard work begins.
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