HOPE for 2022 elections?
COTABATO CITY — HOPE was the acronym for Honest, Open, Peaceful Elections. The then regional Commission on Elections (Region XII, where Cotabato City used to belong) used this in its campaign for “clean and honest” elections sometime in the early to mid 1990s. This was also the time I served as editor in chief of one of the country’s longest-running bi-weekly regional paper published in Cotabato City, The Mindanao Cross.
Back then, during an election year, my editorial staff and reporters braced ourselves for any “explosive” thing to happen on a daily basis, as Cotabato City and its nearby areas were known election “hotspots.” Various armed groups, including those organized by local political warlords made their presence felt almost on a regular basis, and this had instilled fear and insecurity among the city’s residents. I used to remember the fleet of same-model cars and pickups owned by the late patriarch of the Ampatuan family, Datu Andal, that regularly plied the Shariff Aguak-Cotabato City highway. On board the pickups were men in fatigue, military-like uniforms, brandishing their long firearms (mostly M-16 rifles), as if gearing up for battle. These were Andal’s hitmen; some were members of Shariff Aguak’s local security forces. This sight sent shivers down the spine of many ordinary folk living along the highway then. In an interview with local communities in the municipalities of Maganoy (the old name of Shariff Aguak) and Datu Piang, one of them said, “Datu Andal keeps himself secured; but his security is the source of our insecurity, as we might be in the crossfire whenever his army meet his political enemies.”
In 2011, The Asia Foundation and Vera Files published “Democracy at Gunpoint: Election-related Violence in the Philippines.” Edited by Yvonne T. Chua and Luz R. Rimban, the book contains chapters on election-related violence in 10 provinces in the country, known widely as “election hotspots” with private armed groups (PAGs) organized by local warlords. The Philippine National Police reported in 2010 that there were 114,189 loose firearms in the then Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao; with 20 reported PAGs, out of which Maguindanao ranked the first as far the number of PAGs was concerned, at 1,506.
Carolyn O. Arguillas wrote the chapter, “Maguindanao: the long shadow of the Ampatuans,” where she described and analyzed the Ampatuans’ meteoric rise to power, largely through acts of impunity and outright violence. Arguillas narrated details on the brutal murder of 32 journalists in what is now known as the “Ampatuan massacre” that took place on Nov. 23, 2009, in Barangay Salman, Ampatuan town. The Ampatuan family’s easy access to both long and short firearms, whether through purchase and “grants” from the late patriarch’s benefactor then, former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, abetted the family members’ penchant for impunity, as the infamous Ampatuan massacre has shown.
Another consequence of this strong patron-client relationship between the late Ampatuan patriarch and Arroyo was the zero vote for the late popular movie star Fernando Poe Jr. in the 2004 presidential election where Arroyo also ran for president. Poe was quite popular in Maguindanao—his swashbuckling screen persona was a big hit among the largely macho and gun-toting male locals then. Surprisingly, Poe did not get a single vote from many of Maguindanao’s towns, a statistical improbability.
All these come to mind at this time of the year, when traditional politicians in the region, and in the country are now starting their frenzied political maneuvering to prepare for next year’s elections.
But with the pandemic and its associated challenges — physical distancing and other health protocols — it could be daunting to plan for an election campaign season when there would be no huge campaign assemblies.
An even more important issue is whether electoral violence will be kept at a bare minimum or even prevented during the pandemic. Will politicians be honest and transparent, and not use the gun to do the campaigning for their electoral ambitions? Will there be HOPE in the 2022 elections?
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