The Root Cause of Electoral Fraud, Violence and Vote-Vending in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao

By: Algamar A. Latiph

Once again we witnessed the nasty politics of violence and flood of allegations of vote rigging in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. What has been largely ignored is the region’s prevailing poverty, political and socioecomic inequalities where electoral fraud and violence are rooted. United Nations’ official Topfler Klaus said that “when people are denied access to clean water and air to meet their basic human needs, we see rise of poverty, ill-health and a sense of hopelessness. Desperate people can resort to desperate solutions.”

Being consistently listed in the “Bottom 10 (2003)” of the Philippine Human Development Report 2005, the five provinces of ARMM confirmed their sorry state of inequalities and ebbing human development. They occupy PHDR’s “Bottom 10” in its category of the: Most Poor Provinces; Human Development Index (where Basilan, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi are in the lowest rank); Per Capita Income (except Lanao del Sur); Basic Enrollment (except Tawi-Tawi), and; Gender Development Index (except Lanao del Sur).

As regards life expectancy, they placed at the lowest with Tawi-Tawi at 51.2 years (PHDR 2005). The National Anti-Poverty Commission’s Summaries of the 40 Poorest of the Poor Municipalities disclosed that 65% of the municipalities are from ARMM of which three are among the 13 municipalities where election failed on May 14, 2007. The NAPC’s database, likewise, revealed that the region’s 351,230 households have no access to water, this is equivalent to one-third of its registered voters.

These inequalities result to 1.8 million migrants all over the country in search of opportunities. Beyond the region’s boundaries, discrimination and exclusion confront Muslims thereby narrowing their choices. Job hiring, school admission, house leasing among others are just few instances of discrimination. Out of the 663 inmates in Camp Karingal ’s Women Jail Dormitory Facility, 94 come from ARMM (2005 data from the Muslim Legal Assistant Foundation). This is 14% of the jail’s population which is sharply disproportionate with the Muslims’ less than 2% population in National Capital Region. None of the inmates finished secondary school; they found themselves living in slum areas and all are unemployed.

On the other hand, perception of the 47% of the Filipinos is that Muslims are terrorist/extremists according to the Pulse Asia Ulat ng Bayan March 2005. It also found that 55% believed that Muslims are prone to run “amok” and about 33% to 44% have anti-Muslim bias. It is surprising however that only 14% of the respondents had experience interaction with Muslims while 58% based their judgment from media. It show how media’s negative portrayal of Muslims unduly affect stereotyping. In the later part of the election candidates’ theatrics in the media unraveled their stereotyping, and derision of the region’s people as cheaters with their culture of violence.

The region has experienced centuries of violent and painful history in defending their freedom from foreign domination. The 20th century was highlighted by exhaustion from struggle from the systematic policy of driving them out of their fertile ancestral land in which they are now a minority. The densely militarized region is host to 1.38 Million internally displaced persons brought about by armed conflict from 2000 to 2004. Since 1971, the armed conflict claimed 120,000 lives.

As a body politic, ARMM meets the profile of a failed region where it did not only breed electoral violence but, to an extreme, a terrorist group—Abu Sayyaf Group. The current political violence is a sad reality of Moro versus Moro. It is a violence devoid of any political ideologue neither personal animosity. Owing to the absence of choices within the region, politicians are not motivated by power and prestige but a control of the limited wealth in the local units or districts—the Internal Revenue Allotment or Pork Barrel Fund. A victory in election will secure a three-year uninterrupted flow of millions of money. Politicians spend millions to buy votes since “return-of-investment” is assured. The scenario in the region’s politics is that the cost of violence is worth an investment. That is the reason that politicians’ drive to ensure victory and the sense of losing the election increase political tensions and, at times, result to bloodshed.

In abstract, a ballot is more than a piece of paper; it is a paper where the highest expression people’s supremacy in governance is cast. But this exists only in law books. In ARMM the ballot has yet to serve its constitutional utility of building a “just and humane society.” Though it lost its altruistic value, the ballot is not a meaningless paper but a commodity that can yield money worth more than the expected delivery of public goods and services. And can be used as leverage in accessing basic human subsistence.

In The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama states that Philippines is “masks [by] enormous disparities in wealth, prestige, status, and power, which these elites can use to control the democratic process.” The region’s political and socioeconomic inequalities had given birth to political slavery where political dynasty gestated and, in exceptional cases, political warlordism evolved. In this system, open political participation is systematically eliminated denying the possibility of equal access to public office in order to institutionalize political monopoly. It is a process of selection among members of the family instead of free election. It is based on ones’ influence in the family rather than platform of government. Qualification, competency and character play no role. Public accountability succumbs to bloodline loyalty.

Patronage politics thrives because of the political symbiotic-dependency between the politicians and the poverty-stricken majority. The former provides for basic human subsistence in exchange of the latter’s continued patronage. Supporters will be in a three-year payroll that would somehow satisfy basic human needs for job, food and health. Being of limited choice, one has no sufficient freedom to break the bond. Freedom and liberty are elusive to men with empty stomach whose faculties are too infirm to exercise freewill.

A different scenario however exist in the case of political warlordism where fear and reign of terror is employed to assure political submission; the leverage of money-politics plays a minimal role. The will of the people is snatched by the barrel of the gun. On the other hand, there is phenomenon on the increasing numbers druglord-turned-politician. In Lanao del Sur it is an open-secret that there are at least seven of them holding mayor position. And there is anticipation that they will control the provincial seat as well as the congressional post in the near future.

Family kinship contributes to the perpetuation of warlordism where family members serve as foot soldiers. More often than not, the history of rido (clan feud) among the candidates fuels electoral violence. This is the underlying cause on the failure of election in the 13 municipalities in Lanao del Sur on May 14, 2007. Likewise, the technical aspect of the election aids dynasty and warlordism in preserving their political domination. Instead of modern electronic voting which is free from human intervention what is used is the Jurassic process of paper voting on the sheets of ballots, election returns, statement of votes, and certificate of canvass which can be physically hijacked and doctored. The current process gives election staff wider latitude of discretion making it susceptible to bribery and intimidation.

Vote-rigging in the national level is attributable to national candidates themselves being logically the sole beneficiary of the cheating facilitated thru their operators and their political disciples in the region. Cheating with respect to local positions is very remote as they are under the scrutiny of watchful eyes of the local candidates. National candidates’ absence of concrete agenda and ideological principle in governance intended to alleviate the region’s inequalities thereby lacking any campaign platform to attract votes in the region. It is no wonder that the region perceived that the “government is the principal party to blame and hopelessness under the present set-up.” (PHDR 2005).
In terms of representation, political opportunities are reserved for the few elites. Philippines is “a society dominated by social elite, most often of large landowners, who are neither tolerant of other classes nor efficient entrepreneurs,” according to Francis Fukuyama. This is a bitter fact but its degree of impact is worst with respect to ARMM.

More than three quarters of the members of the House of Representative belong to political dynasty; the Senate is not an exception. While the Lower House is equalized by geographical representation, Senate’s (including the Senators-elect) balance of power is iniquitously tilted toward imperial Manila where half come from NCR (12% of national population) and each provinces of Cavite, Sorsogon, Iloilo, and Zambales have two. The ARMM which has 10% of the population has yet to have its Senator for a decade and without Sen. Pimentel, Mindanao would not have any representation.

It may be argued that this unequal representation is tempered by the creation of ARMM. This is far from truth. The Office of the Regional Governor, has yet to be freely elected. At present, it is Malacanang’s anointment. Since its creation, elections were postponed eight times; and there were eight instances where ARMM officials’ term of offices were extended by the Congress without election. Apart from this, the Southern Philippines Development Authority was inactivated by virtue of Executive Order No. 149 for almost five years, it was activated only few months ago.

It seemed that the root causes of the fraud and violence are not appealing to politicians as well as the media that it rarely have their equal attention. The region gets that extraordinary interest only when there is blood-letting during election and armed conflict. In this election the question on Moro Problem and inequalities have been hardly taken seriously. What was underscored in the media is the issue on who will control Congress rather than what Congress can do to the failing region. This political timidity is not surprising. Congress is dominated by northern politics, its members’ approach and perception to the region’s inequity is subjective than structural. “Dominant groups tend to be unaware of social inequalities… [they] tended to see person-related causes of war [in this case political violence], while non-dominant Muslims prioritized structural causes of the conflict.” (Montiel, C.J. and Macapagal, E.J., Effects of Social Position on Societal Attributions of an Asymmetric Conflict, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 43, No. 2, 2006, pp. 219-227).

When job, health care, education, food and water, and physical security are wanting choices are shut off. The hapless marginalized people become vulnerable and exposed to exploitation aggravated by government’s impotence to guarantee human security. Nobel laureate W.A. Lewis in his Theory of Economics pointed out that increase in per capita income “gives a man greater control of his environment, and thereby increases his freedom.” But the State has failed to create a condition in which human development and security can be realized; where people choices and opportunities are much wider and where they could have greater control of their environment. Today’s politics however is not that encouraging: it is built on a high wall of intense and uncompromising political antagonism where constructive political cooperation is jettisoned.

It is Congress’ constitutional duty to dismantle dynasty. Unfortunately conflict of interest exist, Congress itself is ruled by different species of political dynasties. Legislative measures to make IRA and Pork Barrel spending more accountable and transparent are far from its agenda. International development agencies, who are pouring billions of pesos in ARMM, are not that helpful in making the country and other institutions more accountable on fund they received to alleviate the region’s inequalities. This gives wide perception that profits are taken out of the region’s misery. It is disturbing on how the visible political warlords exist in a society claiming to be governed by rule of law. It will not require a legislation to disarm private armies, with the military might of the State it is sufficient to destroy their existence. With these bleak scenarios and the political oblivion on the issues concerning the Bangsamoro, the ruling dynasties and warlords, therefore, will flourish while the cycle of electoral fraud, violence, and vending will persist.

It would appear that the region’s human development’s figures show that Bangsamoro, decades, has been denied of their right to live with human dignity.