Ballots and Bullets in the Bangsamoro
Ballots and Bullets in the Bangsamoro
Soldiers man a checkpoint ahead of the May 9 presidential elections, along a road in Malabang, Lanao del Sur province on the southern island of Mindanao. April 25, 2022. MERLYN MANOS / AFP
Commentary / Asia

Ballots and Bullets in the Bangsamoro

On 9 May, residents of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, part of the southern Philippines, voted in local elections. Organised in parallel to national polls, these contests pitted former rebels against powerful political clans, with an incomplete peace process hanging in the balance.

As Cotabato City woke up on 9 May, election day in the Philippines, a helicopter circled above. A brief downpour fell from the gloomy sky above this town, the seat of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), a newly self-ruling area on the archipelago’s second-largest island. Close to two million people throughout the region were getting ready to cast their votes in both national polls, to select the president, vice president and members of Congress, and in local races for governor, mayor and other offices. Despite the moody weather, voters were willing to stand in line at polling places for hours. The national polls had grabbed global attention, in part because Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., son of the dictator who ruled in the 1970s and 1980s, was on the ballot. But for Bangsamoro residents, election day also marked an important moment in the BARMM’s still incomplete transition to full autonomy.

Election posters in Cotabato City, May 2022. CRISIS GROUP / Georgi Engelbrecht

The polls were taking place at a delicate moment in the Bangsamoro, a majority-Muslim region comprising five provinces, two cities and several ethno-linguistic communities. The former separatist rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have been running the region’s interim administration, established in 2019, for the last three years. This arrangement is part of a transition that began with the signature of a 2014 peace agreement putting an end to decades of fighting between the MILF and the central government in Manila. The transition was originally meant to conclude with regional parliamentary elections in 2022, but the COVID-19 pandemic impeded the progress of that plan and Manila eventually extended the deadline, postponing those elections to 2025.

Still, the 9 May elections were the MILF’s first-ever electoral contest, and a measure of the peace agreement’s resiliency and impact on Bangsamoro political culture more than seven years after it was signed. The ex-rebels chose to field candidates for local office in around 40 per cent of BARMM’s towns (in Cotabato City, Maguindanao and Basilan provinces), through their newly created political party, the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP). The party put up only a few candidates in Sulu province, and avoided running in Tawi-Tawi and Lanao del Sur provinces altogether, even if some MILF members were on the ballot as independents in the latter.

Election day arrived amid tensions in Cotabato City and the surrounding province of Maguindanao. In many of the municipalities in these parts, the ex-rebels and their political allies (running on the UBJP ticket) were challenging the powerful clans who have traditionally dominated Bangsamoro politics. In Cotabato, the region’s largest city, the UBJP endorsed Bruce Matabalao, a former radio broadcaster and city councillor who was running against the incumbent mayor, Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, one of the harshest critics of the MILF and its interim regional government. In Maguindanao, the outgoing governor Mariam Sangki-Mangudadatu, heading an alliance of several provincial clans, faced off against her predecessor and cousin-in-law Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu, running for the UBJP.

Election posters along the highway in Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao, May 2022. CRISIS GROUP / Georgi Engelbrecht

Although the Bangsamoro has not seen large-scale conflict for years, the possibility of election day unrest was very real, particularly in the heated political climate of 2022. With numerous armed groups still operating in the region – including militants outside the peace process, jihadist outfits and private armies answering to local strongmen – violence tends to cloud local elections in the Bangsamoro, even though disturbances have decreased in scale since the 2014 agreement. Violent political divisions even occur within and between clans, sometimes triggering deadly feuding among family members, a phenomenon known as rido. As in the rest of the country, vote-buying is not uncommon. Still, in Maguindanao province, the MILF heartland and an area often synonymous with high levels of electoral turmoil, the pre-election mood seemed ambivalent, with some residents predicting that polls would go smoothly and others less sanguine.

Prelude to the Polls

I took a trip to Maguindanao a few days before the elections to see how residents were preparing.

On the whole, the province seemed rather quiet, with just a few military checkpoints along the roads, far fewer than the ubiquitous outposts just a few years ago. When I drove along the main provincial highway, the soldiers waved me through unhindered. Stopping at a village restaurant after Friday prayers, I asked the owner to tell me how he was feeling about the election. “It will be OK, inshallah”, he replied, smiling. Although Maguindanao is the MILF’s stronghold, hosting four of the group’s seven main camps, the UBJP’s roadside election posters seemed to be vastly outnumbered by those of its political rivals, mostly members of the province’s political elite. Locals later told me that in some municipalities, politicians had even torn down the ex-rebels’ campaign signs.

Across the province, candidates were holding last-minute election rallies, with speeches blasting from loudspeakers in municipal halls. Things seemed calm, but I also heard about increasing agitation in some areas, where months of campaigning had led to deep polarisation in Bangsamoro villages and towns. The situation in those places was potentially dangerous considering that many candidates’ supporters carry weapons. A local mediator, who had recently helped de-escalate tensions between the UBJP and the ruling clan in a nearby town, told me he expected election day to be bloody.

Driving along the boundaries of the infamous “SPMS box”, a stretch of villages in the province’s most conflict-affected area, I could not help but notice differences in the level of development from one village to the next – a reminder that the much-awaited economic dividends peace was supposed to deliver have not yet arrived everywhere. In some areas, houses made of stone or concrete were common, with more and more burgeoning restaurants, bakeries and small businesses. Other stretches of road, however, appeared poorer and less populated. Signs of poverty were even starker in villages farther into the interior, where many families still lack access to electricity, clean water and health facilities.

​​At the boundary of the SPMS Box in Datu Salibo, Maguindanao, May 2022. CRISIS GROUP / Georgi Engelbrecht

There were also palpable reminders of the old insurgency and the violence that persists. I drove by residences just metres away from military bases and paramilitary detachments. Although the security situation has no doubt improved in recent years, clashes very much remain a reality in these parts, with confrontations between the army and militant groups who do not support the peace process still regularly displacing the entire population of some villages.

Two days after my tour of Maguindanao, when I was back in Cotabato City on the night before the polls, a grenade attack on a polling station in Datu Unsay town injured nine civilians.

Election Day

Election day got off to a slow start in Cotabato, with residents forced to queue for hours at some polling places before they could cast their ballots due to the late arrival of vote-counting machines, but in many neighbourhoods things went smoothly. During the day, I met UBJP members close to a polling place. Optimism abounded among them. Most were young men, but some were older people, busy distributing free food to passersby and answering questions about the new party’s vision. “We will win, inshallah”, the twenty-something son of an ex-rebel commander told me.

While the scenes I observed were largely calm, there were tensions elsewhere in Cotabato. Reports started coming in about brawls in some neighbourhoods. Most of the blame for the violence went to UBJP supporters, at least according to the party’s rivals, but the outgoing mayor’s supporters were also suspected of contributing to provocations. In Tamontaka, a district in Cotabato, gunfire erupted, injuring two civilians. Nevertheless, as the polls closed, the city had avoided the worst of the violence that some had feared. Yes, there was some commotion and some voters stayed home to avoid getting mixed up in it, but that is where the problems stopped.

Taking the pre-election period into account, the final [number of violent incidents] reached at least fifteen killed and close to 40 injured.

Looking at the wider region, however, the picture that emerged is darker. According to data collected by Crisis Group, over 40 incidents of election day violence throughout the BARMM and adjacent villages killed at least eight people and wounded more than 30 – a lower number of incidents than during the 2019 local polls, but a greater tally of casualties. Taking the pre-election period into account, the final count reached at least fifteen killed and close to 40 injured.

The biggest flashpoint, as expected, was Maguindanao province. In Mamasapano town, groups affiliated with two MILF commanders with different political allegiances, and armed with heavy machine guns, clashed and displaced hundreds of villagers. The province’s south, an area normally free from strife but where the governorship was hotly contested this time, saw an unusual number of incidents. In Buluan town, unidentified gunmen killed three village watchmen, while the police reported gunfire and explosions in adjacent towns.

“Bridge over troubled water” in Datu Piang, Maguindanao, May 2022. CRISIS GROUP / Georgi Engelbrecht

Sporadic violence also broke out in other provinces. There were fistfights and brawls between candidates’ supporters. In the province of Lanao del Sur, a firefight between supporters of rival political clans at a polling facility, in a school in Malabang town, sent voters fleeing in panic. Elsewhere in the province, in Saguiaran, a machete attack on a candidate’s supporters injured two people. The number of incidents – including threats against poll watchers and canvassers and the destruction of election equipment – led the election commission to declare a “failure of elections” in fourteen Lanao del Sur villages. There were also incidents in the province of Basilan, including indiscriminate firing by unidentified gunmen into polling places on Tapiantana island and in Sumisip municipality, and gunfights between two rival camps in the island town of Tabuan-Lasa.

More generally, reports of intimidation and threats, as well as allegations of vote-buying and pre-shaded ballots, circulated up to election day throughout the Bangsamoro, the latter often shared on social media. “The elections here are a game of money”, a former rebel laconically told me over a cup of coffee. As in the rest of the country, vote-counting machines also malfunctioned often, more frequently than in 2016 and 2019, the two most recent previous polls.

Despite the violence, the head of the electoral commission, Saidamen Pangarungan, called the vote in the Bangsamoro “relatively peaceful”. While acknowledging “isolated” incidents, the military and the police concurred. Indeed, Bangsamoro has seen worse. Overall, the 2022 polls were more peaceful than those in 2013 and 2016. The island province of Sulu, once an epicentre of electoral mayhem, had the most peaceful elections in decades, with Islamist militants lying low before and during the polls.

As night fell on Cotabato, after an intense head-to-head race, the UBJP’s Matabalao pulled out a win by a margin of 7,000 votes. Ecstatic MILF supporters celebrated his victory throughout town with motorcades and a sea of marchers wearing green, the movement’s colour and a symbol of the region’s overwhelmingly Muslim identity.

Post-mortem: Unpacking the Local Vote

More than a month later, analysts and policymakers are still unpacking the lessons from the 9 May polls. Coming after three years of political transition and MILF-led governance, Bangsamoro’s elections provided a first test of the region’s new order. As a MILF political strategist described it, the poll amounted to “a battle between status quo and change”, a reference to the rivalry between traditional clans and the MILF – focused on what it calls “moral governance” – for power.

The results will not help the MILF’s stature in the region. The UBJP scored an important victory in Cotabato, considered the region’s “crown jewel”, but the new party’s performance elsewhere was lacklustre. It won executive positions in only nine of the 36 municipalities in Maguindanao, and where it did win, it was in large part because the ex-rebels had allied themselves with established politicians rather than fielding their own candidates. In Basilan province, the UBJP secured two mayorships, three vice mayorships and a few council seats. But several high-profile UBJP candidates suffered major defeats. For example, in Sultan Kudarat town, the son of the MILF chair, Murad Ebrahim, lost to an influential clan leader. In Lanao, independent candidates affiliated with Abdullah Macapaar, known by the alias “Commander Bravo”, failed to secure a single position.

While the results were not entirely unexpected, given that this election was the ex-rebels’ first and that they were running against deeply entrenched political clans, the extent of the MILF’s losses still startled some observers. The group itself appeared unfazed, however. “We were just testing the waters”, a MILF official told me after the polls.

Clan-affiliated strongmen and their kin have undeniable advantages in Bangsamoro politics.

One lesson to emerge from the local polls is that political clans remain hugely influential throughout the region. Clan-affiliated strongmen and their kin have undeniable advantages in Bangsamoro politics: access to funds, experience in running campaigns, and extensive patronage networks that secure votes and mobilise supporters. The fragile political truce between the MILF and some powerful Bangsamoro clans, particularly in Maguindanao, collapsed after the transition period was lengthened earlier in late 2021, and several of them decided to run candidates against the UBJP. Many incumbent politicians also actively worked to drive wedges among components of the movement’s local base. As a result, even some high-ranking MILF commanders eventually extended support to clans that were opposing the UBJP in the polls, with several of them – or their kin – running on clans’ tickets themselves.

The election results have raised questions about the MILF’s cohesion. Indeed, with some traditional politicians winning even inside the territory of MILF camps, it is clear that directives from the movement’s chairman Ebrahim, who went as far as to threaten members with expulsion if they failed to vote for UBJP candidates, did not sway all cadres. A MILF member pointed out: “We are faced with a dilemma. It is hard to distance oneself from support [from local politicians] over the years. So many cadres were sceptical about the order”.

The election also reflected public perceptions of the MILF-led transition, which are not entirely positive. Three years after the BARMM’s inauguration, the interim government’s efforts have had mixed results, with many in Bangsamoro disappointed with the lack of tangible peace dividends. In addition to the frustration of many with the slow pace of socio-economic development across the region, the Tausug and Yakan ethno-linguistic groups in the Sulu archipelago often still feel politically and economically excluded. Even in central Mindanao, the ex-rebels’ stronghold, criticism of their performance has proliferated. Although the MILF authorities have had undeniable successes, for example, in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic by providing timely relief assistance and developing the region’s health facilities, many locals perceive their overall governance as less effective than anticipated.

In Cotabato City, the UBJP’s campaign centred on a message of hope, but its strategy focused on securing crucial support among powerbrokers at the local level and zeroing in on key town districts that could swing the vote. While this approach paid off in the city, the MILF was unable to replicate this strategy in other towns of the region. Throughout Maguindanao, for example, it relied on a handful of friendly politicians and their machinery – hardly enough to take on the well-established local clans. Hiccups in UBJP organising and candidate selection further hindered the campaign. In some towns, local politicians were also able to prevent the UBJP from staging rallies and otherwise campaigning in the open. Some political families, in turn, have accused MILF cadres of intimidating their supporters on election day.

From Father to Son

At the same time Bangsamoro residents were voting for local leaders, they, and the rest of the Philippines, were in parallel choosing a new president and Congress. A majority in the Bangsamoro voted for the candidate who eventually won, Marcos, Jr. Many saw this result as ironic, since Bongbong’s father’s rule was marked by more than a decade of martial law – one of the key drivers behind the emergence of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Mindanao’s first Moro rebel movement.

Yet Bongbong’s win in the Bangsamoro was not totally unexpected, particularly given his strong local support – though not from the MILF. History may, to some extent, have played in his favour. Even though the war in Mindanao escalated during his reign, the elder Marcos ended up negotiating with the first cohort of Moro rebels, rewarding those who were willing to surrender. In addition, for many ordinary Bangsamoro voters, like other Filipinos, the election was less about lofty liberal ideals than a desire for a decisive leader who could cure the country’s ills. Local elites also placed their bets on Bongbong’s running mate, Sara Duterte, the daughter of the outgoing and still very popular President Rodrigo Duterte, who hails from Mindanao. With almost all of the BARMM’s provincial governors having endorsed Marcos, Jr.’s candidacy (except for Jim Hataman, in Basilan), the MILF saw no choice but to back his main rival, Leni Robredo – a risky move that likely means the ex-rebels are off to a bad start with the new president.

Marcos, Jr.’s rise to head of state marks an important shift in Bangsamoro politics.

Marcos, Jr.’s rise to head of state marks an important shift in Bangsamoro politics, raising several questions about the future trajectory of the region’s transition, especially as he has not yet spelt out his views on the issue. But in the past, the new president expressed concerns about the BARMM’s constitutionality, suggesting that he may wish to review aspects of the 2014 peace deal and the 2018 autonomy law that undergird the transition. He is also likely to reassess the timeline and roadmap of the normalisation process, as the broader war-to-peace transition is known, including the planned transformation of guerrilla camps into productive communities. His choice for the position of presidential adviser on the peace process – not yet announced – is likely to give clues about his priorities for the BARMM.

Whatever happens with the peace process, the MILF will now have to contend with a president whose inherent interests are presumably aligned more closely with local political families, who campaigned hard on his behalf, rather than with the MILF leadership, who endorsed his main rival. The region’s clans have already started leveraging their influence to try to shape the incoming president’s policies, for example, regarding the composition of the (appointed) interim parliament, as the president has the power to replace existing members. Other political players, such as the MNLF faction from Sulu province, which extended its support to Marcos, Jr., are also seeing their chance to play a bigger role in regional politics. In this landscape, the MILF finds itself in an ambiguous position, still dominating the interim government, but endowed with less influence than it hoped it would get from the vote. The ex-rebels are now mulling over ways to engage the new president, perhaps via friendly senators or congressional representatives in Manila.

Much of the region’s trajectory now depends on what the political clans will ask for, what the MILF will be willing to give up and the path Marcos, Jr. decides to follow. Decisions of particular importance will concern potential appointments to the region’s interim parliament, modifications to the peace process timelines and changes to the regional government’s structure. A crucial issue concerns the provision in both the 2014 peace agreement and the autonomy law enacted in 2018 that created the BARMM, stating that the interim government has to be “MILF-led”. Neither document offers detail about this requirement, but it appears to mean that the MILF should lead the government, working through a cabinet headed by the chief minister, and owning legislative and executive power thanks to its 41-seat majority in the parliament (with 39 of 80 parliamentary seats allocated to central government nominees). While the MILF now has this authority, there is concern among MILF leaders and peace process observers that the incoming administration may wish to alter the formula, not just because of Bongbong’s past scepticism about the concept of autonomy, but also because of the MILF’s poor electoral showing. A compromise solution could be to maintain the status quo, but to allow the clans to take over some ministries in the interim government, which for now are all headed by MILF representatives.

But even if the former rebels may compromise on a few issues with Marcos, Jr., it will be hard for the movement to accept any “game changers” relating to the peace process – whether a formal revisiting of regional autonomy or a scenario in which they lose power by being deprived of their parliamentary majority or the pivotal chief minister post. Against this backdrop, achieving a genuine intra-Bangsamoro consensus on the trajectory of the peace process that is in sync with the incoming president’s policies promises to be a tremendous task.

Should the president decide to try sidelining the MILF, a return to immediate, full-blown hostilities is unlikely, though not impossible. On one hand, the MILF’s Central Committee is clearly committed to the peace process. Most of the group’s ageing leaders are wary of a return to war and anxious to see the cause to which they dedicated their lives come to fruition. Some battle-hardened commanders are also happy seeing development reaching their camps in the form of better roads or new buildings. On the other hand, frustration at the slow pace of fulfilling some promises of the peace process for ex-combatants – such as compensation packages, amnesties or, for a few, slots in the police force – lingers in a part of the movement. Moreover, the movement is not as cohesive as it used to be, as became clear when some MILF cadre and commanders spurned the leadership’s voting directives. Disappointment among the rank and file, particularly among younger guerrillas, will not necessarily lead the movement to splinter, but the risk that some disgruntled fighters could join other armed groups outside the peace process remains very real. Others could throw in their lot with the region’s powerful clans, some of which have been cultivating relationships with individual commanders and their kin for some time.

What Lies Ahead

For now, an uneasy calm reigns throughout the Bangsamoro, but tensions are likely to grow, not only between the MILF and rival politicians, but perhaps even within the MILF itself.

At the same time, several worrying incidents in the post-election period highlight that militant groups outside the peace process continue to operate and, more broadly, that political violence remains a concern. Just two days after the vote, an ambush in the town of Lantawan, in Basilan, killed five people, and bombings have since struck the cities in Koronodal and Isabela. There are also reports of renewed skirmishes between the military and militant groups, while in Maguindanao, clashes erupted between rival politicians that have drawn in MILF commanders and other armed groups. Given these incidents, it does not bode well that the outgoing Duterte administration apparently wants to wrap up the term of the International Monitoring Team, the multinational monitoring body tasked with supervising the government-MILF ceasefire, at the end of June, before Marcos, Jr. officially takes office. Over the last months, both sides have blamed each other for alleged ceasefire violations, making the need for an impartial monitoring body even clearer.

International actors supporting the peace process should support confidence-building steps between the new government in Manila and the BARMM.

International actors supporting the peace process should support confidence-building steps between the new government in Manila and the BARMM. They could do so, for instance, by encouraging dialogue between Manila and Cotabato early in the new administration’s tenure and by continuing support – through funding and technical expertise – for the transition, particularly the normalisation process, which is behind schedule. Engagement with the Bangsamoro’s vibrant civil society is also crucial, especially as non-governmental and community-based organisations could be well placed to help bridge the gap between the MILF and local clans.

To reduce tensions at a time of political uncertainty and infuse confidence in the peace process, the incoming administration should clearly lay out its plan for the BARMM as soon as possible, after consultation with all concerned parties. In this connection, it should avoid straying from the peace agreement’s basic tenets, perhaps adjusting timelines and deliverables if required, but not going back on commitments made by previous governments, especially regarding the normalisation process. If Manila, the clans and MILF cannot reach consensus on the way forward, or worse, if the government opts to sideline the former rebels, Bangsamoro will likely experience growing insecurity, which, added to rising frustrations with the lack of tangible peace dividends, could further raise the risk of some measure of renewed conflict. Halfway through the transition, securing the gains of the peace process should be the paramount goal.