Philippines: Bangsamoro’s Village Elections Point to a Long Path to Peace
Philippines: Bangsamoro’s Village Elections Point to a Long Path to Peace
The town of Talitay during the pullout of the military after the polls. November 2023.
The town of Talitay during the pullout of the military after the polls. November 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Georgi Engelbrecht
Our Journeys / Asia 11 minutes

Philippines: Bangsamoro’s Village Elections Point to a Long Path to Peace

Village elections in the southern Philippines tend to be hard-fought and violent. Crisis Group expert Georgi Engelbrecht travelled there to understand what the most recent showdowns mean for regional polls scheduled for 2025 and for the peace process in an area historically racked by conflict. 

Violence has been an unfortunate feature of elections in the Muslim-majority Bangsamoro region of the southern Philippines – which comprises six provinces, three cities, one special administrative district and several ethno-linguistic communities. 

On 23 October 2023, one week before the most recent round of elections, two candidates and a supporter were shot dead in Cotabato City, the Bangsamoro’s de facto capital. The victims were affiliated with the Ayunan clan, a prominent family that had fielded candidates in areas outside its traditional turf. The alleged suspects were gunmen in service of a rival politician. In a media interview after the shooting, three of the Ayunan brothers said the family would follow the rule of law rather than exact revenge. In a region where clan feuding is ubiquitous, and often violent, it was a positive sign. Still, the murders highlighted deep fissures in Bangsamoro society and hinted at the obstacles the region will encounter as it completes the transition to full autonomy in 2025.

To get a better feeling for how those fissures play out on the ground, I spent some time travelling through the region before, during and after the recent village elections. Here is an account of what I saw. 

The road from Cotabato City to the coastal areas of Datu Blah Sinsuat, passing the municipality of Datu Odin Sinsuat. November 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Georgi Engelbrecht

Village Politics amid an Incomplete Transition

I have avidly followed goings-on in the Bangsamoro for a decade – observing efforts to fulfil the terms of the 2014 peace accord struck between the government in Manila and separatist guerrillas principally helmed by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). 

There has been a lot of progress, but the biggest challenges may well lie ahead. In 2019, the ex-rebels took power in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region through an appointed interim authority. The real test of the region’s durability as an autonomous entity, however, will be the inaugural parliamentary elections – which will create the first elected, representative government for the region. These were originally scheduled for 2022, but in October 2021, then-President Rodrigo Duterte extended the interim government’s term for three years at the request of MILF leaders, who argued that COVID-19 had hamstrung their efforts to amass policy accomplishments. 

Looking Back at the Peace Process

The village elections I travelled to witness in October were not as consequential as the 2025 polls will be, but they are nonetheless an important indication of how the peace process and political transition are progressing. Village elections have great significance in the Philippines. The village, or barangay, is the basic unit of political administration and its authorities act as the “government next door”, ensuring basic services for communities, particularly in rural areas. A chairperson or barangay captain heads the village, supported by several councillors. Political positions are often one of the few ways to earn a regular salary in the Bangsamoro’s rural areas. Moreover, a reform in the early 1990s allocated barangays a state subsidy known as the Internal Revenue Allotment, which means that elected officials have government funds they can dole out. The prospect of controlling these resources is a major reason elections are so intense and often violent.

Clan politics are a defining feature of the Bangsamoro. The strong influence of local political families means the region’s towns and villages are often subject to dynastic rule. The barangay chairpersons, for example, are typically prominent clan leaders in the village. To gain and assert control, powerbrokers deploy what is known colloquially as “guns, goons and gold”: namely, they pay bribes to win over voters and dispatch hired muscle to intimidate rivals. In the most extreme cases, candidates may be murdered. The safest elections occur in places where candidates are running unopposed. 

A Shaky Transition

The Bangsamoro region, once war-stricken, has generally become more stable since the peace accord in 2014 and the creation of the autonomous entity in 2019. In the 1990s and 2000s, kidnappings were frequent, shootouts occurred in hotels and car bombs detonated along the highways, intended to kill politicians but often putting civilians in harm’s way. Today, in contrast, journalists, bureaucrats and expatriates mingle in Cotabato City’s trendy coffeeshops. There are new hotels and restaurants, and a mall is under construction. 

That is not to say the region is thriving. Travelling across the Bangsamoro, I drove down roads that were pitch-black in the evening – evidence of the scant investment in rural electrification – and visited municipalities with little business activity. Development continues to lag compared to other parts of the Philippines. Only a few sectors, such as hospitality, are growing. The latest government data suggests that close to 40 per cent of Cotabato City’s population lives below the poverty line. In some Bangsamoro provinces, the poverty rate has even increased over the past two years. Given those figures, it is perhaps understandable that there is plenty of disappointment with the MILF’s performance four years after the group took over the region’s governance. 

A key question at the heart of Bangsamoro politics – one that will likely bear on the future stability of the autonomous region – is the relationship between the former rebels and the region’s political clans. In recent years, it has fluctuated between outright hostility and timid cooperation. Just over a year ago, the MILF made its debut in politics by participating in municipal elections – a level above the village polls I went to see in October. The ex-rebels’ performance was disappointing to its supporters, as only a few politicians running under the movement’s United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP) banner won seats. 

Political violence increased after the 2022 municipal elections. Central Mindanao, which remains the main area of MILF influence (with thousands of armed fighters) but is also home to some of the region’s most powerful clans, has been particularly contentious. These political dynamics also worsened existing land conflicts and feuds that pit rebels, local politicians and clans against one another in an ever-shifting cycle of conflict.

(Left) A Maguindanaon restaurant along the (in)famous SPMS Box, an area of conflict-affected villages. (Right) Passing one of the electoral hotspots in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao del Sur. October 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Georgi Engelbrecht

Pre-Election Tensions

One week prior to this year’s village elections, I visited Maguindanao (which is how locals refer collectively to Maguindanao del Sur and del Norte provinces) and Lanao del Sur province to find the campaign in full swing. Colourful posters adorned walls; candidate rallies filled town squares; and coffeeshops buzzed with talk of politics. It had the feel of a vibrant, free-wheeling contest.

Still, national and regional authorities were taking no chances. The head of the Bangsamoro police categorised 20 per cent of the autonomous region as areas of concern, mostly in Maguindanao as well as Lanao del Sur and Basilan provinces. The police and military also deployed additional forces weeks before the elections and imposed a ban on firearms. Days before the polls, soldiers were noticeable but not omnipresent. Locals carried on with their daily activities without much fear or concern. Some even remained confident that the elections would be trouble-free. “I think that even the deployment of the military was a bit excessive”, a young Moro professional told me in a Cotabato City café. 

On the eve of election day, signs of trouble emerged, however. Unknown individuals had set fire to several classrooms at schools in Barira and Datu Odin Sinsuat in Maguindanao del Norte. In Cotabato City (an independent district surrounded by Maguindanao del Norte), a warning that armed groups intended to bomb locations in particular precincts circulated on messaging apps. I also learned that thousands of teachers who had been planning to serve as poll watchers backed out, fearing for their safety.

Datu Odin Sinsuat, one of the towns that will be facing a plebiscite on its proposed division into three municipalities. (Right) Passing one of the electoral hotspots in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao del Sur. October 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Georgi Engelbrecht

Voting Day and the Days After

On election day, my phone buzzed with alerts about armed men at or near precincts and occasional gunfire. The level of violence, however, remained low, especially compared to the 2022 municipal elections. Voting in the Special Geographic Area – which comprises the 63 villages located in former Cotabato province – proceeded without apparent serious irregularities. A MILF commander told me after the polls: “After some recent cases of feuding, our leaders issued guidance to abstain from violence. I told all of those who were in the area to abide by this rule”. 

The rest of the region offered a mixed picture. Most of the island provinces remained calm: Tawi-Tawi, the farthest-flung, had a few minor incidents that were quickly resolved by the military and police. Sulu was also quiet, due partly to a directive from the powerful governor Abdusakur Tan, which in effect instructed that only the incumbent village chiefs should run in the polls. Most candidates faced no opposition, reducing the risk of violence; local authorities tamped down the one or two flareups with little difficulty. In Basilan, several incidents – shootings and gunfire – killed three and injured seven. As expected, the two Maguindanao provinces and Lanao experienced the worst unrest, including shootings involving rival political groups. Some locals were unable to vote since they were either prevented by unidentified armed men from entering polling stations areas or got in only to find their ballots already filled out. 

Access to justice remains a key factor that triggers grievances, and conflict, across the Bangsamoro. October 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Georgi Engelbrecht

I found it tricky to determine the precise extent of violence on election day. Election monitoring was limited, and the media does not always report incidents in remote villages. My crude tally suggests that at least twelve people were killed and an additional 22 were wounded. While any violence is too much violence, this data indicates the elections did not turn into a bloodbath, as some had feared. Still, some civil society groups pronounced the polls the “bloodiest in history”, based on the sheer number of incidents, fistfights and intimidation. 

Social media was bursting with disappointed posts about the amount of election-related unrest, and many locals told me they were upset as well. The national government, however, considered the polls a success. The striking difference in assessments boils down to data, baselines and what is considered an “acceptable level of violence” in a post-conflict setting, as some observers put it. While there were a high number of lethal and non-lethal incidents, many of them were not major firefights or encounters involving MILF units or militant groups.

I wanted to see how the post-election tensions would play out across the region, so I visited the municipality of Talitay in Maguindanao del Norte, the village of Tapian in the town of Datu Odin Sinsuat and the town of Pikit in the Special Geographic Area. Again, a mixed picture emerged. Feuding MILF commanders had clashed in Talitay prior to the polls. The MILF’s local guerrilla unit and a group of mediators intervened to prevent further conflict on election day. Around the time of my visit, the military, deployed as a precautionary measure, was just pulling out. In Tapian, meanwhile, rumours of an impending attack by armed goons after the polls alarmed many villagers, leading some to flee. Pikit was peaceful on election day, but saw shootings and clashes in the period that followed – evidence of land disputes, sectarian tensions and a fractious political culture that continues to drive violence in and around the town. 

A military checkpoint in Cotabato City. October 2023. CRISIS GROUP / Georgi Engelbrecht

As for who actually won, UBJP-backed candidates performed best in regions that have long been the group’s strongholds, in particular the Special Geographic Area and Maguindanao del Norte. But the group’s showing was underwhelming in Maguindanao del Sur and Basilan. It appears as though the ex-rebels invested in the election only where incumbents or candidates with connections to the UBJP leadership were running. But it did not do much to support or encourage participation by community leaders who might be cultivated as political allies down the road. Indeed, a strategy for wooing candidates and voters throughout the Bangsamoro, going beyond MILF leaders’ immediate networks, was missing. 

The ex-rebels generally dismiss the idea that the village results augur poorly for how they will fare in the much more consequential 2025 elections. They believe they can secure the support of most of the region’s political kingpins in 2025 and are in the process of reorganising their party’s leadership and overall strategy. But it remains to be seen whether this level of confidence is warranted. Bangsamoro’s political clans are well connected to power circles in Manila, have a long experience in contesting elections and are already setting up their new political parties. Moreover, there appear to be growing political rifts within the UBJP leadership that may further complicate the 2025 elections for the ex-rebels. A major development to watch as well is how the region’s electoral districts will be defined in the next weeks, which will determine where political competition will be particularly fierce. 

Travelling from Lanao del Sur to Maguindanao del Norte province. October 2023 CRISIS GROUP / Georgi Engelbrecht

Preparing for 2025 Polls

Based on what I saw in my recent travels, there are steps Manila and the Bangsamoro authorities should take to stabilise post-election tensions and get the region on a steadier footing in advance of the 2025 parliamentary polls. 

First, it would be in the MILF’s interest to continue reaching out to the region’s powerful clans to develop ground rules for political competition with those who are likely to oppose them at the ballot box. That raises the question of whether the UBJP can act with unity. Some individuals may attempt to make their own deals with powerful political clans, leaving the party to play second fiddle to personal interests. If the UBJP wants to be a successful, cohesive party, discipline will be essential. 

Secondly, Manila and others with influence need to press the region’s power brokers – both ex-rebel and clan leaders – to play an active role deterring and responding to local violence. One task for the ex-rebels is to discipline those MILF commanders who engage in feuding. It is also paramount for Manila to dismantle the biggest private armies operating in the region. Otherwise, “pocket wars” between clans and rebels, and other forms of Moro infighting, might become an even more regular occurrence as the 2025 polls draw closer. The military should also further train its officers to respond to communal violence and – to protect innocent bystanders – develop clear rules of engagement once a firefight erupts and threatens civilians. 

Thirdly, Manila urgently needs to expedite the normalisation process, as the broader transition from war to peace is called. It must find a way to fund the socio-economic programs that have been promised for the Bangsamoro. Especially important are the compensation packages for demobilised guerrillas. Many have gone unpaid to date, and Manila is also struggling to deliver on the package’s non-monetary components, including housing, livelihoods and a social safety net, which remains a key obstacle to completing the final round of MILF disarmament. If ex-MILF fighters become frustrated amid an uncertain political trajectory, the likelihood of conflict will grow. Some could look to violence as a way to express their grievances, either splitting off from the MILF or joining other militant groups. The government and MILF appeared to be making progress on the socio-economic deal at a 10 February meeting where they reached what the parties called “consensus on the principles”. But the details require considerable further work, and time is growing short. 

Now is a time to bear down to make sure this initiative gets the attention it requires. As my visit made clear, the Bangsamoro peace process remains a work in progress. Neither side should take the gains the region has made for granted, and both should work apace to complete the roadmap they set for themselves. 

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