MANILA – The shadow of violence and intimidation hangs over the 50 million voters going to the polls at the Philippines’ presidential, legislative elections and local elections on Monday. The number of political killings has surged during the electoral campaign, with local clans and politicians eliminating their electoral rivals. The single worse incident came last November, when 57 civilians were murdered in Maguindanao in the restive southern Philippines.
As well as concerns over electoral violence, there are worries over a new partially automated voting and counting system, and with vote-buying seemingly omnipresent – boxing champion Manny Pacquiao last week offered 500,000 peso ((US$10,980) to a village in Mindanao if it backed his campaign for a congress seat.
Elections in the Philippines have a history of unpredictability, and some candidates say they will bring their supporters onto the streets if there are question marks over the new computerized voting process.
By April 14, the latest date for which figures are available, 38 election candidates had been killed during the January to mid-April campaign period, according to Felix Vargas, spokesman for the government’s task force on elected government officials. The figure does not include campaign workers and candidates’ assistants who were killed.
Professor Rommel C Banlaoi, the director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR), told Asia Times Online that “cases of election related killings from the use of illegally armed groups have been recorded and to date numbers more than 100”.
The Maguindanao atrocity was the largest recorded mass killing of journalists in a single incident. The massacre was carried out to deter an opposition clan, the Mangudadatu family, from running in the elections against the government-backed Ampatuan clan. This case and other, less well-known clashes in the southern Philippines and elsewhere illustrate how elections raise the stakes for volatile local bigwig rivalries. With patronage-based links to the center at stake, the prospect of elections intensifies rido, the term for honor-driven violence and vengeful clan feuding in the region.
The fallout from the Maguindanao case high between political violence and the powers that be. Justice Secretary Alberto Agra sparked a massive public outcry when he cleared Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan of involvement in the massacre. But n a statement last Wednesday, Agra reversed that decision.
“I am now convinced that there is probable cause in so far as Zaldy Ampatuan and Akmad Ampatuan are concerned,” he said, after officials at his department confronted him with fresh evidence. The about-turn might be linked to the elections, with the unpopular outgoing president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo possibly seeking to distance her administration from the Ampatuans as she prepares to run for congress.
After the massacre, the Ampatuans were booted out of Arroyo’s Lakas-Campi party, whose former presidential candidate, Gilberto “Gibo” Teodoro, is languishing with only 9% of popular support according to latest opinion surveys. That figure puts him well behind third-placed Manuel “Manny” Villar (19%), former president Joseph “Erap” Estrada on 20%, and clear leader Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III on 42%.
While there may be immediate post-election violence in the longer term it seems unlikely that the election will reverse the proliferation of private armed militias. The number of private armies jumped from 68 in December to 117 in February, according to Dante Jimenez. Jimenez is a member of the Zenarosa Commission, an investigation into the country’s private armies, was established by Macapagal-Arroyo a month after the Maguindanao massascre
Jessica Evans, a Human Rights Watch fellow based in Manila, said Villar has ruled out curbing these groups if he is elected, citing the need to improve social spending in one of Asia’s most unequal, poverty-stricken countries. Evans added Aquino has been non-committal on the issue, despite the apparent animus between him and incumbent Macapagal-Arroyo, who has clear links to the Ampatuans and other clans.
Since it was established, the Zenarosa commission has had mixed reviews. “The commission is only a fact-finding commission. Its mandate to dismantle private armies is only recommendatory and it does not have operational powers. Dismantling private armies rests largely on the capabilities of the police and the military to disarm them,” said Banlaoi.
The second possibility seems unlikely, given reportedly strong links between the police and army and the private militias.
Money plays a part in sustaining the system. Some of the militias are in the pay of the country’s dominant 250 or so political dynasties – a figure given by the Manila-based Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CENPEG). These clans enjoy almost total control over their constituencies and many have access to a steady flow of funds from Manila.
Irrespective of who wins, these well-entrenched dynasties are likely to dominate the Philippines’ political landscape. CENPEG director Bobby Tuazon told ATol that “those expected to win come mostly from old and emerging political dynasties at the national and local levels”.
The state has been downplaying the realities of political or electoral violence. A police report issued in the days leading up to Monday’s vote noted a reduced level of electoral violence compared with recent elections, omitting the Maguindanao incident which occurred before the official campaign period. That 38 candidates have been killed seems little cause for celebration, but the deaths did little to dampen the carnival-like rallies, a staple in the country’s celebrity-oriented election campaigns.
In the Philippines, militias are either military controlled Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAGFU), police-controlled Civilian Volunteers Organizations (CVO), or private armies recruited and maintained by businessmen and politicians. Better-known ideologically driven rebel groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the communist New People’s Army (NPA) are not classed as militias, though their existence is often used as a justification for private armies.
For example, Tuazon cites the now-notorious example of how the Ampatuans were armed and funded partly as a bulwark against the MILF in the south.
The picture is blurred, however, as MILF or NPA personnel have been hired by some local politicians as “bodyguards”, according to Banlaoi.
Links between the private militias and state security forces raise questions about the veracity of the term “private armed groups”, since many are linked to the police or the military and often feature security forces doubling up as guns for hire. Many acquire weapons from the police and/or army, or are better-armed than their official counterparts.
It all adds to a culture of impunity and violence that observers say is undermining democracy in the Philippines. Macapagal-Arroyo, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and government-backed paramilitaries have been directly linked to a wave of political killings across the Philippines throughout the past decade.
“Forced disappearances and illegal detentions remain all too common, as does the bringing of trumped up charges against Filipino activists and human-rights abuse victims,” the UN Human Rights Council wrote in 2009. Since Arroyo took office in 2001, over 1,000 political murders have taken place nationwide, few of the cases ever made it to court.
Many of the victims were killed due to perceived links – often tenuous at best – with the NPA, which is also accused of political violence. While the AFP and MILF signed an electoral peace pact back in February – the MILF refuses to recognize the constitution and is boycotting the elections – the NPA has said it will attack AFP troops at polling stations. On Sunday, it was reported on Philippine TV news that the NPA destroyed five vote-counting machines in the north of Luzon.
Undaunted, millions of Filipinos will line up today in the blazing heat to cast their votes, which will then be run through the contentious computerized scanning machines.
Without polling booths, voters are susceptible to intimidation in the classroom-setting of most polling stations, according to Somsri Hannanuntasuk, who is in Manila as an election observer with the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL). “There is no privacy, and it is possible to see how people are voting,” she told ATol on the eve of voting.
The nullification of the secret ballot has made voters more vulnerable to the hired guns likely to be guarding precincts in many remote areas, said Ava Patricia Avila, a researcher at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.
“There is a possibility that some will harass voters not supporting their candidates,” she added. And in an already volatile atmosphere, rural and remote areas might see worse than harassment. Five more people were shot dead on Sunday in attacks involving gunmen loyal to local candidates in the southern Mindanao region.Show