The much-anticipated polls for the Philippines’ new Bangsamoro regional region has been in the works for more than two years. Given a slew of challenges, however, it might be better for them to be delayed.
Muslim Mindanao’s best chance at peace and President Rodrigo Duterte’s greatest legislative achievement may fail its first electoral test. The irony here: failure to hold the polls as originally planned, if properly managed, would be better than an unprepared “pass”.
Muslim Mindanao’s incomplete incorporation into the Christian-dominated Philippines has left this region the poorest and most violent in the country, and a safe haven for local and regional terrorists and bandits. The 2017 siege of Marawi City was a direct result as was the shelter provided there to the 2002 Bali bombers when they fled Indonesia.
In January 2019, voters in Muslim Mindanao resoundingly ratified the Bangsamoro Organic Law, heralding the establishment of a new Bangsamoro regional autonomous region that promises to better address the political aspirations of its people than its failed predecessors. This law calls for the first Bangsamoro parliamentarians to be elected on 9 May 2022 (the date of the next national, provincial and local elections in the Philippines). They will replace the current Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) appointed by President Duterte and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Yet, with less than twenty scheduled sitting days in the current Congressional session, the BTA, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, and a growing number of politicians in Muslim Mindanao and the Philippines more broadly are calling for the postponement of the elections.
Three draft bills in the House of Representatives seek to amend the Bangsamoro Organic Law to delay these elections until May 2025 (the next mid-term elections in the Philippines). Lanao del Norte congressman Khalid Dimaporo, from one of the most powerful political clans in Muslim Mindanao, has filed one for a delay until May 2028. The proposal for postponement first came from the Maguindanao provincial board in Muslim Mindanao in October 2019.
President Duterte supports the delay, and a number of groups involved in the peace process are calling for more time. Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, archbishop emeritus of Cotabato, warns that “[the] election in 2022 [of Bangsamoro officials] would simply erode whatever fragile gains the BTA shall have obtained.” Heino Marius, the German chair of the Third Party Monitoring Team, which was established to monitor the peace agreement between Manila and the MILF that underpins the new Bangsamoro autonomous region, reported in December that “more time beyond 30 June 2022”(when the new Bangsamoro parliament is scheduled to first sit) was needed to complete “many elements which form part of the peace agreement”.
The Covid-19 pandemic is regularly offered as the principal rationale for the requested delay. Yet, even without Covid-19, the May 2022 elections already were too soon. The three-year timeline provided by the Bangsamoro Organic Law for the BTA to develop and enact all the legislation and administrative structures for the new regional government and political system was infeasible. Covid-19 only makes an impossible situation more so.
A lasting political solution to the long-running insurgency in Muslim Mindanao is of enduring interest across and well beyond the Philippines, as shown by foreign governments’ consistent support for the Bangsamoro peace process.
The legislation for the inaugural Bangsamoro parliamentary elections does not exist, nor does it for the government and political system the Bangsamoro parliament is expected to oversee. A new, untested parliament devoid of these supports may well disappoint voters’ expectations and undermine the regional autonomous government’s popular legitimacy. The BTA has yet to enact the Bangsamoro electoral code that will set the terms for the Bangsamoro elections scheduled for May 2022. The local government code and civil service code also remain at the committee level, as does the law to “protect, promote and preserve” the rights of Indigenous People in the Bangsamoro region.
However, moving from accepting the need for a delay to implementing the delay and trying to ensure it improves the future of the prospects for the Bangsamoro regional government will not be simple.
The timeline to amend the Bangsamoro Organic Law to enact a delay already looks extremely tight. One of the four House of Representatives bills, or a new one that combines components of the current four, would have be to passed by the lower chamber. Then, the Senate would have to deliberate on and pass their own Bangsamoro election delay bill, or simply accept the House version. If the Senate does not choose the extraordinary latter option, the House and Senate would have to reconcile their two different bills, and if successful, then pass it on to the President for signature into law. All of this happening before the adjournment of the current Congressional sessions on 5 June will take a legislative miracle.
A number of constitutional lawyers and opponents of the election delay proposal argue that amending the Bangsamoro Organic Law to postpone the election requires approval by a plebiscite in the Bangsamoro region. Any amendment without a plebiscite would lead to cases opposing it being filed in the Supreme Court, and anger key Bangsamoro powerbrokers like Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan.
Basilan congressman Mujiv Hataman, the last governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao before the Bangsamoro Organic Law brought it to an end, argues that any delay must be accompanied by a mid-term review of the BTA. This would provide “a roadmap of what they intend to accomplish if the transitory government is extended for another three years until 2025”. He argues that a “blind extension would be counterproductive”. At any rate, there is no time for this roadmap to be agreed to before any postponement in enacted. A postponement without one, especially until 2028, will deepen suspicions that the BTA appointees are holding onto power for power’s sake.
A lasting political solution to the long-running insurgency in Muslim Mindanao is of enduring interest across and well beyond the Philippines, as shown by foreign governments’ consistent support for the Bangsamoro peace process. Elections in May 2022 for the new Bangsamoro parliament are too soon as the Bangsamoro government is not ready. Soon, though, it may be too late to delay them. In the end, it is a matter of choosing the better of two bad choices while you still can.
Malcolm Cook was previously Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Editor at Fulcrum.