No plebiscite surprises in the southern Philippines

06 February 2019

By Steven Rood.

This article was originally published by East Asia Forum.

Overwhelmingly Christian, the Philippines has long contended with armed resistance by organised movements of Philippine Muslims. Under the first-ever president elected from the Muslim-majority island of Mindanao, Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine government has managed to pass a law supported by both Muslim separatist movements, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), leading to hopes for peace and greater development in the southern Philippines.

That law — the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) — was overwhelmingly ratified during the first phrase of a plebiscite on 21 January 2019, passing everywhere except Sulu and Isabela City. By agreeing to ratify the BOL, citizens are voting to put the law — which provides for the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in place of the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) — into effect. Preparations are underway for the second phase of the plebiscite on 6 February 2019.

It has long been clear that the residents of Muslim-dominated areas in Mindanao are in favour of the results of the peace process detailed in the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. In January 2016 a survey was undertaken on the attitude of voters in the ‘core territories’ of the proposed Bangsamoro under the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (the version previous to the BOL that was stalled in Congress after the January 2015 Mamasapano incident). The January 2016 survey findings mirror the January 2019 outcome. It is not surprising that attitudes are stable on an issue that has been on the agenda for years, in an attempt to solve a problem that has dragged on for decades.

What can be learned from this continuity about controversial plebiscite results in Cotabato City and Sulu, and the likely outcome of the plebiscite’s second round?

Cotabato City voted in both 1989 and 2001 against joining the ARMM, leading some to believe that the positive result in 2019 was due to irregularities. But in 1989 and 2001 the MNLF and MILF rejected the plebiscites since they did not agree with the Organic Law being ratified. In 2019 almost all elements of the movements endorsed the BOL. Turnout shows one resulting difference: in 2001 just over 25,000 votes were cast in Cotabato City, whereas in 2019 the figure was over 80,000.

Cotabato City Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi did campaign vigorously against the inclusion of the city in the BARMM. But she was unsuccessful in the face of overwhelming initial odds (more than 70 per cent approving already in 2016), as well as President Duterte’s explicit endorsement of the BOL in a rally days prior to the plebiscite. Still, her campaign seemed to have the effect of reducing the margin of victory to 60 per cent.

Sulu’s negative vote bolsters Sakur Tan, the patriarch of Sulu’s dominant political clan. Sulu has a number of contending political clans, but the plebiscite result indicates that the Tan clan’s ‘unipolar’ moment continues as those Sulu leaders who backed the law and the BARMM have been faced down.

According to the BOL, Sulu’s negative result is outweighed by the rest of the ARMM’s positive result since the ARMM voted as one geographic area. There is a petition before the Supreme Court questioning this provision since the 1987 Constitution provides that ‘only provinces, cities, and geographic areas voting favorably’ will be part of an autonomous region. The legal argument is about whether the ratification of the BOL amounts to the creation of an autonomous region or merely an amendment to the organic law governing it. The Supreme Court may still allow Sulu to opt out.

Municipalities in Lanao del Norte and villages in North Cotabato near the ARMM — additional areas designated as part of the ‘core territory’ of the Bangsamoro in the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement — will likely vote ‘yes’ in the plebiscite’s second round.

This includes six municipalities that voted to join the ARMM in 2001 but were unable to because the province of Lanao del Norte as a whole did not vote to join, and 38 villages in North Cotabato in the same situation (plus 29 others who petitioned to join for a total of 67). These areas approved of the Bangsamoro Basic Law in 2016 and will almost certainly vote to join the BARMM.

But the BOL specifies that they can only join if their local government unit (the province of Lanao del Norte and the seven relevant municipalities in North Cotabato) vote to allow them to do so. Some or all of the villages in North Cotabato may well be allowed to join since indications, such as the endorsement of municipal and provincial politicians, are favourable.

In Lanao del Norte this will almost certainly not happen. Despite attempts by the national government and other peace advocates to persuade them otherwise, the powerful Dimaporo political clan that rules Lanao del Norte backs a ‘No to Division’ campaign.

Interestingly, the same legal theory that requires Sulu’s vote to be submerged in the larger ARMM tally also indicates the need for this ‘double majority’ by municipal voters and a majority of all the voters in the province. A Supreme Court ruling in favour of the Sulu petition might allow the six municipalities to join the BARMM. A ruling against will leave them out in the cold.

The likely Lanao del Norte result is problematic since the powerful MILF leader known as Commander Bravo is based in these municipalities that would not join the Bangsamoro. Widely respected and feared, he launched an offensive in August 2008 into other areas of Lanao del Norte when a previous government-MILF agreement was suddenly aborted. This time efforts led by the government’s chief peace official, retired general Carlito Galvez, brought Dimapora patriarch Abdullah ‘Bobby’ Dimaporo into a meeting with Commander Bravo, but no concrete agreements were reached.

The outcome of the Supreme Court case must be awaited. Until then, the second phase of the Bangsamoro plebiscite will deliver further insights on the southern Philippines’ unfolding political future.

Steven Rood is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change, The Australian National University. He is also a Fellow and Board Member of Social Weather Stations in the Philippines.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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