PREVIEW: Muslims vote under shadow of failed homeland deal in Philippines
By John Grafilo Aug 9, 2008, 3:46 GMT
Manila - Under the watchful eyes of heavily-armed military and police escorts, election workers transported machines to be used in the Philippines' first-ever automated polls to be held in the autonomous Muslim region next week.
Some 1.6 million Filipino-Muslims are registered to vote in Monday's elections in the six-province Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which covers the provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Shariff Kabunsuan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan.
They will vote for a governor, vice governor and regional legislators for the ARMM, which includes some of the most impoverished provinces in the Philippines.
The August 11 polls would serve as an 'acid test' for automation of the country's national and presidential elections in 2010, according to Commission on Elections (COMELEC) chairman Jose Melo.
Melo said the ARMM polls would help the COMELEC pick what type of electronic-voting machine and counting process would be used to automate the next national elections - a step many hope would help eliminate cheating that often characterizes elections in the Philippines.
'If we fail here, we will have difficulty in 2010,' he said.
Dozens of foreign observers have arrived to monitor the conduct of the automated ARMM polls, which have so far not been marred by election-related violent incidents.
But the excitement over the first electronic elections in the Philippines has been overshadowed by fears of violence in the wake of a failed territory deal between the government and the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
There are also concerns that the MILF, which has called for the cancellation of the August 11 elections, would disrupt the voting.
'The major concern is the climate of fear,' COMELEC spokesman James Jimenez said.
Just days before the voting, tensions flared in Mindanao when hundreds of MILF rebels forcibly took over several villages in three towns in North Cotabato province, burning homes, seizing farm animals and forcing more than 1,500 families to flee their homes.
While North Cotabato is not part of the ARMM, authorities feared the violence would spill over to nearby provinces included in the autonomous region.
The government ordered the rebels to leave the villages and deployed additional forces to secure the communities. While there was initial resistance from the MILF guerrillas, international peace monitors helped reached a compromise to end the standoff.
The flare-up occurred after the signing of the agreement on ancestral domain between the Philippine government and the MILF was scrapped last week when the Supreme Court ordered a halt to the deal, which some politicians alleged violated the constitution.
Under the failed Muslim homeland deal, the current ARMM would be expanded to include more than 700 villages in the nearby provinces of North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte and Zamboanga, causing an uproar from officials and residents of the affected communities.
A plebiscite would have been held in August 2009 to expand the ARMM, while a new form of government would be set up after a final peace agreement between the MILF and the Philippine government was signed.
Critics warned the deal would result in the Balkanization of the Philippines, while local leaders in the affected areas have called on the citizens to arm themselves.
The MILF lambasted the Supreme Court's decision to stop the signing, insisting that the agreement was a 'done deal' after negotiators from both sides initialed it last month.
It warned of possible escalation of hostilities because some of the rebel group's commanders have become so frustrated with the peace talks that they might decide to take matters into their own hands.
The COMELEC said that despite possible threats of armed conflicts, the elections will proceed as scheduled.
'We will push through with the elections unless there will be chaos, in which case, there can be failure of elections in some towns...but at most only three towns may be affected,' Melo said.
While expressing concern that the current turmoil might discourage voters to participate in Monday's elections, Melo said he was hoping curiosity will bring the voters to polling precincts to check out the machines that would be used.
'A little curiosity will sometimes do us a lot of good,' he said. 'The novelty of this kind of election is one good element. People are curious over what this system offers.'
Lieutenant Colonel Ernesto Torres, armed forces public affairs chief, said more troops would be dispatched to the ARMM to ensure peaceful and orderly conduct of elections.
Torres said close to 20,000 police and military personnel have been assigned to secure the elections.
'We are giving priority to our security operations in the ARMM elections,' he said. 'Our troops in the ARMM will be augmented. This is to ensure a peaceful and orderly conduct of elections.'