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The events after the joint House committees on suffrage and electoral reforms and on Muslim affairs voted for the postponement of the August 2011 ARMM elections confirm the fear that the Aquino government wants to railroad the bill for postponement. They also confirm the emptiness of the ARMM as a model for the autonomy and democracy in the Bangsa Moro homeland. It is still the central government or, more particularly Malacañang, that calls the shot in the region.

First, it got an immediate urgent endorsement from the president and from LEDAC–after the House committees voted on it. Considering the urgency of reform bills now on track in Congress (such as the RH bill, the political party reform bill, the freedom of information bill, and the bills dealing with oil and inflation, tax revenues, or climate change), it is politically amazing that the synchronization of ARMM elections got an urgent presidential endorsement. This, despite the non-support for it from national electoral reform advocates.

Second, due to the vigorous opposition to it by the majority of ARMM congressmen and the seating ARMM autonomous government, the House committees–with obvious prodding from a hesitating Malacañang–conducted post-decision consultations in Zamboanga City, Cotabato City, and Marawi City. Both sides now claim that the consultations favored their position. What is evident, however, was that the administration resource persons uniformly presented their case for postponement within the context of it being a done deal, and asking only for suggestions on the process of appointment of officers-in-charge (OICs) and on possible “reforms” that can be made during the two-year hiatus until the 2013 national and local elections.

Third, the administration has undertaken a major national-level campaign to portray broad support from ARMM and Mindanao constituencies, including the reported arm-twisting of ARMM local officials who allegedly were threatened with difficulties with their internal revenue allotments (IRAs). The opposition expectedly came out with their own campaign.

There are several tragedies in the whole affair.

First is the setback it does to the principles and practice of autonomy and democracy. Whatever good intentions there exist in the postponement, these are swamped by the obvious setting aside of the processes that embody these principles.

The second is the involvement of many genuine advocates for autonomy and democracy for the Moro people in the Malacañang scheme. They have been promised an illusory future that may well compromise their advocacy. The political reality in the ARMM at this time is one of clan politics and the appointment process can only advantaged those clans with Malacañang connections, not necessarily those with advocacy for genuine democratic reforms.

The third is the damage it does to the democratic legacy of the Aquino family. The picture that is coming out of Malacañang nowadays is no different than the picture that came out in the early days of the previous post-Marcos governments. In some ways, it is worse because of the very high reform expectations in the new Aquino administration.  This is a picture of various factions, old ones which conveniently “converted,” new ones from the former opposition, reform-oriented ones, and the usual power brokers from the regions, religious sector, business sector, and media sectors. The Malacañang stance on the ARMM election issue has all the earmarks of political maneuverings and none of the genuine reform orientations.

The handling of the ARMM election issue has already scarred the Aquino administration. It will also have negative effects on his popularity and handling of other contentious issues such as the impeachment of the ombudsman. The battle may already have been lost in the House but it is another matter in the Senate. Malacañang may well win the postponement issue with its heavy hand; however, it may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory.

A farcical autonomy that is the ARMM has been voluntarily undressed by the Aquino government. Has it also undressed its own hostile attitude towards Moro autonomy?

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Upon the motion of Rep. Rodolfo C. Fariñas (1st district, Ilocos Norte), the House Committee on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms passed HB 4146 by a vote of 23-4. The bill seeks to postpone the ARMM elections to synchronize with the 2013 national and local elections and for President Noynoy Aquino to appoint officers-in-charge to the ARMM elective posts of governor, vice-governor, and  members of the regional legislative assembly.

The chairman of the House Committee on Muslim Affairs and co-chairman of the Joint Committees, Rep. Tupay T. Loong (1st District, Sulu), walked out along with some members of his committee.  Committee vice-chair Bai Sandra A. Sema (1st District, Maguindanao and Cotabato City) took over and proceeded to call for a vote on the bill, resulting in an 11-0 vote in favor of the postponement.

The voting–marked by the majority participation of non-Muslim representatives from Luzon and Visayas–has the earmarks of a railroading. The request (or motion) of the Muslim oppositors for time to conduct committee consultations with their ARMM constituencies fell on deaf ears. A surprising behavior from the majority…

The worrying effect of the exercise (and in fact, the whole scheme by the Aquino administration) is its setting aside of the current rules of the electoral game in the region and substituting in its place a naked struggle for Malacañang favor. One can argue that that has always been the case in ARMM since its inception–and he or she will be right.

However, there is nothing left upon which the clans (and all other electoral stakeholders) can anchor their claim to participation in democracy and decision-making.

The vote and the manner it was done represent a setback to the struggle for self-determination and democracy of the Moro people. It will have a deleterious impact on the quest for peace in the region and strengthen the argument for rebellion. If not handled delicately, there is a danger of political polarization that may well undermine the very mandate of the Aquino government among the Moro people.

The Aquino administration has not yet learned the lessons of the Moro issue. With the almost unstoppable momentum towards a Malacañang coup in the South, we have entered into an uncharted territory.

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The cat is already out of the bag. The administration of President Noynoy Aquino wants to postpone the ARMM elections and to appoint an officer-in-charge until the elections are synchronized with the national and local elections in 2013. Presumably, it will then let the elections be held in a credible, fair and free manner.

Predictably, those Moro clans who are with the administration jumped with alacrity into the Malacañang 10-wheeler. Predictably, those Moro clans who have benefited from the past Arroyo administration opposed it. Those who are now in power feel threatened and, while agreeing that the elections be postponed, argue for their retention in a “hold-over” capacity. Other groups want to dispense with the ARMM altogether or to hold an immediate referendum to decide whether to go through with the ARMM elections.

The big surprise in the scenario is the passionate advocacy of some non-Moro groups–both Mindanaoans and those in Manila, including those who fashionably termed themselves as democrats, liberals, pro-Moro, and/or anti-imperial Manila freedom fighters–for Malacañang to intervene, for the umpteenth time, in ARMM elections.

The irony here is that they are now arguing for President Aquino to appoint an OIC when they were demanding previously against presidential intervention in internal Moro affairs. For sure, appointing an OIC will be a first in any administration. In itself, it will be a setback to the cause of Moro self-determination and to the cause of Philippine democracy itself.

The disruption of the regularity of elections–without the existence of  extraordinary conditions that justify it–weakens the democratic argument and undermines the rule of law. The synchronization of elections–avowed basis for the OIC appointment–rests on specious and tongue-in-cheek foundations.

Let me cite Fr. Eliseo “Jun” Mercado, OMI, in this regard:

“The first argument is to leave the ARMM configuration open to whatever may ensue from the peace process with both the MILF and the MNLF.  The peace process in the Southern Philippines would NOT come to an  ‘end’ in three years or before the elections of 2013.  Even if agreement is signed with the MILF before the 2013 Elections, the said Peace Agreement still has to be legislated by Congress.  Both the negotiation and the consequent legislation are long and tedious work.  It is a wrong and definitely bad policy to hold the ARMM structures and leadership hostage to the vagaries of peace negotiation and legislation by Congress.”

“The second argument is to allow the incumbents to introduce reforms in the ARMM during the two years ‘extension’.  It is good to state at the outset that REFORMING the ARMM, definitely, is a gargantuan task.  The two-year extension even directly guided by the Prophet Muhammad or Jesus himself would hardly make any difference.  Reform should be seen as a continuing task and challenge both for the regional leadership and national leadership that exercises general supervision over the areas of autonomy.”

“The third argument is the flawed elections in the ARMM. If this is the case, the appropriate action is not canceling elections but introducing reforms in the conduct of elections in the ARMM beginning with the book of registered voters.”

The Commission on Elections, through chairman Brillantes himself, has assured the joint House committee on suffrage and electoral reforms and the committee on Muslim affairs that it can hold the ARMM elections in August 2011 as scheduled, that it can be automated with additional safeguards such as the use of fingerprint identification. I also think it can undertake a general registration of ARMM voters before August if needed, as well as all the other measures necessary to ensure a credible, fair and free ARMM elections.

Let me add that president Aquino (and his people power supporters and allies) cannot effectively implement a genuine reform program to strengthen Philippine democracy without practicing democratic principles and methodologies.

Arguments were also advanced that the postponement is necessary and an OIC can ensure that a democratic reform path will be taken in order to break the rule of the warlord clans in the area and ensure ARMM development. This is self-serving at its worst.

So, “managed democracy” is now the name of the game for the current administration? What is the difference with the methods of the past administrations, including that of Marcos? Did not all those previous “managed” arrangements end up with the ARMM far worse than before.

Democracy cannot be built and strengthened without institutionalizing democratic practices. The Aquino administration–with its avowed democratic legacy–will be far better off by making sure democracy works in ARMM, not by presidential fiat but by ensuring the will of the Moro people are respected and affirmed.

For democratic forces, they are far better off in continuing to advocate for electoral reforms and strengthening democracy in the Bangsa Moro homeland–at the moment, the ARMM. For those among them in the halls of power, they are in a position to implement these reforms–by making sure that the ARMM August elections are held as scheduled, in a fair and free manner as possible, and even to campaign for genuine democratic Moro leaders to lead the ARMM.

Eventually, what is necessary is to institute new, democratic political rules whereby Moro political groups, including the tribes and clans, contest on a level playing field. The results then, will be acceptable to all.

If you  want to meddle in the ARMM elections, then do it the democratic way. Power used wisely strengthens the hand of the sovereign people in a democracy. Power used wrongly only strengthens the hand of the ruler and his courtiers.

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Justice Secretary Alberto “Al” Agra decided last Friday, April 16, to clear of any liability in connection with the Maguindanao massacre ARMM Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan and cousin Akmad Ampatuan Sr., mayor of Mamasapano town in Maguindanao. Using the least believable defense–alibi–as basis, he threw out the direct testimony of a witness, the various circumstantial evidences pointing to an Andal Ampatuan family conspiracy, and the law books on the meaning of probable cause.

Understandably, all–including his own prosecutors–condemned his decision. The only remaining question is why. Why did he issued it in the first place? Why last friday and not anywhen else? Why risk a life-long reputation and become a legal pariah?

The only viable context to view his outlandish decision is the 2010 elections. Because we are talking here of the Ampatuan clan, the personal friends of president Macapagal-Arroyo’s family. Of the hard-fought presidential battle and the losing presidential bid of GMA’s candidate(s?).  Of Maguindanao, the notorious nest of election cheaters and Garcillano when he was a fugitive.

What is happening in the Maguindanao in the 2010 elections? The Ampatuans, after the massacre, conveniently hid their candidacies behind other candidates, notably that of governatorial candidate Datu Ombra Sinsuat. Rumors had it that it was DILG Secretary Ronaldo Puno, architect of the Maguindanao state of emergency–existing until today–who paved the way for this transfer.

However, there were reports that the Ampatuans do not want to lose power and they are highly suspicious of the move to the Sinsuats which can be interpreted as a real power transfer and their demise as the political overlords of Maguindanao and even of the ARMM. Last month, the old man, Andal Ampatuan, Sr., called for a loyalty meeting of his candidates in his cell in the Davao City army camp

The meeting happened at a time when the two major survey outfits, Social Weather Station (SWS) and Pulse Asia, indicated a widening gulf between the front-runner, Noynoy Aquino and his closest rival, Manny Villar. These also indicated the end of the realistic bid for victory of Gibo Teodoro’s candidacy.

In this meeting, he outlined an electoral strategy for the 2010 elections aimed at ensuring victory for his candidates and, significantly, for presidential candidate Manuel Villar. His main rival, Esmael “Toto” Mangungudatu–whose wife and relatives were among those massacred earlier–was aligned with Secretary Gibo Teodoro and, possibly later, with Noynoy Aquino.

Basically, the strategy revolves on using his controlled areas in Maguindanao and elsewhere to deliver overwhelming votes to his candidates. If rumors are to be believed, this would mean the old method of ballot substitution and ballot-stuffing of the PCOS machines, or the forcible reversion to the manual election system. In both cases, the vaunted–and largely still-existing–Ampatuan armed group will be used to intimidate all those participating in local polls within their controlled areas. Maguindanao now has a 600,000+ registered voters, up from 500,000+ in the 2007 elections.

Of course, the problem is how to ensure loyalty and supervise the execution of the strategy–all the key Ampatuan leaders are in jail! Simple. Then get them out of jail!

This is where the cat got out of the bag. The role of the hapless Mr. Agra is to be a fall guy in a multi-billion, multiple stakes political game. Somebody had to get the Ampatuans out–his was the role assigned by the hard-boiled political strategists.

However, the a second cat got out of the bag–that is, the link between the Arroyos and the Villar candidacy. So far, this political resurrection of the Ampatuan is the clearest circumstantial evidence of the link. This is a real link, if only because of the risks involved in this desperate act.

The 2010 elections is now joined–the Aquino-led people’s coalition against the Villarroyo-led disparate coalition of  the Marcoses, the Sisonites, the military rebels and the hard-core trapos. Is this the August 2009 people power scenario. Yes, it may be.

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This coming May 2010 has spawned many scenarios–serious or not–that are not germane to the election itself but important within the context of retaining power by incumbent president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

That she and her group in Malacañang wants to stay in power is a given. They have been going this route since day 1 of her term in 2001. The political struggle in the past four years since the Garcillano tape exposé revolved around this attempt to maintain the power beyond 2010.

This, of course, expresses itself most graphically in the various desperate attempts to undertake charter change. As late as in the waning days of this present Congress, the attempts were made. However, all of them failed, defeated by the steadfast opposition of the people, the various democratic institutions such as the Supreme Court and the Comelec, and the political opposition.

As things stand out now, the 2010 elections–with its new automated system–will push through as scheduled. In the same breath, it can be said that the alternative scenarios–whether within or outside the context of the elections–also thrive in the people’s mind as energetically.

First, there is the scenario of the automated cheating. This scenario assumes that the Comelec, the Smartmatic-TIM joint venture company, the PPCRV citizen arm, and the watchers of the political parties are co-conspirators in this grand scheme.This entails the subversion of the source code and improper programming of both the Precinct Count Optical Scan (PCOS) machine and the consolidation servers at various levels.

A variation on this theme is the interception of the election return data and substitution at the lower levels of the process. Again, this will require inside knowledge in both Comelec and Smartmatic-TIM. The brouhaha over alleged jammers is within this scenario.

Another variation is the sabotage of the PCOS machines in certain controlled areas, reversion to the manual system of counting and canvassing, doing the cheating according to the old ways, and inserting the results  into the automated system.

Allegedly, there is the estimate that only 15% or even less of the votes cast need to be compromised in this manner to influence even the presidential election results, especially if it is a tight contest.

In this light, it is important to note the figures cited by Bishop Cruz and the PPCRV concerning the probable number of ghost or multiple registrants. Bishop Cruz cited the figure of 5 million while the PPCRV–based on its extrapolation of the 40,000 Davao multiple registrants–put it at 3.2 million. If true, these numbers can certainly affect the outcome of the presidential elections if not effectively prevented.

Second, there is the scenario of no-election, no-proclamation. The most realistic variant of this scenario is the prevention of voting in 15% or even less of the actual voters come election day. In a tight contest, this can effectively prevent the immediate proclamation of the winner in the presidential contest.

Allegedly, this will happen in the ARMM and other areas controlled by warlords or political dynasts. If stretched to the limit, it may even prevent the proclamation of the new president and vice-president–possibly to include the successors.

The extreme scenario is martial law declaration or even just a declaration of a state of emergency. This requires foisting a breakdown of peace and order on a nationwide scale or of national significance. The object supposedly is to sweep aside the elections and set up a caretaker government beyond June 30, 2010. This is a possible but remote scenario.

All the alternative scenarios may or may not be hatching. However, they offer the challenges to the conduct of a credible, fair and free May 2010 elections.

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Martial law in Maguindanao is due to be lifted in under one hour from now. The reason given by the National Security Council is that it already accomplished its mission of bringing back civilian authority, defeating the Maguindanao “rebels,” and arresting the Ampatuan clan perpetrators of the Maguindanao massacre.

Well and good, bu this has still to be taken with a grain of salt. Congress was due to vote on the declaration of martial law on December 15 and word is that it will be revoked for lack of factual and constitutional basis. Likewise, the Supreme Court is about to start hearing arguments against it and there are indications it will also issue an unfavorable decisions against it.

It is also to be noted that the declaration of martial law–though dividing the public for sometime–found no popular support even among those who supported the search for justice for the Maguindanao massacre victims. Senator Miriam Defensor’s expose of an extended martial law leaves no room to maneuver for any alleged plotter.

So, what exactly did martial law declaration accomplished? To cite one, it broke the psychological barrier that stemmed from the bad experience of martial law under the Marcos dictatorship and paves the way for a repeat performance in the future. Not that it would succeed–the popular condemnation it got from a broad range of the political spectrum means it is a very difficult proposition to sell.

The lifting, by no means, will buy popularity for administration candidates. It actually will make life more difficult for them as people and the voters will become more wary of the way administration people wields power.

It is a step backward for them. However, the future is another thing.

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The declaration of martial law in the province of Maguindanao have more implications than its own objectives. Ostensibly, the declaration aims to preempt a rebellion from the Ampatuan clan, facilitate the arrest or capture of the perpetrators of the Maguindanao massacre, and reestablish civilian authority in the province.

The argument has been made that the declaration of martial law can achieve these objectives. Counter-arguments have also been put forward that the same objectives can be achieved by the use of normal means available to state authorities, even the declaration of a state of emergency.

Martial law or not, the key measurement of the appropriateness of the method used is that it achieves the objectives with the least collateral damage and with no additional or subsequent problems. In this, the martial law approach fails miserably.

First, there is as yet no rebellion and therefore no justification for martial law. What is there is a specious argument of a threatening rebellion (expressly incised out by the 1987 constitution from the previous constitutions). There is simply no factual basis for the declaration of martial law.

Second, for the sake of argument, if ever martial law is declared in relation to the Maguindanao massacre, it should have been done immediately after the incident, when the state authorities have actually attempted to arrest the Ampatuans and other perpetrators and their efforts are met with armed resistance. Conceivably, martial law could have been resorted then if the local civilian authorities–including the local officials and police–either belong to the Ampatuan clan or else their supporters and therefore these fail to perform their duties;  the perpetrators are protected by armed means; and the local population is under a state of terror.

Doing this after a period of delay and with no evident escalation of the situation opens to speculations of other objectives, particularly when the conditions for the declaration of martial law are not met.

There is fear that the declaration of martial law may be extended by an Arroyo-influenced joint Congress session to more than the 60 days allowed by the Constitution to possibly include the election day itself and thus possibly influence the outcome of the elections in ARMM and even the national elections. There is also fear that the joint session itself can lead to the resurrection of the Charter change initiative. The worst fear is the possible no-elections because of the breakdown of law and order in ARMM and even on the nationwide scale.

The declaration of martial law will not contribute much to the solution of the Maguindanao massacre. It may even lead to problems of the nation. It is a gambit–which if not opposed vigorously–can well lead to a sharp turn against Philippine democracy. The closest vigilance is therefore called for even as the nation does not let go of the search for justice to the victims of the Maguindanao massacre.

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