There is a reason many crimes take place under cover of darkness: Most people tend to be if not good, then decent, and law-abiding. There is a reason election controversies end up focusing on provinces in Muslim Mindanao: These places are shrouded in a kind of political darkness. And it has less to do with the culture of Filipino Muslims as a whole, and everything to do with the culture of their leaders - and the relationship they’ve built with their Christian counterparts in the national government.
For the Philippines, national senatorial elections began in 1941, but it wasn’t until 1949 that Muslim areas became identified with electoral fraud. Lanao in particular, sadly went down in history as a place where the birds and the bees, and even the dead, voted. What has not gone down in history is how in the next election, in 1951, Ramon Magsaysay ensured clean elections were held in the same place.
This example from more than half a century ago, should be partnered with another example from not so long ago. The acknowledged warlord of Lanao during the Marcos years, Ali Dimaporo, was feared by politicians everywhere, and boasted he could “deliver” votes. The late Comelec Commissioner Haydee Yorac famously visited him, allowed him to flirt with her, and the result was a friendly Dimaporo and clean elections in Lanao.
The requirements then, are basic, when it comes to elections in Muslim Mindanao: For the national government to insist on clean elections; for the local Muslim leaders to be reassured they are part of the political process, so long as they guarantee the autonomy of their constituents in expressing their national preferences. In short, national leaders determine whether an election will be about fraud, and selling votes to the highest bidder, or whether it will be about about Filipino Muslims being allowed to express their choices freely, and without molestation, when it comes to national elections.
It works both ways. A combination of partisan complaints (from the Genuine Opposition and its candidates), the efforts of citizens’ organizations seeking clean elections (Namfrel and the PPCRV), and media reporting, took the votes of Maguindanao basically out of contention. The administration Team Unity bragged they’d achieved a 12-0 result for their slate, until people began to ask questions.
The first question was why someone like Luis “Chavit” Singson did even better than the administration’s Muslim candidate, Jamalul Kiram III. The next series of questions were even more troubling: In some areas, it seems no election was held at all; in others, the voting had nothing to do with the counting. In an electoral contest where the last two places in the senatorial results can be decided by mere thousands of votes, the 300,000 votes of Maguindanao have ended up so hotly contested, even discredited, that they have been taken out of the counting. And now, Lanao del Sur is in the process of having the voting so heavily scrutinized, that the votes will have a hard time surviving the harsh glare of public attention.
The administration is upset about this. Because Muslim Mindanao - remote, and more firmly in the pocket of local leaders than other parts of the country – is their last hope for preventing a near-total defeat in the senatorial race. Try as the administration might, to claim it still has provincial bailiwicks, these so-called administration areas have, one after the other, delivered an anti-administration vote. The result is that the outcome has stubbornly stayed the same: 8 for the Genuine Opposition, 2 for Team Unity, and 2 Independents.
Even the votes from the last, solidly administration-leaning bailiwick, Cebu, haven’t been enough to stem the tide. This really leaves Muslim Mindanao as the last place where administration victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat. Yet left to themselves, Muslim Filipino voters have proven themselves not very different from their Christian Filipino counterparts; and where their leaders have intervened to try to change the results, they’ve been caught.
Administration spokesmen are left trying to argue that the political culture is such, in Muslim areas, that leaders arrive at a consensus with their followers, and everyone follows what the leader says. They may have a point, but as Maguindanao showed, that means nothing if no voting took place at all. And it means nothing in places like Lanao, where media and citizens’ groups have exposed how the political diktat takes place with every rule that applies to elections being violated. Local leaders, operating in a kind of darkness -beyond media scrutiny, without citizens’ volunteers swarming around precincts to keep tabs on the conduct of the voting and counting – might have peddled “consensus” as an argument.
But now, they can’t. Enough Muslim Filipinos were seen conscientiously doing their civic duty – and wanting to vote freely – to prove that vote delivery only happens with the help of systematic fraud.
Which leaves the administration furiously trying to accomplish the counting -and have their provincial counts counted nationally, in turn - before citizen’s groups or the media can belie their claims. It’s not working. And the blame can’t be pinned on Muslim Filipinos, it can only be assigned to what has clearly been revealed to be a partnership between national and local officials to delay the voting in Muslim Mindanao, to enable it to serve as an antidote to the results from other areas.
Hoping to distract the media and the public from their shenanigans in Lanao and other places, Team Unity spokesman Tonypet Albano now says they are going to insist that the counting of votes in opposition bailiwicks be repeated. They denied us Maguindanao, he said, so now we will deny them victory everywhere else the opposition claims a win. No less than all of Metro Manila, and 15 other provinces, he says, will have their voting results challenged by the administration.
A smokescreen? Probably. But a dangerous one, and one which requires risking the political equivalent of a forest fire. Makati City, San Juan, Caloocan and Pasig, Albano says, will be places they definitely intend to challenge the votes. They might even challenge the results in Christian areas of Mindanao, like General Santos City where administration bet Manny Pacquiao lost heavily. And if they do? And a cooperative Comelec does what they want, which is to proclaim a “failure of election” in Metro Manila, and other areas, putting out of play as many as seven million votes, what then?
Or would they not go that far, in the hope that the public would have been distracted long enough, to have their operations in Muslim Mindanao produce “results”?