[Jakarta, 14 September 2023] Political violence is likely to worsen, particularly in central Mindanao, as village elections in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) draw closer. These elections, scheduled for late October 2023, will put in place the get-out-the-vote machinery for the much more important vote in 2025, when voters for the first time will choose members of the BARMM parliament. Everything points to the traditional clans of Mindanao and the island provinces of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi further entrenching themselves in 2025, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) losing control of the region it helped set up through long, laborious peace negotiations.
“Violence in the Southern Philippines in the Lead-up to Local Elections”, the latest report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), notes that more is at stake in 2025 than MILF control. The power of the political bosses has grown to the point that in the name of preventing violence, they are increasingly trying to ensure that their candidates at a local level run unopposed. “There is something deeply amiss if you have to deny voters a choice in the name of ensuring their security,” says Sidney Jones, IPAC senior adviser. “It means the political machines will always win.”
The report looks in depth at the situation in Sulu and Maguindanao, now divided into Maguindanao del Sur and Maguindanao del Norte. It looks at the political dynamics in these provinces as elections approach, including the efforts of the MILF’s United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP) to cut deals with traditional leaders in order to secure more seats. It also examines recent outbreaks of violence in these areas, which are a reminder, if any is needed, of how heavily armed this region still is.
To put the UBJP’s electoral woes in perspective, the report compares the context in BARMM with Aceh in Indonesia, where guerrillas also turned themselves into politicians after a peace process, ran in local elections for the first time in 2006 against Jakarta-backed politicians, and won by a landslide when they were expected to lose. But BARMM in 2023 is vastly more complicated than Aceh was then, and the comparison shows how difficult UBJB’s task will be, both in October and late in 2025.
If the risk of conflict is to be reduced, the government needs to do more to address private armed groups and unregistered weapons; break the patronage link between local political bosses and the police; speed up the amnesty process; and ensure independent investigations into incidents of violence that become highly politicised. The MILF, for its part, needs to do more to show voters in BARMM that it can govern cleanly and competently.