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PEACETALK: 2016 Philippine election politics causes hiatus in Bangsamoro Law process

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/ 18 Oct) — This week, tens of thousands of aspiring candidates – from president and vice president, through senators and members of Congress, to governors, mayors, and local councilors – will file for candidacy in May 2016 general elections in the Philippines. Naturally, both houses of Congress have gone on recess so that their members can attend to these important political processes – which we will discuss in next week’s blog (after the period of filing has closed, so the candidates are known).

In the meantime, the political process of passing a law for the new Bangsamoro, pursuant to the March 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro that was reached between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), has paused. A draft law was submitted to Congress in September 2014 with an optimistic timetable to be passed by the end of the year. The draft Bangsamoro Basic Law proposed to abolish the current Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and replace it with a new entity with enhanced powers that comported with the negotiated agreements. The draft bill was undergoing the usual legislative process, with hearings both in the Senate and before a special House Ad Hoc Committee for the Basic Law. As 2015 dawned, it seemed that Congress would be able to finish the law in time to have a plebiscite to ratify it, a transition authority to implement some provisions, and a regular election for the new Bangsamoro regional government in May 2016 (along with all other posts).

Then, on January 25 occurred the infamous Mamasapano incident, where a raid by Special Action Forces (SAF) of the Philippine National Police aimed at a Malaysian terrorist known as Marwan went wrong. Although Marwas was killed in the raid, 44 SAF members were also killed, as were 18 members of the MILF (who reacted inasmuch as the raid was not coordinated through ceasefire mechanisms) and five civilians. The resulting nationwide furor dominated the front pages for weeks, and Congress suspended consideration of the proposed law while investigations of the incident were held by both houses (and other organizations).

Finally, in June the House Ad Hoc Committee presented a bill that amended the original proposed draft as submitted to Congress by the Office of the President. The amendments changed important provisions; so much so that the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC – that had worked on the draft bill with the Office of the President) submitted a resolution specifying 28 provisions in the amended bill that the BTC believed needed to be restored to their original form in order to comport with the Comprehensive Agreement. These included control over natural resources, a proposed police force for the Bangsamoro, and the insertion of national laws that would limit the new region’s freedom of action. Congressional leadership, on the other hand, felt that reversing the amendments might be difficult, leading to an unraveling of the coalition that allowed the committee to report out the bill.

During August and September, when the House was supposed to be debating (and possibly amending) the bill, very little was accomplished. Every time debate would begin, an opponent would point out the lack of a quorum in the House, and the session would end. Thus, when Congress recessed on October 9, there was considerable debate left unfinished.

In the Senate, the chair of the Committee on Local Government, Senator Bongbong Marcos, presented his version of the bill which was even more stripped down than the House Committee version. More debate was possible in the Senate during August and September, but even so the period of interpellation had not been completed with sessions were ended.

The legislature is slated to resume session on November 3, and recess again in mid-December. Thus, the leadership of the Houses posits December 16 as the next likely time to have the bill passed. The chair of the government negotiating panel, Prof. Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, has urged faster action in order to have something to show at the annual APEC meetings on November 16-18. By whatever timetable, though, there would need to be three to six months preparation for a plebiscite to ratify the law in the areas to be affected (the current coverage of ARMM plus some additional areas), which would not leave enough time for a transition authority to prepare for regular elections in May 2016. So in any case, the peace process will not be completed by the end of President Aquino’s term in June 2016 – which was always his target.

In this narrative, it seems obvious that a turning point was the Mamasapano tragedy. And survey data bear this out. As we can see from the graph, general Filipino attitudes toward the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (the precursor of the Comprehensive Agreement) were consistently positive. However, when asked about the Basic Law in the wake of the Mamasapano incident, the citizen views turned negative.

Unsurprisingly, national politicians (meaning those interested in the presidency, vice presidency, or the 12 Senatorial seats up for grabs in May 2016) paid attention to this shift in sentiment, and began to act more skeptically toward the proposed bill (including adding amendments to lessen the powers of the proposed new government). After some months, by September of this year, the negativity had abated somewhat, leading Chair Ferrer to point out that national candidates should worry more about inflation, jobs, and pay (and not to be too concerned about negative reactions to instituting the Bangsamoro).

The law instituting the Bangsamoro implements the political aspect of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. There are other aspects. For instance, “normalization” has to do with the security environment. In June, the MILF decommissioned 75 high-powered weapons, turning them over to an Independent Decommissioning Body. At the same time, 145 MILF combatants were returned to civilian life and began to receive socio-economic packages. And the government has set up a new Task Force to deal with private armed groups in the area in order to produce a sense of normalcy to civilian life. With respect to socio-economic development, a Bangsamoro Development Plan was completed in November 2014, and work on extension and implementation of that Plan continues. In short, other aspects of the peace process can take place out of the glare of publicity that surrounds Congressional consideration of the law.

But in the end it is the law, the political aspect of the settlement, that determines the pace of other aspects of the peace process. While the law is in limbo, other efforts inevitably slow down. And since the process will certainly go through the transition to a new administration in mid-2016, then negotiations will be needed at least to adjust the time frame if not to accommodate new substantive concerns introduced by incoming leadership.

In the face of this uncertainty, the MILF has repeatedly said that they regard the Comprehensive Agreement as binding, and this included a cessation of hostilities that has held for more than four years (with the exception of the Mamasapano incident). The more peaceful atmosphere has benefited residents of central Mindanao, and it is hoped that this can continue.

( MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Dr. Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He tweets as @StevenRoodPH, and can be reached at steven.rood@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation. This piece was first published in The Asia Foundation’s website on October 14, 2015. Permission to reprint granted by author)


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