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PEACETALK: Of plebiscite, local politics, and democracy

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews / 18 January) — Even as the plebiscite for the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) nears, we still can’t say that we have adequately alloted space for a more intellectual discussion of this matter—especially for examining the provisions of the BOL all the way to the ground, or even in managing the expectations and interests of the electorate in the areas covered by the plebiscites.

The ability to campaign for and to hold elections are basic characteristics of a democratic society. The closest polling to transpire this year will be on Jan. 21 and Feb. 6, before the midterm elections in May. These dates were specially allocated fas the plebiscite days for the BOL.

As the plebiscite dates approach, the campaigns for and against the ratification of the BOL continue to intensify. I work in Cotabato City and I see posters and tarpaulins exhorting voters in the plebiscite areas to put “yes” or “no” to BOL on their ballots, and these tarps are plastered next to each other.

I went to my hometown in Isabela City, in Basilan, for a year-end break, and I saw the same thing: “yes” and “no” posters hoisted next to each other. Basilan joined the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in the 2001 plebiscite, the last province to do so. Despite this, Basilan’s capital, Isabela City, opted out of the ARMM.

From where I stood, both sets of materials seemed to be screaming, staring each other down, and crying foul over the other’s “condescension.”

A bomb blast that rocked Cotabato City recently killed two people and wounded several others. This heightened the already taut tensions between the opposing parties, parties that were quick to defend their interests when referring to that unfortunate incident.

In Sulu, the provincial governor has taken a bold step by petitioning to the Supreme Court to invalidate the BOL on the grounds of it being “unconstitutional.” This, despite the fact that the BOL was crafted by legal authorities and experts.

Cotabato City, Isabela City, and Sulu would be considered to be areas where people are not as keen on the BOL. The ability to express one’s opposition, yet again, is ideal in a democratic society. A functioning democracy is naturally pluralist, having contending forces that challenge any hegemony of ideas.

However, such activities need to be better nuanced, and examined more closely, for any objections to be valid. Opposition simply for the sake of opposing something is not a wise tack to take in any situation.

In many areas like Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, and Tawi-Tawi, there seems to be a resounding dominance of the yes vote. Dominance, however, does not make up the entire melody of democracy. A hegemony of perspective seems to be counterintuitive to the preconditions of a democratic polity. Yet again, the situation merits closer inspection.

Robert Dahl defines ‘democratic’ polity as being in a state of having free, fair and competitive elections. It is also where freedoms are guaranteed, with tolerance given to opposition of any idea. The definition itself is just introductory. The rule of law also takes a strong role in ensuring the entrenchment or consolidation of democratic polity in society.

The Philippines has been typified by numerous scholars as operating under a flawed democracy. Benedict Anderson appropriated the typology of the “cacique” democracy to the Philippines in his classic “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines: Origins and Dreams.” Cacique is a Latin-American term describing a local political boss and the feudal nature of the political system in which such a political boss will thrive.

In a cacique democracy, the state is captured by local bosses who have paid very little attention to policies for promoting the public interest. Paul Hutchcroft reinforces this concept by describing the Philippines as a patrimonial, oligarchic state. The state bureaucracy’s function of serving the public is undermined by the vested interests of a few people in power who are motivated to lengthen their rule instead of strengthen their communities with good and timely service.

Going around the provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao, I saw tarpaulins from different local politicians, despite it being too early for the midterm election campaign period. You’ll see huge pictures of their faces, even full-body shots, with their names and the job titles they aspire to (or seek to retain). Additionally, those tarpaulins carry this message: “I support the BOL.”

In Maguindanao and Lanao, you will see politicians courting the public by saying they support the BOL. This in itself is indicative of an existing social force by which the politicians do not dictate policy. These politicians proclaim their support for the BOL in order to gain support from the people for their own candidacies—and this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Hence, the support base of those in favor of the BOL in both Maguindanao and Lanao reflects the interests of the citizens in these provinces. There is the hegemony of that idea — but the idea itself belongs to the people.

In the past, I would hear the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal talk about the trajectory of the MILF in different fora. In the past, he said, the MILF fought an armed struggle. The signing of the CAB, he added, is proof that the MILF has moved on into a parliamentary struggle, with politics as its new battleground. The MILF will then be a social movement freely exercising their rights as Bangsamoro, claiming its justice in the political arena.

On Dec. 10 last year, an estimated 200,000 BOL advocates flocked to Cotabato City from adjacent areas to signal the beginning of the BOL campaign. On Jan. 14, thousands of vehicles joined the 16-hour caravan expressing public support for the BOL. This is the social force which local politicians in Maguindanao and Lanao are trying to court and appease.

Larry Diamond added that electoral rules will only result to democratic stability if it is backed by a social force and a presence of a strong civil society. It is where the citizenry is able to affect the policies of the state. Ideally, social groups should be the base of support and basis of policy interest for political leaders in a modern democracy.

Going back to how these differ from areas where the campaign for the BOL ratification is contested, such as Cotabato and Isabela: The existing campaign is mainly driven by local politicians dictating upon the populace how they should vote.

Isabela and Cotabato are cities, yet the level of discourse for the BOL has been lowered to subservience to the local politicians’ interests.

The BOL should ascend beyond local politicos and local political concerns. The BOL is a national law, with no less than the President himself among its advocates. Yet it is held hostage by local politicians and their necessarily smaller agendas.

Despite having regular elections, Thomas Carothers outlines the danger of its principles eroded by the possibility of having a feckless pluralism. Feckless pluralism tends to come out more freely during the exercise of suffrage. However, political elites remain ineffective and egocentric, as seen in their policies and political decision-making processes.

The discussion on the laws governing the Bangsamoro region is being dragged down to local political interests.

The BOL covers matters of fiscal autonomy, intergovernmental-relationships, a parliamentary form of government for the proposed autonomous region. Mud-slinging and accusations between rival politicians may see the BOL become a casualty of their pettiness. Ideally, politics should elevate the discourse between the government and the governed, not bring it low.

In areas where BOL is likely to gain a resounding yes vote from the electorate, local politicians court the citizens as recognition of the existence of the voters’ social force. It may be the hegemony of an idea, yet it represents the will of the people.

In areas with people resistant to BOL, local political interests are at play, something that discourages elevated discourse. Opposition is supposed to be healthy in a functioning democracy, but on whose behalf are these politicians truly acting?

Indeed, the campaign for the BOL bares varying pictures of democracy. The minimum standards are but the minimum. So, efforts at shedding light on the BOL and the discussions about this law merit closer inspection and better nuancing. Undeniably, both scenarios can be considered to be democratic. Democracy, after all, is not perfect—and no political model is perfect.

Most problems identified in the ARMM are not special to the region. They are but a symptom of greater social ills of the country as a whole. In the most unlikely moment, the BOL campaign seems to be a step forward—and in the right direction.

As we enter the poll precincts on the days of the plebiscite, we must cast our ballots with a singular focus on the consent of the governed. Despite the divisive nature of the exercise of our right to suffrage, and the divisiveness of discourse between opposing parties that are part and parcel of democracy, we must remember that, at the end of the day, we still need to come together in unity to make the proposed regional government work well for the governed.

(BATANG Mindanaw is the youth section of MindaNews. Ameen Camlian, 27, of Basilan province earned his Public Policy degree with focus on International Relations from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, Japan. Currently, he is working as the public relations officer for the International Decommissioning Body).



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