MANILA, Philippines -- In some areas in Muslim Mindanao, it's not unusual for local chiefs to order ballots to be filled out in behalf of entire villages for political kingpins with the highest offer. The voters will be too scared to protest, too clannish to question their elders, or just too detached from the government to feel violated as citizens. Exploit this Moro "culture" using poll-rigging machinations devised by the "Christian North," and that may help explain why the South has historically been known as the main theater of fraud in Philippine elections.
A veteran election official, a poll watchdog, and a Muslim reform advocate shared these views as reports of massive vote-buying, cheating and violence
Election-rigging schemes are mainly plotted in Manila and carried out by "operators" who only flock to Mindanao during election seasons, said Mehol Sadain, a former Comelec commissioner who was in charge of Region IX (Zamboanga Peninsula). "It's wrong to say outright that cheating is done by Muslims; it's the operators from the Christian North who exploit the people's ignorance, complacency and apathy," he said.
Sadain conceded that elections in Muslim provinces had long been "problematic." But this is because "the people still do not have a real appreciation of the right to suffrage under a Western [-modelled] Constitution," he said. There is also that element of "distrust" that can be traced back to when Moros fiercely resisted Spanish and American colonizers, both of whom employed native Christian troops to invade Muslim bastions, he said.
For these segments of the Moro populace, "lineage" -- and not democratic exercises like elections -- is still the prevailing principle for choosing leaders, according to Sadain. "They just would not care, and for them voting is something mechanical that they have to do. And it's their lack of interest that makes it possible for the leaders and operators to 'substitute' their votes," he said.
This can also help explain why the mostly Christian poll-watching groups have found it difficult to penetrate Moro communities with voters' education campaigns or to find whistleblowers among the voters, he added. The few citizens who think it their duty to question the supposed electoral exercise are often met with a drawn gun or offered cash in exchange for their silence, Sadain said. He recalled a local election held in Basilan province in 2005, when teachers at the polling precincts in one school could only watch in terror as "15 barangay chairmen" barged in, "filled out all the ballots themselves," and stuffed these in ballot boxes. In such a situation, "fear is something you cannot just solve by holding automated elections," Sadain said wryly. Added Casiple: "It will really take a basic change in culture and values."
For Muslim scholar Taja Basman, president of the Philippine Islamic Center for Moderate Muslims and of the Mindanao Research Institute, extreme poverty easily resolves any moral qualms among the people about accepting money in exchange for their votes. And the lack of infrastructure effectively keeps elections out of Comelec control, especially in the hinterlands, said Basman, who has conducted a study on how his native Lanao del Sur has gone down in history as the place "where the birds and the bees also vote," and where "children as young as 12 and 13 are registered [as voters] by their parents in exchange for P1,000." But immediate solutions -- or deterrents in time for future elections -- can be put in place, he said. Basman suggested that elections be held in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao ahead of the rest of the country, the way it is done for overseas and local absentee voters. A purge of shady election officials at the local level may also be initiated by focusing the so-called "lifestyle check" on these persons after an election, he said.
But then, Basman said, real change and empowerment might still need to start from the voters themselves: Taught for generations to believe that "might is right" and to be subservient to their powerful leaders, "hopefully, one day they will come to their senses."
May 25, 2007
Philippine Daily Inquirer