Philippines: Pre-election Tensions in Central Mindanao
Asia Briefing Nº103
4 May 2010
As the Philippine election on 10 May 2010 draws nearer, voters in central Mindanao are focused on the political fallout from the “Maguindanao massacre”; clan politics; the new automated election system; and whether any agreement between the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is possible before President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo leaves office on 30 June.
Voters will choose a new president and vice president, members of the national Congress, and some 17,000 local executive and legislative positions. The biggest question in central Mindanao, however, is how much the power of the Ampatuan clan has been weakened by the arrests of its senior members for suspected involvement in the massacre. Fear that lawyers for the patriarch, Andal Ampatuan Sr, will somehow find a way to obtain the release of their client remain palpable in and around Maguindanao province. As pre-trial legal proceedings drag on, there is strong evidence of the family’s ability to bribe and intimidate witnesses, and the worry about Andal Sr’s eventual release is not without basis, especially given the controversial decision by the Department of Justice in mid-April to drop charges against two members of the clan.
Even if the political hold of the clan has been broken, at least temporarily, by the arrests, and new opportunities have opened up for its political rivals, the dominance of clans in Maguindanao politics remains unaffected. The Ampatuans’ opponents may give warlordism a gentler face, but political change would consist of substituting one family for another, not of any fundamental alteration of the system.
Sources of conflict remain high. If the 2009 massacre did not have its roots in a blood feud (rido) between clans, it may have created one going forward between the families of the killers and their victims. The arrests of the Ampatuans have also emboldened some to pursue rido-related revenge on members of the family’s private army. The likelihood of violence is so great that the military has placed Maguindanao on highest alert through the elections.
And in the midst of it all, pressure to produce an interim agreement between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Arroyo government remains high. The government is desperate for a pact so that Arroyo can leave office on a high note; the MILF will not be forced into an agreement for agreement’s sake. Some local political candidates have seized on the possibility of a pact to deliberately fan Christian concerns that they are about to be rushed into an agreement they do not want and say they have had no opportunity to discuss.
If no substantive agreement is reached before Arroyo leaves office, responsibility for continuing the negotiations will fall to her successor, and it is open to question whether any of the top contenders has the interest or political will to push forward with peace. Failure of a new president to engage could undermine the relatively moderate MILF negotiating team, opening the possibility that a younger, more militant splinter group could emerge.
Jakarta/Brussels, 4 May 2010