Election woes in BARMM

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) faces enormous obstacles in 2025, and the October 30 barangay elections in BARMM are likely to make its task even harder.

A family affair? An Eid Al-Adha Mubarak poster in July 2022 featured Governor Bai Mariam S. Mangudadatu and other prominent politicians from the province of Maguindanao del Sur. | Photo courtesy of Sidney Jones

NOTE: This is drawn from a new report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), “Violence in the Southern Philippines in the Lead-Up to Local Elections”, September 14, 2023.

Barangay elections in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Mindanao (BARMM) will compound the woes of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and their efforts to hang on to power in 2025. Not only are MILF leaders trying to cut deals right and left with powerful traditional politicians, but in the BARMM provinces most hostile to the MILF leadership – Sulu and Maguindanao del Sur – the old clan leaders are trying to ensure that the elections are uncontested. This doesn’t say much for the democratic process (wasn’t democracy supposed to be about choice?) but it speaks volumes about the continuing power of political dynasties.

Sulu Gov. Sakur Tan held a meeting on 22 August 2023 to instruct the mayors of Sulu’s 19 municipalities to “arrange” for the barangay incumbents to run unopposed. The exact “arrangements” were left up to them, but it generally meant buying off the opposition. In Maguindanao del Sur as of early September, 149 out of 287 barangays were holding one-candidate elections.  This is justified in both provinces as a stratagem to ensure peace, but having only one candidate also solidifies existing political machines. It ensures as well that the get-out-the-vote machine will be solidly anti-MILF in 2025. The MILF’s United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP) could end up with a worse performance than it had in 2022.  

The MILF’s problems are not just in these two provinces. To hold on to the BARMM government in 2025, it will need the support of Lanao del Sur Governor Mamintal Adiong Jr., the target of an assassination attempt in February. Under an agreement reached between Adiong and the MILF before the 2022 elections, the UBJP will not contest municipal elections in 2025 – all mayors will run as candidates of Adiong’s party Serbisyong Inklusibo Alyansang Progresibo (SIAP) – but UBJP and SIAP will divide up the Congressional districts. Whether the deal lasts until 2025 remains to be seen. Election violence in Lanao del Sur is so likely that the police are planning to deploy 1,000 officers as election inspectors in October, and political attacks could wreck the pact.

To understand how the MILF finds itself in such dire straits heading into the barangay elections, it is worth comparing to the local elections in 2006 in Aceh, Indonesia, the first after a peace agreement was reached between guerrillas of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) and the Indonesian government. GAM, like the MILF, was fielding candidates for the first time and was widely expected to lose out to politicians of established national parties. Instead, it won by a landslide, but it had many advantages that the MILF does not.

1. The timing was better. In Aceh, the 2006 elections came less than 18 months after the peace agreement. The guerrillas had not yet been given a chance to govern, so they could not be accused of not delivering. By 2025, the MILF will have governed BARMM for six years, with many already complaining already of poor performance and corruption.

2. GAM was the only organization with a strong presence in rural Aceh. None of the traditional politicians ventured to go there, no other armed groups or insurgencies were around to challenge them. In BARMM, the clans have their patronage networks down to the sub-village level, making it difficult for the UBJP to gain traction. Even in clans with strong MILF representation, many leaders saw BARMM as a threat to the established power structure and chose to run against the UBJP in 2022.

3. GAM had a single, powerful message: it’s either us or a return to conflict. They could convincingly say this because there was only one real conflict, GAM vs. the state. In Mindanao, there are multiple conflicts that have little to do with the MILF-government peace process. What then is a credible, compelling message for UBJP?

4. In Aceh, the decommissioning of fighters was completed before the first elections took place, but the 2005 peace agreement recognized far fewer combatants and guns than in Mindanao – 3,000 as opposed to 40,000 fighters and 840 weapons as opposed to 7,200 guns. One difference was that the Aceh agreement specified the guns turned in had to be factory-made and fully functional, whereas most acknowledge that most of the guns being turned over in Mindanao are “junk”.

5. GAM successfully played on Acehnese nationalism during the 2006 campaign, with winning candidates wearing Acehnese dresses and speaking Acehnese. But GAM was always far more ethnically homogeneous than the MILF ever was. One of the MILF’s biggest challenges running BARMM has been to forge a regional identity beyond ethnicity and religion, and it still has a long way to go.

6. Finally, 2006 was the electorate’s first-ever opportunity to vote for GAM and for independent candidates. When GAM candidates won, the reaction was euphoric. In Mindanao, voters have already voted in the BARMM plebiscite, the 2018 barangay elections, and the 2022 elections. There is no euphoria left.

In short, the MILF faces enormous obstacles in 2025, and the October 30 barangay elections in BARMM are likely to make its task even harder.

Sidney Jones is the founder and senior adviser of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) and an adjunct associate professor in the international relations department at New York University.