Elections in the Philippines are hotly contested throughout the country, and nowhere is this more true than in the restive Muslim south. Buried amid extensive press coverage of President Aquino’s third state of the nation address in mid-July was news that the provincial governors and lower level officials within the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) have joined the governing Liberal Party. In and of itself, this means little, as the party system in the Philippines is very weak; it is powerful families that dominate the country’s political landscape. Yet, with candidate registration for the May 2013 polls beginning in October, the move towards the Liberal Party suggests some interesting dynamics among the region’s clans.
At the time Crisis Group’s last paper on the southern Philippines was published in May, most local politicians were aligned with the party of the previous president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. By switching allegiance to Aquino, these politicians may give the Liberal Party a boost in the autonomous region, where it performed poorly in the last elections. The shift en masse of the Muslim political elite to the Liberal Party fits a well-established pattern in Philippine politics where ARMM’s elite ally themselves with the governing party in Manila.
The provincial governorships, which are up for grabs in next year’s elections, are highly coveted by the region’s political clans, and party membership plays a role in how they build alliances with one another. With the five provincial governors within ARMM now on the Liberal Party slate, some erstwhile rivals might choose to join forces rather than face off at the party convention, where candidates will be selected, or at the polls.
On Basilan in June, a peace pact between the family of the governor, Jum Akbar, and her rivals, the Hatamans, was reached in which they agreed not to oppose each other in the next elections. This paved the way for the Akbars to join the Liberal Party, under whose banner some family members will run, likely alongside candidates from the Hataman clan in the 2013 polls. If there is a joint Akbar-Hataman ticket for governor and vice-governor, the wild card is the province’s vice-governor, Al-Rasheed Sakkalahul, who is very popular and is not a member of either clan.
Another province to watch is Maguindanao, where in November 2009 the private army controlled by the ruling governor killed 58 people in a rival candidate’s convoy. The rival, Toto Mangudadatu, ended up being elected provincial governor in 2010 through a combination of sympathy vote and a strategic alliance with the Mastura clan. Until the current provincial governors joined the Liberal Party in July, it looked as though the families would oppose each other in 2013, with Toto Mangudadatu and Tucao Mastura, a long-time Liberal Party supporter, both standing for provincial governor. Instead of facing each other at the ballot box, they may instead compete first at the party convention, and the loser could well end up jumping ship to a rival party for the election proper.
Consolidating the support of the major clans in ARMM may be good electoral strategy in the eyes of Aquino’s Liberal Party strategists – and could reduce election-related violence by cooling down clan rivalries – but it does nothing to reduce the stranglehold of these powerful families over the region’s politics. But Aquino’s supporters, such as the acting regional governor Mujiv Hataman, see it differently. As he told Rappler.com, “ARMM is now treading the straight path. The five governors and other local leaders are now under the fold of the Liberal Party. This heralds the realisation of change and progress in the ARMM”.