The Hope and the Challenge

Ms. Co is an associate professor at the National College of Public Administration and Governance, University of the Philippines. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, August 15, 2005 edition, page S1/5

Recently, a lawyer friend, who is connected with the Center for Bangsamoro Law and Policy Concerns, sent me a copy of the manifesto put out by the Caucus on Muslim Mindanao affairs. There was time enough for its circulation before the elections in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which were held last 8 August.

The manifesto is a challenge to Muslim leaders and their commitment to good governance in the ARMM. The challenge directs candidates and leaders to three main agenda, namely, 1) Effective Exercise of Power, 2) Efficient Administration, and 3) Delivery of Services. Certainly, it recognizes that there is widespread poverty, deep wounds of conflict, cynicism toward governance in Mindanao— all leading to general apathy and bitterness among the Bangsamoro population.

However, some optimism can be gleaned from the manifesto in that the Bangsamoro young leaders and professionals, like my friend, still see the hope that ARMM leaders might heed the call for good governance. Thus his call for the Bangsamoro to lay their claim on the ARMM and the elections both as right and duty, as citizens and as followers of Islam.

The manifesto was put out before the ARMM elections took place. But upon scrutiny, the manifesto might as well have been put out at any time, election time or not. Elections are an event to challenge leaders to frame a good program of governance, and for election administrators to ensure the credibility of the exercise since elections provide the citizen the opportunity to cast his or her one vote.  One vote that along with other votes, ultimately make for a vital democratic mechanism. The August 8 election should have provided the opportunity for the Bangsamoro population to reckon with how well the leaders have lived up to their people’s expectations.

August 8 was also a day of reckoning of sorts for the Commission on Elections (Comelec).  Did the Comelec come out of its stained image, after the tape controversy and political scandal, and deliver a credible election? A Comelec official declared it to have been “abnormal, because it was generally peaceful.”  Side by side with the Moro leader’s challenge to his leaders and the Bangsamoro people, the ARMM election stood as a test and challenge to the electoral management body. Yet, as is “normal,” a newspaper editorial noted that the ARMM elections included the usual vote buying, presence of flying voters, ballot snatching, etc.

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The Comelec is supposed to be independent from government. But in practice it has not been successful in freeing itself from the political maneuverings and design of the traditional elites. One can hardly blame the two rebel groups, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) for boycotting the elections. The rebel groups are convinced that elections have been a mockery of democracy, with the national government experimenting on ARMM autonomy, which has effectively been turned into a lameduck. Young Moro leaders claim that local ARMM officials exhibit more loyalty to Manila than to their constituents in the Moro land.

It might be worthwhile to examine our system of political representation linked to our system of selecting leaders through elections. Maybe it is time to re-think our electoral management body. For one, we can consider an electoral body whose functions are less aggregated as opposed to what we have at present: a Comelec serving as a junk yard of all sorts of functions. This includes administration, education, counting, proclamation, adjudication. During election time, the Comelec is a powerful body that commands the military forces and a cabal of operators in the regions; in reality however it does not exercise autonomy from political influences. Thus, altering the old Comelec to give way to a re-invented electoral management body would make eminent sense. We could consider any number of worthwhile changes.

For example, consider a permanent and professionally staffed body that is responsible for the registry, education, and administration of elections. That body should be lean but competent.  Consider professionals, such as statisticians, who know the numbers, to properly update the figures on voters from time to time.

Another would be to consider a convergence of functions by the Comelec and other agencies of government that count and regularly update statistics on registered citizens and voters, such as the National Statistics Office and the local government civil registries.  It is worth considering a supervisory authority jointly composed of partially party-based individuals, professional civil servants, credible individuals and representatives whose function among others, is to supervise contestable issues that bug the elections. That body, like Comelec, should be led by someone who has credible leadership, managerial competency and above all, a vision for fair political representation.

In adjudication, consider, as court or tribunal, that decisions and resolutions must be time-bound and clearly based upon self-executory laws rather than on laws that can be interpreted in as many ways as the number of lawyers in the land.

More, how about an expanded culture of elections, democratizing elections through widespread voter information and civic education, even including this into the school curriculum—not necessarily as an academic exercise, but as a co-curricular activity? Or, consider the private person as a public citizen.

Certainly, there is much to think about and consider regarding the electoral management body. And there are so many areas of reform not only in the Comelec but also within ARMM. Our Moro brothers and sisters have repeatedly expressed the dilemma of an ARMM that speaks more for the national government than for its own constituents, and the symbolism of authority and power that looks up to the national leadership rather than cast its eyes on the Bangsamoro population. Certainly, the challenge of my friend and his colleagues is opportune not only because ARMM just held an election, but also because ARMM may need a second look at leadership and governance and a set of leaders who are substantially different from the trapos in Manila.

The ARMM election came at an opportune time of change. Like the ARMM election, the nation faces a leadership crisis that seeks a resolution by a changing of the guards. Like the ARMM election, the nation requires not only a change of leadership but also of institutions that would yield credibility and bring back the trust of the people in our governance institutions.

Now that the ARMM elections are over, it remains to be seen whether some of these hoped-for changes can actually start taking root.

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