CEMS Bulletin – 22 May 2019

Fraud and Violence: Mainstays of Bangsamoro Electoral Politics

“Generally peaceful” was the Palace’s assessment of the 13 May polls for national and local posts.1 Nothing could be further from the truth, especially where Muslim Mindanao was concerned.

A total of 108 reports on election-related incidents were received on 13 May by International Alert Philippines’s Critical Events Monitoring System, sent in by Early Response Network members stationed all over Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao including Cotabato City, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and parts of North Cotabato.2

A preview of election day, 11-12 May yielded a total of 36 reports, as anticipation among voters and heightened tensions among candidates and their supporters spurred reporting at a faster clip than in previous days.

The two days before election day saw many voters returning to hometowns, candidates making their final appeals to voters, and candidates’ supporters positioning themselves to gain the biggest advantage for their principals. Explosives were set off to sow fear among voters and poll workers and to preoccupy the police and military deputized by Comelec to ensure order during the election.

Election day saw more explosions, and gunfights and fistfights between candidates’ supporters and poll watchers. Voters lined up early, but election machine breakdowns tested their patience and stamina to overcome the sweltering heat and their own hunger. Their bigger complaint, however, was of disenfranchisement and fraud, allegedly committed by poll watchers and their own barangay officials.

Tensions and scare tactics

Candidates made use of the last day of the campaign period, 11 May, to sway voters. At the same time, vote-buying continued.

Looking forward to election day, voters made their way back to municipalities where they were registered to vote. Their vehicles jammed municipal and city roads. Traveling on the same roads were groups of people suspected of being ‘flying voters’, individuals carted from elsewhere to boost votes for candidates.

The police and military tightened security, while teachers, deputized as members of electoral boards, finalized preparations.

Tensions among candidates and their supporters boiled over. In Datu Unsay, Maguindanao, a grenade exploded on 11 May amid an influx of people believed to be flying voters to the town. A brawl broke out between supporters of two candidates for mayor on 11 May and again the next day near the polling precincts. In Malabang, Lanao del Sur, supporters of two candidates scuffled on 11 May after the testing of the vote counting machines (VCM).

Meanwhile, an explosion on the eve of election day ripped through an area at the back of the city hall in Cotabato City.

Machine failures and vote rigging

The explosion in Cotabato City the previous night failed to dissuade voters, who trooped to polling precincts on 13 May even before these opened at 6 a.m. Majority were Muslims, whose only meal that day was at dawn, having gone on a fast this holy month of Ramadan. In Datu Odin Sinsuat municipality, there was an explosion at around 1 a.m. and again at around 7:30 a.m., but that did not suspend the voting there.

Reports indicated that voting did not start as scheduled in many towns, resulting in the buildup of voters, who got more and more impatient as they waited outside the precincts. When the precincts opened, the lines became unruly, with voters shoving against each other or trying to cut in line. Some women were crushed in Brgy. Wawalayan Calocan, Marawi City; a woman in Brgy. Rorogagus in the same city fainted. To put order to the lines, voting had to be momentarily stopped in Parang, Maguindanao, while in Bayang, Lanao del Sur, a soldier had to give a warning shot.

Technical failures were one reason for the slow-moving queues. Voter registration verification machines (VRVMs), used for the first time in the Bangsamoro provinces as part of a nationwide test and touted to thwart flying voters, broke down. Voter verification had to be done manually. VCMs also malfunctioned. In some precincts, ballots were spit out after they were fed into the VCMs. There was confusion among voters as to what to do next: wait until the VCMs were repaired or leave the ballots with members of the electoral boards? In Marawi City, ballots that were rejected by VCMs were reportedly “collected”, raising the specter of cheating.

There were more blatant instances of vote-rigging, however, according to reports. Barangay officials partial for certain candidates reportedly stopped voters perceived to support the other candidates from entering the polling precincts and undertook the shading of ballots themselves. Same as barangay officials, poll watchers also reportedly checked the entry of voters to the precincts by letting in only those who would vote for their candidates. In other instances, they allegedly checked how the ballots were shaded. If the votes went to rivals, they purportedly discarded these ballots and filled up new ones. Poll watchers also purportedly offered money to voters in exchange for votes or withheld the marking pens unless voters chose their candidates. In worse cases, they reportedly used intimidation to force voters to vote for their candidates.

Scuffles broke out among candidates’ supporters and poll watchers as they contested for votes. At least 20 such incidents were reported within and outside polling places in Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. Many got injured; a poll watcher in Jolo, Sulu for instance got stabbed. In Lumbatan, Lanao del Sur, a confrontation between supporters of two candidates for mayor resulted in at least one dead.

Political rivalries continued to be violently played out elsewhere. In Ganassi, Lanao del Sur, shooting between groups of rival candidates for mayor injured four people who were travelling through town in a vehicle.  Shootings were also reported in Marantao, Malabang, and Tubaran in Lanao del Sur, Parang in Maguindanao, and Panglima Estino in Sulu.

Nighttime did not bring any respite from the threats and violence. Between 6 and 7 p.m. in Wao, Lanao del Sur, a hand grenade was thrown and exploded at the back of an old building five meters near the polling precincts. At 10 p.m. in Cotabato City, another blast occurred where an explosion happened the previous night.

Download PDF of the full report with the incident maps here.