Written by Rosalie Arcala Hall

Following the anniversary of the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) in March 2015, the matter regarding the stymied passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) bill was suddenly thrown in the Philippine Presidential campaign limelight. Liberal Party candidate Mar Roxas made an appearance at Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao with a media entourage as did Partido Demokratikong Pilipino-Laban candidate Rodrigo Dueterte. United Nationalist Alliance candidate Jejomar Binay shortly made a public pronouncement vowing to support the passage of the BBL. However, these policy pronouncements made during campaigns should not be taken seriously; they are not bellwethers of the fate of the negotiated settlment on the Bangsamoro issue. Political parties, which are mere campaign vehicles for Presidential wannabes, do not map specific policy preferences. Past Presidential candidates have historically looked at the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) as areas where local power brokers can be depended upon to deliver votes. Clan dominance in local electoral outcomes and the datu system (e.g. locked-in electorate via force, intimidation or familial connections, pre-determined set of candidates) have lubricated this national-local bargain for decades. Autonomy issues have never been prominent among voters outside Manila. For women, the first-past-the post, winner take all scheme and the party-list system have only marginally served as empowerment vehicle. Muslim women in elected posts are overwhelmingly tied up with their clans as substitute/stand-ins for termed out male relatives; their number well below the national average of 10% of total elected posts.

These negative prognoses notwithstanding, the MILF and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) are taking steps towards their transformation from an armed group into a democratic player outside of the Presidential electoral politics. At the height of optimism from the signing of the CAB in 2014, they have decided to build their own regional political parties with the new electoral rules under the proposed Bangsamoro Parliament in mind. With provisos for sectoral representation, and mixed district-based and proportional representation schemes, the MILF and MNLF players are looking at favourable incentives to craft parties that can match-up to clans. The MILF has the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP), which has received Commission on Election (COMELEC) accreditation as regional political party in December 2015. The MNLF has the Bangsamoro Women United Party (BWUP) and the Moro National Solidarity Party (MNSP), both have yet to complete the COMELEC registration requirements. While political parties with a regional following are not new in the Bangsamoro area— OMPIA Party propelled Mahid Mutilan as one term Marawi City Mayor (1988-1991) and 3-term Governor (1992-2001); Anak Mindanao, a national party list have won seats in the last 2 elections with substantial votes from the ARMM; Suara Bangsamoro, a Bayan Muna party-list affiliate joined the last 2 elections but never won seats— the UBJP, BWUP and MNSP as armed group-linked political parties depart from earlier party templates because they are benchmarks in the arduous march towards normalisation.

What are these new regional political parties doing that hold promise for the Bangsamoro area? A commissioned study by the Asia Foundation (TAF) on these political parties undertaken by this author reveal some interesting nuances. First, they are doing grassroots mobilisation the way political parties should— investing resources towards populating local chapters throughout Central Mindanao and the island provinces (Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan); voter registration drive and recruiting volunteers. They are drawing deep from affiliated civil society organisations, piggy backing their activities with development projects carried out in communities and cooperatives. They are building linkages with local rebel commands. They are supported by their “principals”- the UBJP created by an MILF Central Committe directive, while the BWUP and MNSP are tacitly allowed by the Misuari and Executive Council MNLF factions. They are reaching out to external donors for training and capacity building. There are no formal links between these Bangsamoro regional parties and the national parties or party lists, providing limited prospects for cross fertilisation. Second, these parties have a conscious policy agenda, with an articulated gender element in their structure, membership recruitment strategy, public education and projected candidate nomination procedure. The UBJP and BWUP rely on the MILF and MNLF’s network of women (Mindanawan Federation of Cooperatives; MILF Bangsamoro Social Welfare Committee) as their backbone for voter mobilisation.  BWUP aims to inculcate Muslim-culture convergent principles among their candidates-nominees and mass base through their voter’s education. UBJP’s appeal is more geared towards Bangsamoro identity which as understood incorporates those of Muslim women within the ambit of their assumed importance as a sector. Third, all parties consider women’s participation in electoral contest a given, but share common view with MILF and MNLF male leaders that women are best suited to legislative but not executive positions, where women can be  considered only as last resort if qualified males are unavailable.

Regardless of these commendable features, the elephant in the room remains. These “political parties” are navigating the grey area of legal/illegal character of their principals. When normalisation is assumed as a sequential process, party formation should only come about after the armed group has been demobilized. As neither the MILF nor the MNLF has undergone such demobilisation process, how is the formal link between their party offshoots and the armed group supposed to be treated? Is not such arrangement parallel to the highly contested link between the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) and leftist political parties? What does it mean for these parties to be COMELEC-accredited if their links with the armed group have not been severed?      Both parties admit to actively seeking support/acquiescence from local commanders on their mobilisation activities. But the nether-zone status of the BBL, upon which the proposed new political arrangement (Bangsamoro Parliament) the whole party building enterprise  of the  UBJP, BWUP and MNSP is anchored, makes for weaker  leveraging vis-a-vis these local commanders.  With timelines off, UBJP has decided not to field local candidates nor would it support national candidates in the 2016 elections. BWUP and MNSP organising efforts are affected by the differential logistics challenges between Central Mindanao and the islands, but are supporting individual candidates whose record they believe are in line with their agenda. As with everything else, let us wait and see after 9 May 2016.

Rosalie Arcala Hall is Professor of Political Science and Scientist 1 at the University of the Philippines Visayas, Miagao, Iloilo.

Disclaimer This article contains materials from a report that was made possible with the support of the Australian Embassy-The Asia Foundation Partnership in the Philippines. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this article however, do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Embassy or that of The Asia Foundation.

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