From excitement to vigilance: Post-election prospects for peace in the Philippines

This month’s presidential election in the Philippines was the most violent in recent memory, with the Commission on Human Rights receiving more than 230 reports of election-related offenses, up from 109 during the 2013 elections and 160 during the 2010 elections. Candidates and their supporters jostled with one another to shout the loudest, particularly on social media. However, after results were released, though partial and unofficial, vicious politicking soon quieted as it became clear who the electorate had chosen as their next set of leaders.

Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao who campaigned for sweeping ‘change’, took an unassailable lead in the presidential race, as was predicted in the polls. Before the end of Election Day, he released a statement addressed to opponents and other candidates to “begin the national healing now.” Concessions by two other presidential candidates (Grace Poe and Mar Roxas) ensued not long after. In the vice-presidential race, however, the fight continues between the top two contenders – Leni Robredo and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. – with the results too close to call.

A date has not yet been set for when the President- and Vice-President-elect will be officially announced by the Philippine Congress. However expectations are already high that the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and communist insurgents will move forward – and even be concluded. 

Duterte, the first president from Mindanao to be sworn into office, has promised to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that will create a potentially bigger autonomous region in Mindanao for Muslim Filipinos and to revive the peace negotiations with communist insurgents. The BBL is a key piece of legislation in the peace process. An advocate for federalism, Duterte also said he will push for a change in the form of government from unitary to federal, and use the BBL as a “template for federal states.” These plans have garnered support, especially from those in Mindanao.

Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the MILF, has vowed to partner with the new administration, stressing the MILF remains “highly optimistic and confident that [Duterte’s] victory would carry with it our hopes and aspirations for peace and justice in Mindanao.” Re-elected Governor Mujiv Hataman and Vice Governor Haroun Al-Rashid Lucman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARRM) have expressed the same confidence, following Duterte’s revelation that he plans to offer fellow Mindanaon Jesus Dureza the position of Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process. Dureza previously served as Peace Adviser to former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Duterte also said the peace process with the MILF will include the Moro National Liberation Front that signed a peace pact with the Philippine government in 1996, the lumad (indigenous peoples of Mindanao), and other sectors that complained of being excluded from the peace negotiations by the outgoing Aquino government.

Duterte has also officially offered a hand in peace to Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Informal talks between the two resulted in Duterte committing to a ceasefire once he is officially sworn in. He has also offered cabinet posts to CPP members and promised, as part of confidence-building measures, to release “all political prisoners.”

Duterte has also floated names for the Departments of Justice and Foreign Affairs, and for his National Security Adviser. He is yet to name his appointees to the Departments of the Interior and Local Government and National Defense. These recruits will play an important role in the peace process with the MILF and National Democratic Front of the Philippines, the CPP’s political arm. Secretaries of all these Departments, along with the National Security Adviser and the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, will comprise the Security Cluster of the Cabinet that is tasked with “the pursuit of a just, comprehensive, and lasting peace.”

Progress underpins this peace, so it is crucial that economic growth from the past six years continues. Despite an initially vague platform and election jitters pulling financial markets down, Duterte’s eight-point economic agenda paints a clearer strategy for achieving this growth. This includes pursuing current macroeconomic policies, infrastructure spending at 5% of gross domestic product, supporting low-income farmers, improving land governance, and expanding the conditional cash transfer programme.

As the transition to the Duterte administration proceeds, the excitement over the ‘change’ that Filipinos won through their votes should give way to vigilance. They should watch out for whether elected leaders deliver on the promises they made during their campaign or not. Recent news, for instance, quoted Duterte’s candidate for the next House Speaker as saying the BBL will no longer be pursued as the shift to a federal form of government will be enough to “fix the Mindanao problem.”

It’s also important they have realistic expectations. Peace agreements aren’t concluded in a snap. Talks can stall for various reasons, and there will be spoilers to undermine the negotiations. Things can get worse before they get better.

Duterte’s first State of the Nation Address on 25 July will set out his vision and plans for the next six years. Right now, hopes are high that a lasting peace will be attained, but until results come through, it’s a wait-and-see.

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