Philippines: Polls in Autonomous Muslim Region Postponed till 2025

Jeoffrey Maitem
Cotabato, Philippines
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Philippines: Polls in Autonomous Muslim Region Postponed till 2025 Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) shakes hands with Murad Ebrahim, chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, during the oath-taking of the Transition Authority at the Malacañang palace in Manila, Feb. 22, 2019.

Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte has signed a law postponing parliamentary elections in an autonomous Muslim region currently governed by former separatist rebels in the south, his office said Friday.

Voters in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) were set to elect their first government next year, but the head of the transitional authority in the region had requested more time to complete reforms that he said were needed before the polls.

The polls “shall be held and synchronized with the 2025 national elections,” said the amended version of the law that Duterte signed on Thursday.

Ahod Balawag Ebrahim, who heads the former separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the transitional authority in BARMM had pushed strongly for the postponement of the polls.

Known widely as Murad Ebrahim, the leader had said that the COVID-19 pandemic had disrupted efforts by the transitional authority to complete foundational work in time for the regional polls originally expected in 2022.

“Initially, we wanted six years [of transition] but the Moro Islamic Liberation Front had agreed to a compromise of three years. However, we see that time as very short,” Murad told BenarNews last December.

He was referring to negotiations that ended the front’s decades-long armed separatist campaign and led to the creation BARMM.

“The extension for three more years gives us a better chance for healing, for rebuilding, and for setting the future of the Bangsamoro,” Murad had said at the time.

MILF used to be the largest of guerrilla organizations fighting for a separate Muslim state in the mainly Catholic Philippines since 1978. In 2014, it signed a Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) with the government after 17 years of conflict and negotiations in Mindanao.

The front settled for expanded autonomy and agreed that its members would turn in their weapons. In February 2019, these former guerrillas, led by Murad, formally assumed leadership of the autonomous Muslim region.

‘Absence of an electoral framework’

Postponing the vote is tantamount to extending the term of the region’s caretaker government, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, Georgi Engelbrecht, senior analyst, Philippines, said on Friday.ñ

“‘[T]he former rebels running the interim government had to put aside their institution-building in order to spearhead relief operations in the region while dealing with periodic lockdowns and steering a less operational Bangsamoro Parliament,” the International Crisis Group’s expert said in an ICG Q&A.

“Another part of the rationale for extending the transition was the absence of an electoral framework to guide parliamentary polls in the new autonomous region.”

According to Engelbrecht, the interim government was responsible for designing the framework, or electoral code, but at present, only a draft code exists.

Engelbrecht noted that some observers alleged that MILF might have had an interest in extending the transition period because it meant the group would have another three years before facing voters for the first time.

“While that is difficult to corroborate, the fact remains that electing 80 parliamentarians without clear guidelines would have proven challenging,” the ICG expert said.

Meanwhile, Naguib Sinarimbo, BARMM’s minister of the interior and local government, said Murad thanked Duterte for allowing the postponement of polls.

“We are elated. At least now we can focus on strengthening our programs,” Sinarimbo told BenarNews in a phone interview.

“Rest assured, we can continue his legacy of peace and development in the region beyond his term.”

Congressman Esmael Mangudadatu of Maguindanao Province, who had pushed for the postponement, welcomed Duterte’s decision.

“We would like to thank those who supported the proposal until the end…This measure is a step to ensure that the peace agreement will be implemented for the welfare of the entire Bangsamoro and the Philippines,” Mangudadatu said in a statement.

“We are very grateful that our national leaders in Congress heeded our call for extension and we especially commend President Duterte.”


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