Real democracyin the BARMM

Real democracyin the BARMM

Elections may be considered the cornerstones of democracy. They are indispensable to bringing rule by the people, rather than rule by the few or the one. While a lot of literature and study is hinged on the integrity of those elections that come to pass, it is worth pointing out that the elections that do not take place or are postponed similarly have a crucial role to play in understanding democracy, democratization and electoral integrity.

From February 2020 to September 2021, at least 137 countries and territories have decided to hold elections despite concerns relating to COVID-19; at least 79 countries and territories have decided to postpone elections due to COVID-19 and at least 57 countries and territories have held elections that were originally postponed.

This is democracy, in all its authentic – and sometimes, very complex – glory. Rather than just a set of procedures and a checklist of tasks for the government to go through, true democracy is a system that achieves political equality and the popular control of government, one that considers if key principles of dignity, equality, participation and fairness have been upheld.

Needless to say, it is not a system where someone invests himself with the power to rule, or anoints himself with unconditional and unlimited power. What is less noted is the argument that democracy isn’t even a rule of the majority, if it meant that the interests of the minority were ignored. As it has been said many times before, democracy is the rule of government on behalf of all the people, according to the will of the people.

Recently, the will of the people was made ardently clear, when the Lower House approved House Bill 10121 on its final reading, with 187 affirmative and 0 negative votes for the resetting of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) elections for 2022 to 2025. The Senate, for its part, voted 21-2 to ratify a bicameral Senate-House version of the enabling legislation in order to make this possible. By synchronizing the dates of the BARMM elections with the upcoming midterm elections, our legislators recognized and affirmed two important considerations: first, the constitutionally-granted appointive powers of the President and second, the right of the people of the Bangsamoro region to have competent and reliable leaders.

Fortunately, “competent and reliable leaders” are exactly the best way to describe the incumbent officials of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), headed by Chief Minister Ahod Balawag Ebrahim. The fact that nearly everyone from the region celebrated this legislative postponement is a clear indication of the trust, support and recognition that the Chief Minister and his administrators have earned from the people that they serve.

Moreover, this is important for a newly democratized state like the BARMM, whose economy was hit especially hard during the worst of the lockdowns. Holding elections during natural disasters like a pandemic, according to the Election Law Journal Vol.19, will often lead to severely compromised opportunities for deliberation, contestation, participation and election management quality.

In essence, this bill provided more time and latitude to perfect the Bangsamoro Organic Law. It also allows the BTA to continue its remarkable work in building a strong foundation for lasting peace in the region. As an aside, the UN Security Council has previously noted that 50 percent of peace agreements fail within five years of signature. They say this is because negotiations and accords often do not address the root causes of conflict or seek to prevent a resurgence of conflict. In view of this, the extension was indeed a wise move.

The BTA building the bureaucracy, setting foundational codes and disarming former combatants may be seen as the proper steps to take for BARMM to end up in the top 50th percentile of those whose peace agreements have more than five years to sort out. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to something like elections in a pandemic, because people and resources differ in each situation. Similar to Nepal in 2008 and Tunisia in 2011, I believe that BARMM’s leaders, with the support of the Lower House and the Senate, seek to deepen democratic institutions in the region, rather than hinder them.

Ebrahim himself emphasized that the extension is not a cue to be complacent, but to instead be more challenged to accomplish what needs to be done. “We should double time to assure more programs, projects and policies come into light. This is arguably the most crucial stage of our journey to peace and development in our homeland,” the Chief Minister pointed out. As an exclamation point to his statement, the Bangsamoro official concluded with a powerful message: “We are Bangsamoro first. Isantabi na ang politika, Bangsamoro muna.”

Barak Allahu Feekum, Chief Minister, and to all your hardworking officials.

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