Bangsamoro plebiscite: will the BARMM be more than ARMM in territorial scope?

COTABATO CITY (MindaNews / 20 January) – A total of 2,165,316 registered voters in the five-province, two-city Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and the cities of Cotabato and Isabela will troop to the polls on Monday, January 21, while at least 600,000 voters in Lanao del Norte and North Cotabato will vote on February 6 to finally determine the territorial jurisdiction of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), the new autonomous political entity that will replace the 28-year old ARMM.

The present ARMM comprises five provinces – Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi – and the cities of Marawi in Lanao del Sur and Lamitan in Basilan.

At the provincial “grand rally” to push for the ratification of RA 11054 or the Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao last Tuesday in Buluan, Maguindanao, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) thanked Maguindanao leaders for what he described as “overwhelming” support for a “yes” vote, noting that Maguindanao is “the deciding factor.’’

Maguindanao women show their support for the Bangsamoro Law during a rally for the law’s ratification in Buluan, Maguindanao on 15 January 2019. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

As the vote-richest province in the ARMM, Maguindanao (650,244 voters), also the base of the MILF, represents a third of the total ARMM vote of 1.98 million.

Political clans from the administration and the opposition camps in Maguindanao are all campaigning for a “yes” vote in rallies and through posters, billboards and tarpaulins, some even bearing their photographs.

But if Maguindanao turns the other way, Murad said, it will be back to the ARMM whose lone gubernatorial candidate – the sure winner if RA 11054 is not ratified on January 21 and February 6 and the ARMM elections would push through in May – is a Mangudadatu. Datu Ibrahim Jong Mangudadatu, former mayor of Buluan, Maguindanao, filed his certificate of candidacy for ARMM Governor as substitute candidate to his cousin, Bagua Datu Mangudadatu.

But the Mangudadatu brothers led by Maguindanao Governor Esmael Mangudadatu, including the candidate for ARMM Governor, were all present at the January 15 “grand rally” in Buluan. The Maguindanao governor ended the six-hour rally with a prayer that “Yes” would win in the province.

The ARMM has a total voting population of 1,980,441 for the January 21 plebiscite according to the Comelec’s ARMM regional director, Ray Sumalipao.

Maguindanao (650,244 registered voters) accounts for 32.8% of the total ARMM votes followed by Lanao del Sur (554,552 or 28%), Sulu (375,087 or 18.34%), Tawi-tawi (209,697 or 10.58%) and Basilan (190,861 or 9.64%). Lanao del Sur includes the voters of Marawi City while Basilan includes the voters of Lamitan City

The cities of Cotabato and Isabela which will also vote on January 21, have a combined voting population of 184,875. Cotabato City has 113,751 registered voters while Isabela City in Basilan has 71,124.

Cotabato and the then newly-created city of Isabela voted against inclusion in the supposed “expanded” ARMM in 2001. Cotabato city voted against inclusion in the ARMM in the 1989 plebiscite but under the organic law creating the ARMM — RA 6734 — the city, the seat of the Regional Autonomous Government under Marcos, was to be the “temporary seat” of the ARMM. It has been so since the ARMM was inaugurated in 1990.

“Yes” even if Sulu votes “no”

Officials in the provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan and Tawi-tawi have vowed to deliver “yes” votes in the January 21 plebiscite.

Officials of Sulu, the third vote-richest province in the ARMM (375,087 voters), are campaigning for “no” to inclusion in the BARMM and in fact, the province of Sulu petitioned the Supreme Court in October 2018, questioning the constitutionality of the law and asking for a temporary restraining order to stop the Commission on Elections from holding the plebiscite. No TRO was issued by the Supreme Court.

The Sulu petition also questioned why the votes in the ARMM’s provinces and cities would be considered as one geographical area, alleging it “violates the constitutional requirement enshrined in Section 18, 2nd paragraph, Article X of the Constitution that the creation of the autonomous region shall be effective when approved by majority of the votes cast by the constituent units in a plebiscite called for the purpose.”

Source: Comelec

MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim is confident that they will get majority votes for “yes” in the four ARMM provinces. Even if Sulu votes no, he said, it will still be part of the core of the BARMM because RA 11054 provides that the votes of the ARMM’s component provinces and cities shall be treated as one geographical area.

The four other ARMM provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan and Tawi-tawi have a combined voting population of 1.6 million

Double majority

The MILF hopes the BARMM will be more than the ARMM not only in terms of powers but also in terms of territorial scope.

Murad and MILF peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal are confident the present ARMM will be part of the BARMM. But both said having a BARMM comprising only the ARMM is not what they envision the BARMM to be.

Murad told MindaNews after the Peace Assembly here Friday where President Rodrigo Duterte called for a “yes” vote that the are “very confident” because the President’s presence “talaga boosted very much yung chance natin dito sa BOL.”

The mayor of Cotabato City, presently the seat of the ARMM, is leading the campaign for a “no” vote. Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi told MindaNews the city can survive and thrive even if the city is not part of the BARMM.

The mayor, herself a Moro, said the city’s population is predominantly Moro but the voting population is 53% non-Moro.

Campaign materials call for “yes” or “no” to the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law have sprouted in major thoroughfares of the city in this photo taken on 19 January 2019. MindaNews photo by MANMAN DEJETO

Opposition to inclusion in the BARMM has been registered by officials leading campaigns for “no to inclusion” in the cities of Cotabato, Isabela and the province of Lanao del Norte, where six of its 22 towns voted for inclusion in the supposed “expanded” ARMM in 2001 and are voting again on the issue of inclusion in the BARMM. The law, however, provides that even if the six towns vote “yes,” they can be part of the BARMM only if the voters in the 16 other towns also vote “yes.”

The same rule of “double majority” applies to Isabela City and the 67 villages in seven North Cotabato towns that are voting on inclusion in the BARMM. They can only be part of BARMM if majority will vote yes in their areas, and if the voters in their mother units give their consent, Basilan in the case of Isabela.

“That’ s why we’re struggling very much,” Murad told MindaNews. Kasi kung yung ARMM lang ang makuha natin, wala nang chance ang iba na makapasok. Dapat kasama rin sila,” he said.

The areas seeking inclusion in the BARMM have only this one chance to be part of the BARMM as the previous proposals of several plebiscites across the years were rejected by Congress.

Iqbal says they are “not looking at a smaller territory that’s why we are glued, especially on my part, to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote’” in the other proposed areas like Cotabato and Isabela.

He said they have been exerting efforts in Isabela. In Cotabato City, he said, “there are challenges but I think we will make it.”  (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)