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It ain't over till ...

No longer will you see Kalashnikovs or AK-47s slung across shoulders like fashion accessories, or hand guns holstered loosely on waists, but go to any political sortie and you are sure to notice men in dark glasses mingling amongst the crowd carrying over-stuffed belt bags or pouches

Last modified: 3 May 2010 18:36
Photo from EPA

Gun ban – check. Government working on neutralising private armies – check. A population tired of powerful feuding families – check.  Why then has the incidence of violence not decreased this election season as much as hoped? 

For many Philippine politicians with bodyguards, the rules of campaigning have only meant their weapons now have to be concealed in public. 

No longer will you see Kalashnikovs or AK-47s slung across shoulders like fashion accessories, or hand guns holstered loosely on waists, but go to any political sortie and you are sure to notice men in dark glasses mingling amongst the crowd carrying over-stuffed belt bags or pouches. "Guess what's inside," a police officer recently told me with a wink.

'No easy task'

"It's not an easy task," Justice Monina Zeñarosa, Chair of the Commission to Dismantle Private Armies, told Al Jazeera.  

"Politicians want to arm themselves because they are afraid that the other politicians also have private armies."

It's a question of who blinks first – and no one wants to be caught unprepared.

"They want to level the playing field so to speak," Zeñarosa explained. "If they lay down their arms ... 'I also want to lay my arms,' that’s how they put it.  They don’t want to do it first; they want it ... simultaneous ... '"

Hotspots

An election "hotspot", Abra province in the northern Philippines is notorious for armed political feuding. Weeks after we did the above story, congressional candidate Cecilia Seares-Luna’s son – who is running for mayor -- was involved in a gun-battle in the centre of the capital city with his opponent’s men.  

There is now a warrant of arrest issued against his rival, the incumbent mayor, for that incident. It's not the first time both sides have been involved in such an exchange. 

Across the country in the south, Maguindanao province is also on the electoral body's watch-list. Last November, a family feud resulted in the massacre of at least 57 people – the worst incidence of political violence in the country. 

Members of a powerful clan closely allied with President Gloria Arroyo are now in custody and facing trial, but most of them are also still running for positions in the coming polls.

After this video was filmed, Esmael Mangudadatu’s convoy narrowly escaped a bomb blast while en route to a political rally.  No one was injured.

A military commander recently admitted to Al Jazeera that the government is partly to blame for the messy state of affairs.

"Family feuds have taken advantage of the unsteady situation ..." we were told. 

"We allowed them to possess arms to help us out ..." the officer said. 

"We relied on their loyalty so much and it made them arrogant ... (because) in a way, we owe them ... "

Fighting two of the longest-running insurgencies in the world, the Philippine government has, over the years, provided political allies with weapons to assist in the fight against Communist rebels and Muslim separatists. 

But instead of defeating "the enemy", authorities only succeeded in creating a whole new problem. There are millions of weapons now scattered throughout the country being used indiscriminately for personal gain. 

No longer naïve

But as ingrained as coercion and violence have become in Philippine elections, voters are no longer as naïve as politicians might like. 

With his military buzz-cut and dark sunglasses, taxi driver Santiago Magdantes looks more like a typical goon-for-hire than the concerned and thoughtful citizen he is. 

"I am worried about these elections," he said. "I know they are automated to prevent cheating, but you know Filipinos, they’re creative ... and they always find a loophole." 

It's a worry shared by many. On city streets and in rural areas, there are more and more conversations about fears of fraud and manipulation – "just like before" - and there is also a growing sense of the importance of self. 

The more they talk, the more they realise how tired they are of the way things are and that the only way things will change is if they make it so. If they demand it of themselves, and their politicians.

Bribing voters

"This one presidential candidate campaigned in our town the other week," Magdantes said.  "He was giving out money – just like they’ve always done." 

Did you take it, I inquired. 

"Of course!" he replied. "Who wouldn't? I definitely needed it ... but does this mean he has my vote?  Of course not!  Thank you for the cash Mr Politician," he said with a smile, "but my vote is my own."

The days hurtle on to the 10th of May ... campaigns are winding down, and as well as increased uncertainty, there is also excitement in the air. 

"A change will come," Magdantes said echoing the thoughts of many. "A change will definitely come."