Election violence escalating in Philippines

By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune
Published: May 6, 2007

MANILA: With only a week remaining before the elections in the Philippines, violence has been escalating nationwide, with almost daily attacks reinforcing the notoriety of this country’s politics as one of the deadliest in Southeast Asia.

According to the police, 75 people, several of them candidates for positions in provinces, towns and cities across the country, have been killed while more than 80 have been wounded in election-related attacks since the Jan. 14 start of the campaign for the balloting next Monday.

The latest attack occurred Friday, when armed men ambushed a convoy of a congressional candidate in Abra Province in the north, killing six people.

While the death toll so far is only half of the 150 casualties in the 2004 elections, the authorities are expecting the worst as the campaign nears its finish. Many of the violent incidents in the past took place during the counting of the votes.

“Our intelligence prediction is that the violence will go up,” Wilfredo Garcia, operations chief of the national police force that is overseeing a campaign against election-related violence, said last week.

The government has been carrying out several measures to minimize the violence, like asking soldiers to augment the police force, putting up 24-hour checkpoints and dismantling the private armies of politicians.

On Saturday, the police asked Filipinos to provide them information on violent acts and any perpetuators. The influential Roman Catholic Church has urged Filipinos to pray for a peaceful election.

“During this election period, we are praying that violence will not increase, that this will no longer increase when Election Day arrives,” President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Saturday in a speech. Earlier, she urged politicians “to keep tensions at bay and not to test or defy the authorities.”

Elections are notoriously violent in the Philippines, particularly in the provinces, where a feudal type of politics still reigns and where private armies maintained by politicians are common. Philippine politics is dominated by so-called political dynasties, where feuds among political families often turn deadly.

Aggravating the problem is the proliferation of what the police call “loose firearms” that are being used by the private armies of politicians. According to the police, more than 2,000 violators of a gun ban have been arrested since the start of the campaign and more than 1,700 weapons have been seized.

The police also have said they have more than half of the estimated 90 private armies around the country.

The violence is more prevalent during elections of officials for local seats – members of Congress, governors, mayors and councilors – like the coming one, with nearly 87,000 candidates running for more than 17,000 positions.

“The power and the action are really at the local level,” said Alex Brillantes, dean of the National College of Public Administration and Governance at the University of the Philippines, explaining why the violence continues. “We really should be bothered by this violence,” he added.

Experts argue that this “local power” has grown stronger in the last two decades and that this partly explains the prevalence of election violence.

“This propensity for politically motivated violence is related to the spoils awarded to the winners of local contests for public office,” wrote Patrick Patino and Djorina Velasco in a 2004 study commissioned by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German foundation that advocates changes in the Philippine electoral system.

“These spoils continue to become more substantial, as the potentials of fiscal decentralization are coming to fruition,” they continued. “As local governments depend less and less on patronage from the central government, national candidates, nevertheless, remain as dependent as ever on the vote-mobilizing capacities of their local allies. This makes local power wielders even more influential.”

International Herald Tribune

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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