This op-ed originally appeared on The Manila Times.
After decades of struggle in the southernmost Philippine island group, there is a promising chance for peace in Muslim Mindanao. One essential component for enhancing the humanitarian and socio-economic situation of the conflict-affected population in Southern Philippines is open access to political decision-making for everybody. This is crucial in order to cope with the Bangsamoro aspiration for true self-determination but it requires a bottom-up empowerment of citizens involving themselves in membership-based political parties and movements.
So far, the governmental machinery in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) reflects traditional clan- and personality-based politics. The rulers of the ARMM which was created by Republic Act 6734 of 1989 do not deliver the kind of self-determination that the Bangsamoro people strived for so many years. In fact, the political structure of the ARMM reflects the overall presidential form of government in the Philippines. While the region’s executive branch is headed by the regional governor and vice governor, the Regional Legislative Assembly represents the legislative branch of the ARMM government. However, this distribution of power is not in accordance with all the agreements that had been contracted in the past Mindanao peace talks.
A key milestone in the peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro political region (FAB) at Malacañang Palace in October 2012. The FAB outlined the road map for replacing the ARMM by a new Bangsamoro political entity that establishes an electoral system suitable to a ministerial form of government. The Bangsamoro was supposed to be governed by a Basic Law (BBL) and maintain an asymmetric relationship with the central government.
However, it is evident that not much has changed since then. The challenges in passing the BBL in Congress still remain and a Bangsamoro parliament that consists of political party representatives cannot be established. Clans and personalities still play the major role in the politics of Muslim Mindanao as long as the foundations for a new style of politics are being undermined.
A parliamentary set-up could replace the system of patronage and poor governance. Political parties would take on greater significance to clan leaders and other influential personalities.
But this requires the formation of genuine political parties that the electorate can vote for at the regional level. Those political parties need to regard their members—the connecting link to the civil society—as the fundamental part and offer sufficient possibilities for intra-party discussions and formation of opinion. Otherwise, you create a situation that can be observed nationwide: a lack of credible political platforms that reflect a diversity of political ideologies but rather political parties as vehicles for political and business elites.
In order to develop a political identity, the members, who preferably originate from large portions of social groups, must have the capacities on how to organize their party as well as on how to cope with new issues and questions in view of current day-to-day developments and social change. This empowerment through political education needs to be done in order to avoid the domination of political parties by personalities.
Is this bottom-up empowerment of civil society and political parties in the poorest and least economically developed region in the country possible? The answer is yes.
For instance, the MILF has already formed the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP) and let its members and inner circle actively participate in existing political training activities. The Centrist Democratic Party (CDP) among with its youth wing Centrist Democratic Youth Association of the Philippines (CDYAP) is already active with a Bangsamoro chapter. Other marginalized civil society and indigenous people’s groups are also active in preparing their organizations for more active political involvement.
In the end, this development of a pluralistic political landscape concomitant with good governance would lead to a stronger and more unified Bangsamoro because of its inclusive approach: both genuine political parties and civil society organizations which are member-based and less personality-based can let people benefit from their programs through incorporating their ideas into politics.
But this news seems to be disregarded by the policymakers in Manila. Lessons from the past have shown that violations of the various peace arrangements have not been beneficial for the entire country. If this trend will just continue as before, social harmony in this part of Southern Philippines cannot be achieved.
The author is Project Manager of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) Philippines Office. He is responsible for the implementation of the European Union-funded project “Democratic Party Development Bangsamoro (DEPAdev)”. Prior to joining KAS, Hendrik Mollenhauer was a consultant at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Country Office Thailand in Bangkok. He holds a master’s degree in economic sociology, having studied at the University of Trier (Germany).