Competing for the Crown Jewel: The Bangsamoro Plebiscite in Cotabato City

Recent Features


Competing for the Crown Jewel: The Bangsamoro Plebiscite in Cotabato City

The development holds broader significance for peace in the southern Philippines.

Competing for the Crown Jewel: The Bangsamoro Plebiscite in Cotabato City

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, center, and leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, right, shake hands during a ceremonial presentation of the signed “Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao” at Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines, Aug. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

Credit: AP Photo

On January 21, 2019, Filipinos in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and select local government units will participate in a plebiscite to determine whether their communities will incorporate into the proposed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR).

The creation of the BAR, which will replace the ARMM, will mark the conclusion of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front’s (MILF’s) armed struggled for autonomy and the peace process with the government. Thus, MILF chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim stated the plebiscite would “make or unmake our decades of negotiations as well as peacemaking.”

The fate of BAR and the peace process will be decided in the cities and barangays of Mindanao, where local political rivalries and terrorism may sway the outcome. In Cotabato City, considered the “crown jewel” of the Bangsamoro, contentious city politics and the threat of terrorism have already raised concerns regarding the future of the plebiscite.

How the city will vote in the plebiscite is an open question. The incumbent mayor, Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, expresses skepticism that her constituency would vote for inclusion in BAR, believing that her city will remain a regional economic center without the block grants it would receive as part of BAR. Often associated with the legacy of her brother and predecessor in office, the late Japal Guiani whose administration oversaw an investment and construction boom, Guiani-Sayadi and her running mate/nephew are campaigning on a platform of continued prosperity and security for the May 2019 mayoral race.

Guiani-Sayadi’s opponent is Maguindanao Representative Bai Sandra Sema, whose career is strongly defined by her support for BAR. As a congresswoman, she was instrumental to the passage of the Bangsamoro Organic Law that mandates the plebiscite, and her husband, Muslimin Sema, was a founding member of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and mayor preceding Japal Guiani.

She is joined on her ticket by her husband’s former vice mayor, Abdullah Andang, making the mayoral race reminiscent of previous contests between the Sema and Guiani families. Given Sema’s support for BAR, the plebiscite is in essence a referendum on her candidacy.

With the political careers and equities of Cotabato City’s elite at stake, tensions regarding the integrity of the plebiscite run high. Just this October, 4,000 newly registered voters were petitioned for disqualification by barangay officials due to allegedly being non-residents.

Cracks in the registration system became evident when those petitioned were not adequately informed of the challenge against their registration, with some becoming aware only through social media.  In response the Commission on Elections scheduled a two-day hearing for 1,400 of those petitioned, but only 200 appeared due to the lack of adequate notice. Those who did attend the hearing, including Bai Sandra Sema herself, were denied the opportunity to argue against their petitioners, who did not appear in court.

The question of voter registration remains a politically sensitive issue. Luwaran reported that 2,122 voters presumed to be supporters of BAR were disqualified from voting, while hundreds of others were unable to submit their registration by the November 7 deadline. The MILF’s peace panel chair Mohagher Iqbal commented that an unnamed Cotabato City official — most likely Guiani-Sayadi — was behind the effort to disenfranchise the registrants.

While Cotabato City grapples with the aftermath of the registration scandal, it must also contend with the prospect of political violence. Whereas in 2013 a car bomb likely targeting Guiani-Sayadi’s motorcade killed 8 people and wounded at least 40, the security situation in the city has since improved. Most notably, barangay elections this past May occurred without incident, thanks to the timely discovery and disposal of an IED set near a polling place three days before voting.

Overall, incidents of political violence in the city are less frequent and severe relative to the rest of Maguindanao, but the city has still endued clan violence, an attempted bombing in a Catholic cemetery, as well as the assassinations of a government employee, a police officer, and barangay officials since this September.

In response to violence in neighboring localities, municipal authorities implemented a “no ID, no entry” policy at checkpoints in the city, and a nightly curfew. These heightened security measures recently led to the interception of an IED in Datu Odin Sinsuat bound for Cotabato City. Even the city’s best efforts, however, cannot be perfect, and the continued ability of Islamic State-affiliated militants opposed to the peace process to attempt and perpetrate bombings in the surrounding area justifies concern for the security of the plebiscite.

Although Cotabato City is just one municipality participating in the plebiscite, the aforementioned challenges are by no means exclusive to it. In Zamboanga City, Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco castigated barangay officials and other petitioners for pushing for inclusion in the plebiscite, claiming that these efforts are aimed at dismembering the territorial integrity of the city. Meanwhile in Isabela City, former Rep. Sitti Djalia Turabin-Hataman, a staunch supporter of BAR in Congress, faces the difficult situation of persuading apprehensive Christian voters to support the plebiscite.

Meanwhile her opponent, incumbent Vice Mayor Cherrylyn Santos-Akbar, must also carefully manage her constituency, having received death threats for opposing the Bangsamoro Organic Law in 2014 when she was mayor. Finally, Isabela City as well as Zamboanga City can also expect violence from Islamic State-affiliated groups, particularly the Abu Sayyaf Group.

As one columnist observed, the fate of the MILF peace process depends on the transparent and peaceful conduct of the plebiscite throughout ARMM, but especially in the big cities that fall outside its authority. The successful integration of Isabela, Zamboanga, and especially Cotabato City into BAR would lend the new regional government much-needed legitimacy, and strengthen the mandate of MILF to govern. Therefore, should the plebiscite in Cotabato City be compromised by local politics or by terrorism, it is not just the governance of the city that is at stake, but the peace and prosperity of BAR as well.

Luke Lischin is an assistant research fellow at the National War College.