The MILF and the 2022 elections in the Philippines: The end of the revolution or politics as usual? 

By Mimmi Söderberg Kovacs

On 9 May, general elections took place across the Philippines. People went to the polling stations to cast their votes for their next President after six years with internationally controversial but locally popular strongman Rodrigo Duterte. As predicted in most pre-election polls, Ferdinand Marco Jr, the son of the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr and his wife Imelda who were infamously overthrown in a popular revolt in 1986 after years of corruption and repressive rule, won over the other candidates with almost twice as many votes as his closest competitor, sitting Vice President Leni Robredo. But the discussions about the implications of ‘Bongbong’ Macros’ land slide victory in the international press overshadowed another important event that took place simultaneously in the local government elections in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in the southern part of the country. 

This was the first time that the armed group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) participated in elections, following the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement in 2014 which sought to end decades of violent separatist insurgency. The former rebels have led the regional power-sharing government – the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority (BTA) – since its inauguration in early 2019. With 41 seats to the federal government’s 39 appointed seats. the group needs to engage in broad-based consultations but has exclusive control over cabinet positions. But until now, the group has not been exposed to the popular vote. The regional election that will mark the end of the transitional government has been postponed to 2025 following the recent extension of the transitional period. This granted the former rebels another three years of uncontested government power to implement the last provisions of the peace agreement before they will be exposed to regular and competitive elections in which they will no longer be guaranteed any political influence. 

The group’s participation in the local government elections this year was considered something of a litmus test of how the former rebels will fare in the far more important regional elections in 2025, when their political future will be at stake. It was therefore with great anticipation that the people of Bangsamoro watched as the MILF decided to field candidates in the 2022 elections for various local government positions in the region under the banner of its political party, the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (the UBJP). The MILF leadership also openly endorsed the candidacy of Leni Robredo in a ceremony in its Darapanan camp. BTA Chief Minister Murad, chairman of both the MILF and the UBJP, explained to MILF members and supporters at the proclamation rally at the start of the campaign period that voting for UBJP’s selected candidates should be seen as the continuation of the armed struggle and “the fruit of our sacrifice”.

Factors determining MILFs electoral support 

Outside MILF’s own ranks, support for the rebel-turned-rulers was also going to be dependent on how well the Bangsamoro voters believe that BARMM has performed in governing the autonomous region and distributing the peace dividends to the population. In this respect, the track record is mixed. The security situation has generally improved in the region and violence associated with the still armed groups – including those linked to transnational jihadist networks – has dropped significantly, although it could re-escalate. A recent report from the Philippines Statistical Authority also indicates that the economic situation of Bangsamoro – one of the poorest regions in the country – has improved considerably, with the second fastest growing economy of all regions in 2021. But the MILF-led BTA has also been criticized for its slow and inefficient decision-making, which has put it severely behind schedule in finalizing all the legal codes needed for the full implementation of the autonomy arrangement. Complaints are also often voiced regarding what is perceived to be MILF’s exclusive governing style, where important decisions are allegedly made behind closed doors by the group’s wartime central committee. The decommission of MILF combatants also lags behind considerably, but primarily because of financial shortcomings on the side of the federal government due to the Covid-19 response. 

But at the end of the day, it is probably politics as usual that will be the most difficult challenge to muster for the former rebels. Electoral politics in the Philippines – from the national government to the local level municipalities – has traditionally been dominated by a few clans and families, who also control most of the country’s land and economic resources. The establishment of the new self-governing Muslim region as part of the peace process therefore constituted something of an anomaly to the political system that cut across traditional patronage networks and power relations. This has put the MILF leadership – who once took to arms partly because they opposed this system – at odds with traditional power holders in the region who feel threatened by the new rebel rulers. So, when MILF decided to field its own political candidates in precisely those local government units where they have experienced the most open resistance against its governance in the past three years, these latent tensions developed into a “head on collision of forces”, as expressed by a UBJP representative. For example, the MILF leadership was looking to replace the mayor of the city of Cotabato whom they perceived was directly obstructing the implementation of key development and infrastructure projects initiated by the regional government. 

The election results are likely to further polarize these tensions as the UBJP secured a foothold in some cities and municipalities, notably Cotabato city, while losing in others, including in its stronghold area of Maguindanao. In addition, UBJP’s decided to field candidates that were not known MILF profiles but rather seasoned policians who sympathized with UBJP’s agenda. According to party representatives, this choice was done in an attempt to attract more broad-based support among the diverse voter base in BARMM. But it was also a decision that was strongly opposed by some former combatants who complained that this decision was made without consulting them. 

The experience of the MILF in light of research findings on rebel-to-party transformations

MILF is far from the only armed group that have experienced this journey from rebel movement to political contender. From the growing body of scholarly work on so called rebel-to-party transformations, recent research tells us that more than half of all non-state armed groups in civil wars since the early 1990s and onwards have formed political parties and participated in elections. Among peace agreement signatories, more than one-third became political parties or continued to operate as such. This is good news, as it has been found that the political inclusions of these actors in post-war politics is usually conducive for the implementation of peace agreements and durable peace. Three clusters of research findings in this scholarly literature are particularly relevant for understanding MILF’s current predicament. 

A first strand of inquiry has examined the role that elections play in rebel-to-party transformations. From this research, we know that the first election in particular is a strong predictor for both continued electoral participation and electoral performance. Former rebel parties that perform well in the first elections tend to continue to do so in all subsequent elections. In contrast, parties that perform poorly to begin with, rarely improve their performance in later elections. Based on the same research, we also know that former rebel parties tend to perform better, and for a more sustained period of time, when they can capitalise on previous political experience, when their wartime ideas retain political salience after the war, and they face a less crowded field of competitors. For those parties that struggle to gain any seats, institutional barriers such as the type of electoral system also matter for their survival. In line with this, other studies have found that when former rebel parties experience mass defections of its members, internal fragmentation, a strained relationship with civil society, and unfavorable electoral rules, they are unlikely to survive beyond the first election.

A second strand has focused more explicitly on the ideational trade-offs that are integral to the armed group’s transition from wartime organisation to political contender. One question is whether the new party will primarily appeal to voters from within its own ranks and stay true to its wartime ideology or if it will try to appeal to a broader segment of the population by seeking out alliances. While the latter is likley to be more advantageous for winning votes, it also run the risk of inciting intra-organizational divisions. Similar considerations influence the selection of candidates to run for office. A related question addressed is whether the revolutionary objectives of the movement changes or not after the entry to peaceful politics. Research has found that while some parties use the peace settlements to legitimize themselves and actively downplay wartime divisions, others will seek electoral support based on wartime divisions. Other studies have found that that superficial changes to the group’s image (such as name changes) matter less for the electoral performance of former rebel parties than genuine changes such as the official renouncement of violence. As a result of these trade-offs, former rebel parties often display traits of ‘ambivalent moderation’, embracing ideological moderation in public, while reinforcing continuation with its wartime ideals within its own ranks. 

A third strand of research has dedicated attention to the intra-party organizational dynamics of rebel-to-party transformations. Research has shown that the historical legacies of armed groups usually imply the need for intra-party democratic reforms as the group enters into party politics. At the same time, a more inclusive decision-making might heighten competition between internal factions. Studies have also show that the essentially authoritarian character of rebel movements can be useful asset for mobilizing voters. One of the most difficult challenges that the new party must face is to redefine its relationship to the rank-and-file of the armed movement. Because armed group membership is often an important aspect of their social identity, former combatants are often opposed to post-war policy changes in the former rebel party. At the same time,  studies also demonstrates the strategic value for former rebel parties to retain social relationships and values cultivated in local communities during the armed struggle and channel these social needs into electoral support in the post-war period. Recent research has also documented the many other forms of political engagement that exist outside party politics, such as veteran associations, civil society groups and social movements. The benefits of such political activism is that it allows former armed group members to pursue political objectives no matter election outcomes.

What are some of the implications of the 2022 elections for the future of Bangsamoro? 

The next three years are likely to be instrumental in determining the fate of the former rebels beyond the 2025 elections and the end of the transition period. The election of ‘Bongbong’ Marcos as President – a candidate endorsed by four of the five Governors in the BARMM region in opposition to the MILF – undoubtedly constitutes a real threat to the governance of BARMM as well as the peace process at large. 

First, there is a real risk that the new President will down-prioritize the government’s obligations towards the peace agreement, replace the government-appointed members to the BTA with some of MILFs more vocal opponents in the region, or even decide to carry out a constitutional review of the entire legislative framework for the autonomy. There is also an urgent need to speed up the so called ‘normalization’ process – especially the decommissioning –  ahead of the coming elections. 

Second, unless regional tensions are de-escalated and BARMM is perceived to provide a more inclusive regional governance, it will be difficult to distribute the peace dividends to the population at large within the framework of the transition period. Based on the recent results in the local government elections, the UBJP may face considerable challenges to muster enough votes to establish itself as a ‘consistent contender’ in the 2025 elections. 

Third, the key question is if the MILF – and especially its combatants – will remain loyal to the terms of the peace accord if this is the case. Some of the younger MILF fighters may very well re-mobilize to the still armed groups in the region, something that is already happening, and latent extremist cell could capitalize on the security vacuum that would emerge if the MILF and federal government cooperation falters. But there are also many other challenges to deal with, including inside the armed movement. The political party project needs to be better anchored in the movement at large and redefined in such a way that it encourages unity around the common cause of self-determination rather than instigating internal divisions within its ranks. 

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