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GENERAL SANTOS CITY, Philippines – To emphasize his push for peace in Mindanao, President Benigno Aquino III will campaign for Liberal Party (LP) bets in Buluan town, Maguindanao, on Friday, April 12.
Tight security is in place across the province courtesy of the police and the military, as the province prepares for the presidential visit – his third ever since he came into power, and his first since the start of the official campaign period. Maguindanao is one of the high-risk areas tagged by the Commission on Elections.
Just a day before Aquino's visit to the province, men wearing masks and carrying assault rifles stopped Kabuntulan mayoral bet Abraham Samad while he campaigned on Thursday, April 11. The armed men told Samad and his group to leave, and warned them to stop campaigning in other barangays.
But despite a violent political climate – one common to the area – Aquino is determined to raise the hands of his candidates in the region.
Change in alliances
Among Aquino's bets are Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) officer-in-charge (OIC) and LP regional gubernatorial bet Mujiv Hataman, as well as incumbent Maguindanao Gov Esmael "Toto" Mangudadatu.
This is the first time that the regional elections in ARMM will be synchronized with the national and local elections nationwide.
While Aquino lost huge to former president and United Nationalist Alliance head Joseph Estrada in the 2010 presidential elections in Mindanao, Aquino has gained allies in ARMM since he assumed office in 2010.
Last year, all 5 incumbent ARMM governors who were ex-allies of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo moved to the LP – including Mangudadatu, Basilan Gov Jun Akbar, Lanao del Sur Gov Mamintal Adiong Jr, Tawi-Tawi Gov Sadikul Sahali, and Sulu Gov Abdusakar Tan.
According to an LP statement at that time, the realignment gave the ruling party "100% of the provincial leadership and 85% of the mayors in the municipal level." Mangudadatu explained the move as ARMM's commitment to "treading the straight path," which marked "the realization of change and progress in the ARMM."
The governors also backed Aquino during the Sabah crisis, and called for a peaceful resolution to the problem. They have also voiced their support for Aquino's peace process – which the government considers one of its greatest achievements thus far.
Peace above all
In past interviews, Team PNoy spokesperson Miro Quimbo told Rappler, Aquino will continue to emphasize the peace process when he campaigns in Mindanao.
"The south corridor of Mindanao is the only area in Asia where a living and strong successionist movement is taking place and we are at the threshold of genuinely ending it in a peaceful manner… But it is all anchored on the single message that is tuwid na daan," he said.
Quimbo expressed confidence that Aquino's track record has gained the trust of Mindanao – something that may not have been the case in 2010 – and emphasized that only the President could lead such a feat.
Aside from local candidates, Aquino will also push hard for his senatorial slate, especially given his unusual popularity in the province.
In 2010, Estrada beat Aquino in 12 provinces in Mindanao, in addition to 12 more in Luzon. The former president is so popular in the area that he got the largest number of votes in Mindanao ever given to a senator, vice president, and a president.
But the trend in Maguindanao was different. There, Aquino mustered 144,032 votes, a huge difference over Estrada's 39,306.
Maguindanao has 439,455 registered voters in 2013.
Aquino also plans to visit the Office of the Regional Governor complex for the inauguration of a new P1-B building at the Mindanao State University – a significant show of government support to the area.
Maguindanao is a pregnant stop for the President as well, given the significance and history of the province.
On November 23, 2009, Maguindanao became the site of the most brutal case of election violence in recent history when at least 58 civilians were massacred in the lead up to the 2010 elections. Supporters of Mangudadatu, who challenged the candidacy of Andal Ampatuan Jr for provincial governor, were murdered in a convoy by Ampatuan's men.
Ampatuan is the son of Andal Ampatuan Sr, the patriarch of the province's all-powerful political dynasty. Father and son have since been arrested and jailed in Manila, while at least 27 out of the 195 accused in the case bear the name Ampatuan. A total of 92 remain at large even as the trial drags.
The unresolved massacre, 3 years later, is symbolic of one of the greatest criticisms of Aquino – that Maguindanao is the glaring the example of his alleged lack of action over extrajudicial killings.
Additionally, Aquino's LP was slammed over 10 Ampatuans who filed their certificates of candidacies for the 2013 polls under the President's party.
LP stalwart and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad defended the candidates, saying they were endorsed by Mangudadatu himself, whose wife and supporters died in the massacre, and that they deserve the benefit of due process.
But Sen Franklin Drilon expressed a contrasting view, saying he is "not in favor," and suggested the LP should cancel the Certificates of Nomination and Acceptance (CONA) that were issued to these Ampatuans. The CONA is necessary for a non-independent candidate to file his or her certificate of candidacy.
Their CONAs have not been retracted.
A total of 74 Ampatuans are running for office in the coming elections, some against each other. But even Mangudadatu is not much better as even he appears to be building a dynasty, with 17 members of his clan having filed their candidacies also for various posts in Maguindanao – a huge rise from just one aspirant in the 2010 elections.
'Not a walk in the park'
Mangudadatu will run against PDP-Laban's bet, Sultan Kudarat Mayor Tocao Mastura, while Hataman faces other candidates, including former ARMM Governor Nur Misuari, former Sultan Kudarat Governor Pax Mangudadatu, former Agrarian Reform regional director Yusoph Mama, and two others.
Quimbo told Rappler, Aquino will exert much effort in pushing for Mangudadatu because Aquino "holds Maguindanao as a vital key in the peace process and Toto has been one of the main pillars of the peace initiative of the President."
While ARMM governors have since backed Aquino, Quimbo said the elections in ARMM is "not a walk in the park."
Quimbo acknowledged Hataman has "made a lot of enemies in entirely unwinding the entire government" since he has been in position, which will be a "political challenge since he stepped on [the toes of] so many individuals."
At least one local group, specifically Kagawib, a militant youth group based in Maguindanao, has questioned Aquino's support for Hataman and have asked Aquino to make Hataman resign. The President then gave assurances that Hataman will not run for election in the next polls and would focus on rebuilding ARMM. – Rappler.com
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