EXPLAINER: Why ARMM, Cotabato City, Isabela City voted the way they did

Pia Ranada

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EXPLAINER: Why ARMM, Cotabato City, Isabela City voted the way they did
What's the story behind the numbers? Here's a quick explainer on how key areas in Muslim Mindanao voted in the Bangsamoro plebiscite and why it matters.

CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – The Bangsamoro plebiscite held last Monday, January 21, delivered a sweet victory for the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) and the people who champion it. 

The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) voted overwhelmingly in its favor, thus calling into existence the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

The cherry on top was Cotabato City, which decided to join this new region, thus expanding its territory. 

But why did the territories that participated in the plebiscite vote the way they did and why does it matter? Here’s a quick explainer.

First, what’s the BOL all about? The BOL is a law that creates the BARMM. The BARMM means a lot to the people in Muslim Mindanao because it’s a political structure that will supposedly allow them to truly govern themselves. The BARMM will replace the current ARMM, which was said to be too dependent on the national government in Metro Manila.

What areas joined the plebiscite and why those areas? For BOL to be implemented – meaning for the BARMM to be created – the people of ARMM have to ratify it. This means they want ARMM to be replaced with the new BARMM. ARMM is composed of 5 provinces – Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi. All these provinces had to cast their votes.

But outside ARMM, there are cities, towns, and villages where many Moros live and which were considered Muslim-dominated lands before colonization. Because of this, they were given a chance to join the BARMM. So on the January 21 plebiscite, two cities – Cotabato City and Isabela City – were asked to cast their vote on BARMM inclusion.


Landslide win in ARMM 

(Yes to BOL: 1,540,017 votes | No to BOL: 198,750 votes) 

Most people, including political observers and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (the main Muslim group pushing for the BOL), predicted a landslide victory in most ARMM provinces. Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur are areas where the MILF have a presence, and they banked on this to secure a “yes” win there. (VISUALS: Power brokers in the Bangsamoro region)

The ARMM provinces that voted yes are as follows: 

  • Maguindanao – Yes: 599,581 | No: 9,096
  • Lanao del Sur – Yes: 503,420 | No: 9,735
  • Basilan – Yes: 147,598 | No: 6,486
  • Tawi-Tawi – Yes: 151,788 | No: 9,907

Maguindanao is also the bailiwick of political clans like the Mangudadatus who openly support the BOL, in part because President Rodrigo Duterte has called for its ratification. 

Basilan, meanwhile, is the home province of ARMM regional governor Mujiv Hataman, also a strong BOL supporter. 

Other than the influence of personalities, Ben Bacani of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance, a think tank based in Cotabato City, said there are practical reasons why most of ARMM would vote in favor of the BOL.

“They cannot opt out [of ARMM] anymore so it’s just a question of, ‘do you want more power, more resources?’ Of course they will say ‘yes’ to that,” he said. 

The BOL will give the BARMM government more powers to decide on its development, economic growth, and the use of its natural resources. It also assures unconditional funding amounting to P60 billion to P70 billion yearly for the BARMM, which was not the case for ARMM. 

Such benefits are expected to reach the individual ARMM provinces, when they become BARMM provinces. 

Sore thumb Sulu

(Yes to BOL: 137,630 votes | No to BOL: 163,526)

Sulu is the only ARMM province that rejected the BOL. The “no” votes outnumbered the “yes” by 25,896 votes.  

But Sulu’s decision does not mean it’s out of the BARMM. This is because the BOL does not allow any ARMM province to “opt out” of the BARMM. If a majority of ARMM still ratifies the BOL, the entire region will become part of BARMM. 

Sulu’s kingpin, Vice Governor Sakur Tan, has said his province prefers federalism to the BOL. Federalism could create a whole new region, possibly distinct from the BARMM, that would encompass the Sulu archipelago.

There was also not as much MILF presence in Sulu campaigning for a “yes” vote. The group relied on its allies, including MNLF faction leader Yusop Jikiri and political families competing for power with Tan, to deliver the votes. They did, to some extent, but not enough to win over the “no.”

Another way to look at Sulu’s vote is that the BARMM is borne of efforts of the MILF, composed mostly of Muslims from mainland Mindanao. The ARMM, meanwhile, was the “baby” of rival group Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which was led by Nur Misuari, a Tausug, the dominant ethnic tribe in Sulu. Misuari remains influential in his home province.

President Duterte said there is a need to address Sulu’s rejection of the BOL and that the solution should also include Misuari.

Si Misuari must also have something there. Hindi naman puwede na sa isang ano lang eh. Eh Sulu voted ‘no,’ so that’s something. So I have to take that into account, otherwise sabihin nila binale-wala ‘yung ano nila, damdamin nila,” he had said on Wednesday, January 23.

(Misuari must also have something there. It can’t be just one thing. Sulu voted ‘no’ so that’s something. So I have to take that into account, otherwise they will say their concerns were ignored.)

Surprise win in Cotabato City

(Yes to joining BARMM: 36,682 | No to joining BARMM: 24,994)

After voting twice in the past not to join a Muslim Mindanao autonomous region, Cotabato City this time chose to join the BARMM.

For the MILF, it meant they succeeded in convincing more people that BARMM will be an improvement of the ARMM. 

Up to the finish line, BARMM naysayers led by Cotabato City mayor Cynthia Guiani Sayadi, went all-out in convincing Cotabateños to reject BARMM inclusion. But a well-organized grassroots campaign by the MILF and other BOL supporters – including powerful Christian voices – secured the “yes” victory. (READ: How Cotabato City was won)

Cotabato City’s sweet yes means Muslim Mindanao is one city larger. It’s also icing on the cake that this city happens to be the region’s urban hub and location of the ARMM’s government offices.

Still a ‘no’ for Isabela City

(Yes to joining BARMM: 19,032 | No to joining BARMM: 22,441)

Isabela City will again not be joining the rest of its mother unit, Basilan province, in a Muslim Mindanao region. 

It was a close fight. ARMM regional governor Hataman, who hails from Basilan, tried hard to sway Isabeleños. But in the end, the “no” outcry, bolstered by Catholic Church leaders, prevailed.

Basilan was also asked if it would allow Isabel City to join the BARMM – to which it answered a resounding “yes” with 144,640 votes versus 8,487 “no” votes. But for Isabela City to join BARMM, the two government units have to vote yes.

What’s next now? Another plebiscite will take place on February 6 to see if 6 towns in Lanao del Norte and 67 barangays in North Cotabato will choose to join the BARMM. 

In the meantime, the BARMM is already deemed created and the next step is for Duterte to appoint its first Chief Minister and members of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA).

MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim will likely be named the Chief Minister. The MILF has also been given the power to choose 41 out of the 80 people who will form the BTA. Murad said their list of 41 nominees have already been sent to Malacañang for Duterte’s approval. –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.