If high vote turnout, Cotabato City may reject Bangsamoro Law

Pia Ranada

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If high vote turnout, Cotabato City may reject Bangsamoro Law

Photo by Manman Dejeto/Rappler

Academic says some Cotabateños think President Duterte merely called for the Bangsamoro Organic Law's ratification, not categorically for Cotabato City to join the envisioned BARMM

COTABATO CITY, Philippines (UPDATED) – If a good number of Cotabato City residents show up to vote in the Bangsamoro plebiscite, the so-called “crown jewel” of the region will likely thumbs-down their inclusion in the proposed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. 

This is according to Institute for Autonomy and Governance executive director Benedict Bacani, a long-time professor based in the city.

“If there’s a higher turnout, then most probably ‘no’ will win in the elections here,” he told Rappler on Saturday, January 19, two days before the plebiscite on Monday, January 21.

He estimates that the percentage of residents who don’t support their city’s inclusion in BARMM will mirror the percentage of Christians and Muslims in the city. The 65% Christians would likely vote “no” while Muslims might vote “yes.” But he said even this is not fixed because there are also Muslims who may not support BARMM inclusion.

Cotabato City Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi, the champion of the “no” vote here, is herself a Muslim. 

Meanwhile, Maguindanao 1st District Representative Bai Sandra Sema, who is Guiani’s political rival, has said some 85% of residents would vote for BARMM inclusion.

Lawyer Najuib Sinarimbo, vice chairperson of MILF’s political party United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP), warned against using religion to simply the Cotabato City votes.

Yun ang nakakalungkot dahil apparently ginagamit na yung religious divide as the simplest way of segrating sino yung ‘pro’ at sino yung ‘anti.’ Hindi maganda ‘yun,” he told Rappler.

(That is what’s sad because apparently the religious divide is being use as the simplest way of segregating who is ‘pro’ and who is ‘anti.’ That’s not good.)

Duterte call not enough

President Rodrigo Duterte’s speech in the city last Friday, January 18, was not enough to convince Cotabateños to vote “yes” to joining BARMM, said Bacani.

“There is a perception that the President has not really categorically asked that Cotabato be included [in the BARMM]. He was just calling for ratification of the BOL. That is not directed at Cotabato because that is not the question for Cotabato,” he explained.

It’s important to make the distinction that while the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao will vote whether or not to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law, Cotabato City (and Isabela City in Basilan), are voting whether or not to join the proposed BARMM. Those are two very different questions.

Understanding the ‘no’ vote

While stories from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) have been of euphoria and generally strong support for the BOL, the mood in Cotabato City is different.

“The mood is mixed. People are anxious, people are excited about the results. People are uncertain also, feeling of unceratinty, so that’s why for the past days there has been assurance coming from the authorites that it will be safe to vote,” said Bacani.

The stakes for Cotabato City are different from the stakes for ARMM.

“Because for the ARMM, it’s ratification, they’re already there. They cannot opt out anymore so it’s just a question of, ‘do you want more power, more resources.’ Of course they will say ‘yes’ to that but for Cotabato City that is not yet a part [of it], would you like to join? So it’s a question for them of ‘what are we going to lose.’ It’s not a question anymore of, ‘what are we going to gain,’” said Bacani. 

What could Cotabato City lose by joining the BARMM, according to the naysayers? 

Security issues are top of mind. Residents appreciate the relatively higher level of safety and security under Guiani-Sayadi’s leadership. That could change under the BARMM, to be governed by Moro rebel group MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front).

“The mayor’s formula for keeping the peace here is really controlling the entry of people and arms in Cotabato City and people here, those who are for “no,” think that once they’re under the BARMM, then the local government would lose control over security precisely because they cannot stop anymore people getting in,” said Bacani. 

Risk vs reward

Joining the BARMM poses other risks and considerations. The city’s educational institutions, for instance, Notre Dame University, would be transferred from the Department of Education to BARMM. 

Cotabato City has also been an independent city for years and has achieved a certain level of prosperity. A resident proudly pointed out that the city has 4 malls, as we neared the large swathe of greenery where a giant KCC mall will soon rise. 

Joining BARMM would mean adding another layer of bureaucracy that could weigh the city down. 

“It’s not even a component city. It has its own resources. It can fend for itself. Would you want to have another layer at the middle there?” said Bacani. 

Already, the fierce “yes to BARMM” campaign here has irked some Cotabato City residents. Guiani-Sayadi has accused the MILF of harassing and intimidating residents. The other side, meanwhile, claims the city government is also sabotaging the “yes” vote.  

The heated debate is why Cotabato City remains a place to watch during the Monday plebiscite. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

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