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Battle of the Ballot Box: Part I

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Issue: 49 Section: International News Geography: Pacific Philippines Topics: elections, violence

August 23, 2007

Battle of the Ballot Box: Part I

Urban Militarization, Corporate Power & the 2007 Philippine Elections

by Stefan Christoff

Campaign signs for the 2007 mid-term elections fly amidst improvised electricity wires in Tondo, Manila. Photo: Stefan Christoff

This is the first in a series of three articles: Part II | Part III

MANILA--Across the Philippine archipelago, millions of voters cast ballots in the 2007 mid-term elections in May while a wave of political violence swept the country, including multiple assassinations and fire-bombings of polling stations.

According to the Philippine National Police, approximately 130 people lost their lives during a national vote widely viewed as a test to the political legitimacy of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, an important US ally in the Asia-Pacific region.

Final results for the 2007 Philippine elections remain undetermined, as major scandals, including allegations of state-sanctioned electoral fraud, pressure the fragile Arroyo government.

On the streets of Manila, violent incidents have put a sharp accent on elections in the former US colony, contributing to an air of political volatility as the Philippines face an unparalleled economic crisis.

"Elections in the Philippines have always been characterized by 'Guns, Goons and Gold'", Elisa Tita Lubi, a political organizer with the Gabriela women's movement explained. "For this reason, many in the country have lost faith in voting."

Major sectors of Philippine society, including national labour unions and opposition political parties, openly charge the government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo with having had a direct hand in electoral corruption.

"Today, you can't be positive that if a clear majority of the population votes for a certain candidate or political party that they will win, especially on the left, as today it is the gold and goons that often dictate who wins elections, not popular choice."

Major sectors of Philippine society, including national labour unions and opposition political parties, openly charge the government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo with having had a direct hand in electoral corruption.

Amid the political buzz surrounding elections in the Philippines, the fiscal value of ballots is openly discussed among voters, as 'vote-buying' is an integral element of any major electoral campaign. Mainstream media coverage openly describes a farcical election, "Vote buying, it happened everywhere," an editorial from the Philippine Daily Inquirer said. "It marked the conduct of the elections, that could best be described in three words; chaos, confusion, disorder."

A critical layer to mainstream electoral politics in the Philippines is intimidation.

Accounts of violent tactics by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) against voters from Manila's sprawling urban poor communities, such as Tondo, and vivid tales of military-driven electoral intervention are widespread.

"Military soldiers entered my family's home a couple of weeks before the election, giving orders on how to vote," Salvador, a community organizer in Tondo, explained through an interpreter. "Filipino soldiers, holding machine guns, gave us orders to not vote for progressive political party-lists and demanded the names of those in the neighbourhood planning on voting for anti-government parties in the elections."

A home constructed from garbage in 'Smokey Mountain' an urban poor community in the capitol city of Manila. The community is located on a massive garbage dump. Photo: Stefan Christoff

Election-related violence and corruption in the 2007 Philippine vote has raised alarm globally.

A Thai international observer from the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) openly compared Philippine voting conditions to war-torn Afghanistan. "I have been to Afghanistan and observed the polling there and this is worse than Afghanistan," said ANFREL's Somsri Hananuntasuk in a recent interview. Hananuntasuk observed the NATO-enforced 2005 Afghan elections.

In contrast to the chaotic voting conditions depicted by Philippine media outlets and outlined by international election observation groups, US-backed President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo offers a strikingly different picture to the international community.

According to a statement from Arroyo shortly after the mid-term vote, Filipinos "cast their ballot, free of coercion and according to their own will." Arroyo's account stands in marked contrast to the elections as portrayed by even mainstream international media outlets. Reuters reported that "election-related violence has marred the democratic process" and that "the body count now is now over a hundred" throughout the country.

In Tondo, Manila, an observer from the US Embassy echoed President Arroyo's positive assessment of the elections, stating that "the Philippines is clearly a vibrant democracy" to the same Philippine media outlets that described the national vote as flawed with 'chaos,' 'fraud' and 'violence.'

Political violence in the Philippines, both in urban and rural settings, doesn't simply revolve around national elections. In Manila's urban poor communities, political violence is a constant reality. In recent months, the national army has established a visible presence in the impoverished communities along Manila's North Harbour.

Today's military build-up occurs as the Arroyo administration is pushing towards the privatization of Manila's North Harbour. Newspapers in the country are bubbling with editorials on the pending construction of a massive Hong Kong-style international port, as International Container Terminal Services, Inc., a major multinational, has expressed interest in developing a privatized port zone.

Privatization, a central piece of the Arroyo administration's economic policy, supported by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), is a hotly contested political issue in the Philippines.

"Privatization of the North Harbour will equal the dislocation of our community," outlined Abner Castro, a community organizer from Tondo. "People living along the port area will be forcibly displaced–-about 80,000 families–-to other regions of the country or areas of metro Manila," he said, adding that "the government is moving the military into our community to intimidate people into leaving for good."

Along the deeply polluted Pacific Ocean shoreline of the North Harbour, tens of thousands of urban poor Filipino homes were declared illegal in 2007 by state authorities. A growing military presence in the impoverished coastal neighbourhood strikes a chord of fear amongst residents.

"Why is the government deploying military into our community?" asked Abner Castro of Tondo at an open-air community meeting on the Pacific Ocean coast. "Military forces are a major part of a government effort to displace this community, to put fear in people's hearts, to ensure that we don't fight back."

A national, left-driven opposition to the US-supported Arroyo administration maintains a major political base in urban poor communities such as Tondo, important political battlegrounds, both at election time and beyond. Left Wing political parties, such as Bayan Muna--Tagalog for 'People First'--play a key role in local grassroots campaigns, including the struggle against harbour privatization in Manila.

Within this political power struggle, 2004 presidential elections delivered alarming results for the Arroyo government, as left-wing political parties secured significant electoral gains.

In 2004, progressive political parties won a number of congressional seats, including electoral victories for key political figures in the Philippine Left, such as Crispin Beltran of Anakpawis--Tagalog for 'Toiling Masses'--who lives in Tondo and who has openly called for revolutionary political change in the country since taking office.

"The majority of Filipinos are struggling against poverty, for better working conditions," explains Crispin Beltran while under government detention at a Manila hospital. After months in prison without trial and facing a deteriorating heart condition, Beltran was eventually transferred by state authorities to a detention hospital following international pressure.

"Economic justice is part of the political program of the national rebellion," continues Beltran. "Rebels are fighting to uplift all Filipinos, the majority who are very, very poor."

After the previous election, state authorities arrested Beltran, along with four other members of congress in 2006 on charges of 'sedition' and 'rebellion.'

Congressman Beltran, 74, was recently released after 16 months of imprisonment on rebellion charges deemed as "unfounded allegations" by Amnesty International, which wrote in a 2006 release on Beltran that the "nature of the charges and the manner in which they have been brought forward have intensified continuing concerns that these arrests constituted arbitrary detentions based on a deliberate invocation of unfounded allegations."

All charges levelled against Beltran by the government of the Philippines were recently dropped.

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