Since taking office in 2016, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has systematically undermined democracy. He has jailed political opponents such as Senator Leila de Lima, revoked the license of the country’s largest broadcast network, and unleashed a “war on drugs” that has killed thousands of mainly poor people.

But the one act of institutional desecration that Duterte has not visited upon his country’s democracy is to cancel or delay elections beyond legally stipulated deadlines.

Until now. The elections in question are for the Bangsamoro regional legislature, located in Mindanao, the country’s southernmost island. Under current law, they must be held in May 2022, along with the other local, provincial, and national elections that take place every three years in the Philippines.

Duterte, whose six-year, non-renewable term ends on the last day of June 2022, says there is good reason – mainly disruptions created by COVID-19 – to postpone elections for the Bangsamoro legislature until 2025. But rather than push back with gusto, as they rightly have every other time Duterte has assaulted democratic institutions, civil society groups in the Philippines – human rights defenders, peace advocates, faith leaders – have largely backed the president.

There is widespread support in the Bangsamoro region itself for allowing the leaders of the regional government, which was appointed – not elected – in 2019, to evade voters for three more years. A petition calling for postponing regional elections until 2025, spearheaded by a coalition of local non-governmental organizations, has been signed by more than a million people, according to the head of one of the groups, the respected grassroots network, Mindanao People’s Caucus. Politicians, including from the opposition, have come out in favor of postponing elections.

In theory, the Philippines Congress has only until June 4 to pass legislation authorizing a three-year electoral hiatus for the Bangsamoro region. Several bills along these lines have been introduced, some calling for even longer delays. For such action in any other part of the country, a constitutional amendment would be needed.

Four Decades of Conflict

But the Bangsamoro is no ordinary region. Before a “comprehensive” peace agreement was signed in 2014, the Philippines’ only Muslim-majority region endured more than four decades of conflict between armed Moro nationalist movements and government forces. The agreement was finalized by Duterte’s predecessor, whose partner in peace was the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which had waged an armed insurgency since breaking away from an earlier rebel group in the 1980s.

The comprehensive agreement consisted of two parts. The first was the “political” track, focused on creating a new subnational entity, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), with substantial powers and an automatic share of national tax revenue.  The second, “normalization,” track was built around a grand bargain: rebel soldiers would disband their units, decommission their weapons, and disavow violence in exchange for limited amnesties, economic assistance, and a measure of justice for rights violations suffered.

The terms of the peace agreement could not be translated into legislation before the 2016 elections that brought Duterte to power. His aggressive rhetoric and strongman persona stoked fears that he would find an excuse to derail the peace process.  The following year provided a perfect opportunity.  In May 2017, violent extremists declaring allegiance to the Islamic State took control of the city of Marawi, the Bangsamoro region’s leading center of Islamic culture. Philippines armed forces launched a five-month offensive that resulted in extensive casualties and displacement.

Duterte defied expectations by remaining committed to implementing the peace accords. In 2018, he signed the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), the roadmap for implementing the 2014 agreement. A referendum in the Bangsamoro region to ratify the law passed easily in early 2019.

In March 2019, the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority (BTA) was installed to govern the newly created BARMM. As per the agreement, the MILF was permitted to appoint a majority of the BTA’s members, giving the former rebels power to set policy for three years. The BTA was charged with adopting laws, or “codes,” specifying how the regional civil service and public finance systems would work, how religious schools would be regulated, and (crucially) how regional elections would be structured.

Early Calls for Extension

Within a year of taking office, as the pandemic began to sweep the globe, some Bangsamoro politicians were already talking about extending the three-year transition. After COVID lockdowns, which began in March 2020, dragged through the summer and into the fall, calls for an extension grew louder. The BTA’s top leadership argued that the pandemic had robbed them of the time needed to pass all the required codes. These former rebels were also deprived of crucial opportunities to deliver tangible peace dividends and to transform themselves from revolutionaries into party leaders.

The Mindanao People’s Caucus issued a report in October 2020 assessing unfulfilled elements of the peace agenda, the potential benefits of extending the transition, and the degree of stakeholder support for doing so. The BTA itself eventually passed a resolution calling on Duterte’s administration to support legislation to postpone regional elections.

Legal debates ensued. One analyst argued that an extension could not be justified by Manila’s unfulfilled commitments under the “normalization” track, such as its failure to deliver economic assistance. An extension could, however, be sought due to the government’s non-fulfillment of obligations under the “political” track – for instance, Duterte’s delay in constituting a committee to resolve differences between the regional and central governments.

Another scholar suggested that even legislation might be insufficient to postpone elections: a second referendum could be required to obtain a popular mandate for the revised transition arrangements. How the courts might rule on such questions is anyone’s guess. They have been inconsistent on electoral matters – for instance, repeatedly redefining how the country’s proportional representation system should operate. Judges have in the past been willing to issue rulings that upend peace deals the government has entered into.

The main stated reason for delaying the Bangsamoro elections – that COVID prevented the BTA from passing laws needed to operate the post-transition government – is pretty flimsy.  Nothing in the peace agreement promised anything like ideal conditions for the transition period, much less immunity from acts of God in a country as exposed to natural disasters as the Philippines. Besides, neither the transition nor the business of legislating comes to an end in 2022; work on all necessary regional codes is intended to continue – just under an elected, rather than an appointed, government.

It is also highly suspect that the transitional administration, despite facing a hard deadline for establishing a regional election system, consumed much of its first two years passing several resolutions of dubious value, including one curtailing the land rights of the region’s non-Muslim Indigenous People. One BTA leader confirmed that the election code had been their lowest priority from the outset. The simplest explanation for this is that the ex-rebels who run the BTA know how to create facts on the ground, and might have hoped their de facto unpreparedness could be used as an excuse to obtain additional time in power. COVID provided an extra fig leaf.

Political Families

The more complicated answer is that the MILF’s leaders also know that efforts to design an electoral system are sure to incur the wrath of their rivals for influence in the Bangsamoro region, the entrenched “political families” whose status and control over land and other economic assets have long allowed them to capture the majority of local and provincial offices in the region as well as its congressional seats.

The muscle at the disposal of these political dynasties was demonstrated in gruesome fashion in 2009, when members of the Ampatuan clan massacred scores of people, including journalists, when a rival dared stand for office. Some families control private armies whose ranks are difficult to distinguish from the militia that local elected councils in the Philippines are permitted to raise. The government’s failure to have these private armed groups disbanded is among the MILF’s major complaints.

Whatever the surface rationale, the campaign to extend the BTA’s term for another three years is driven mainly by the fear – shared widely in civil society, within government, and among diplomats – that under current conditions, electoral competition between these traditionally influential families and the MILF, or elements thereof, would likely end in bloodshed.

There is plenty of tinder. Recent political violence in the Bangsamoro region has involved longstanding terrorist groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, whose founders departed the mainstream Moro liberation movement to pursue a path of violent extremism. Their goal is independence; they do not recognize the 2014 peace agreement.

After an unusually intense and casualty-strewn series of pitched battles between extremists and the security services in March and April 2021, Duterte flew to the region to deliver a warning: if the violence persisted, he would crack down hard. The Marawi episode had removed all doubt about what Duterte was capable of, and his warning was broad enough to cover anyone who might be assisting the extremists, whether from the MILF or its rivals.

A conflict-monitoring network operated in the Bangsamoro region by International Alert, an NGO, has charted the persistence of violence stemming from clan feuds, land disputes, and competition between and within organized crime syndicates. In light of these trends, the deep involvement of political actors in all of them, and the grim fact – also highlighted by International Alert – that violence has declined in the region only during periods of martial law, stakeholders are right to worry that piling a heated election on top of all these hazards might spark major violence and end the peace process.

Sufficient Grounds for an Election Delay?

Whether these worries are sufficient grounds for depriving people of the right to choose their leaders is another matter. But the precedent-setting effects of what is being proposed should not be ignored. What is the likelihood that future peace agreements will be respected when their provisions appear so easily adjustable? What message does it send when government officials tell the public that sustaining peace requires the suppression of people’s right to vote? And wasn’t the liberal peacebuilding model that the international community has for three decades been promoting in post-conflict situations around the world premised on the notion that democracy would tame, not inflame, the impulse toward violence?

Perhaps Duterte and all those who back an extension for the appointed BTA are right, and the semi-feudal state of politics in the Bangsamoro region is so entrenched that elections held in 2022 would inevitably devolve into a show of martial strength rather than a contest for political support. Perhaps an exceptional period of non-competitive governance is needed to reset political expectations, as some academic research on post-conflict state-building has suggested under certain conditions.

But is there really reason to expect political circumstances in the Bangsamoro region to be significantly more propitious in 2025? Will its political actors be any less wedded to zero-sum political calculations by then? Will the incentives to engage in organized violence have been substantially reduced?

Maybe. But putting off elections can also be habit-forming, especially when so excellent an excuse as the need to preserve peace and protect democracy’s long-term health can be invoked. And what about the many other places in the Philippines where violent political dynasties form local oligarchies – might they, too, come to be considered ill-suited to electoral competition?

Duterte’s anti-democratic instincts are – just this once – probably correct. Postponing elections in the Bangsamoro is likely the least bad option at this point. But doing so is not without costs to the country’s political future. Calculating these costs is more art than science. But it’s worth considering whether an unelected regional government, grateful to Duterte, might be inclined to lend support — political and otherwise — to his preferred candidate in the 2022 presidential election. In a tight race, Duterte’s successor could, ironically, be decided by Bangsamoro voters.

IMAGE: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) shakes hands with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Chairman Murad Ebrahim during the Ceremonial Confirmation of the Bangsamoro Organic Law Plebescite Law Canvass Results and Oath-taking of Transition Authority at the Malacanang palace in Manila on Feb. 22, 2019. (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)