August 8, 2005

Philippine peace deal at risk as Muslims vote

By Manny Mogato

SHARIF AGUAK, Philippines (Reuters) - More than one million
people began casting votes on Monday in an autonomous Muslim
region of the southern Philippines in elections that risk
undermining a nine-year-old peace deal with Islamic rebels.

Several leaders of the Moro National Liberation Front
(MNLF) are boycotting the polls, angry that President Gloria
Macapagal Arroyo is perceived to be supporting traditional
clans as she repays debts from last year's national elections.

The elections for a governor, vice governor and two dozen
members of the regional assembly are also seen as a key test of
the government's ability to hold credible polls amid
allegations of vote fraud that have shaken Arroyo's presidency.

But few expect much change in an area where elections have
long been settled by money, political machinery and strong-arm
tactics. Voters, and some candidates, are bought or threatened
into supporting deeply entrenched clans.

"I am not that eager to vote," said Sandra Moner, a mother
of five tending a store close to a near-empty voting center in
central Maguindanao province. "There have been dozens of
elections here but it's the same people I see."

More than 8,000 polling precincts opened at 7 a.m. (2300
GMT on Sunday) across the five provinces that make up the
Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), set up 16 years
ago to give Muslims greater self-rule in the mostly Roman
Catholic country.

Officials said they expected a relatively high turnout,
helped by the presence of some 12,000 soldiers and police
guarding polling stations and potential "hotspots."

Results are expected to be announced on Wednesday.

"The situation is generally peaceful," Ricardo de Leon,
deputy chief of the national police, told Reuters.

The region is rich in rice, corn and fish but its
development has suffered from corruption and a three-decade
insurgency, which has been continued by the Moro Islamic
Liberation Front (MILF) since the 1996 deal between the
government and the MNLF.


Zhaldy Datu Puti Ampatuan, the son of a powerful provincial
governor, is heavily favored to win the governorship of ARMM
ahead of Mahid Mutilan, an Egyptian-trained Muslim cleric, and
Ibrahim Paglas, a development-oriented former mayor.

"The past two ARMM governments failed to deliver. Our
region remained poor and unstable," Ampatuan told reporters
after casting his vote. "That will soon change, that we

Arroyo's office said in a statement on Monday she had not
endorsed any candidate, but several MNLF leaders withdrew from
the election because of her perceived backing for Ampatuan, who
is running on the ruling coalition's ticket.

Many people still find it difficult to believe that
Arroyo's rivals for president in last year's national elections
got zero votes in four of five towns in one ARMM area
controlled by Ampatuan's father.

Suspicions about the results of the 2004 polls in four ARMM
provinces -- Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-tawi --
were raised after audio recordings surfaced in June suggesting
that vote-counting in the areas was slanted in favor of Arroyo.

All ARMM governors since the 1996 peace deal have been
members of the MNLF.

Ambu Amri Taddick, the MNLF's deputy secretary general for
military affairs, was quoted in the Philippine Daily Inquirer
on Monday as saying the consensus within the group was to
reject the 1996 deal and resume the armed rebellion.

"The government knows that we believe in the peace
agreement, but it has ignored us," he said.

Other MNLF leaders have said they would not reject the
deal, but would complain to the Organization of the Islamic
Conference, which helped broker the agreement.

The collapse of the 1996 deal would be a major blow to
efforts to end decades of conflict in the Philippine south that
have scared off investment and left millions stuck in poverty.