Filipino local elections: free, but still violent

Election violence is so common here that Filipinos tend to shrug off murders and kidnappings. The shift to a democratic government seems to have made little headway in changing this traditional pattern. On the 36th day of a campaign for the election of local government officials here, the casualty list stood at 50 killed, 28 wounded, and 15 kidnapped. The violence still is escalating and authorities expect it to peak on election day, Jan. 18.

Electoral violence, said presidential press Secretary Teodoro Benigno, is ``nothing surprising.'' In fact, he added, in local elections, where the battle is ``family vs. family, clan vs. clan'' and local passions are fired up, violence is ``inevitable.''

Last week, President Corazon Aquino appealed to all Filipinos ``to exert every effort to attain peaceful and orderly polls.''

``The wave of electoral violence and killings must stop,'' Mrs. Aquino said. ``At the very least, they should be substantially reduced.''

To date, the Commission on Elections has postponed the polls in five Muslim provinces in Mindanao, ruling that the proliferation of firearms - despite a much publicized electoral firearms ban - would make voting potentially explosive.

At stake in the Jan. 18 polls are 16,000 positions, including 75 governorships, and 1,500 mayoral posts. More than 100,000 candidates reportedly have filed in the first free local elections since former President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972.

During martial law, President Marcos suspended all elections, extended the terms of loyal incumbents, and replaced uncooperative officials with his appointees.

In an effort to consolidate political control, Mrs. Aquino quickly replaced Marcos-era local executives with her own appointees. However, in the current campaign, former Marcos officials are being supported by the President's parties, sometimes even by Aquino herself.

Aquino explained her call for local elections as another necessary step in the democratic process. Observers say however, that the process still is controlled by the same powerful families that have dominated Philippine politics for the last 50 years, including the President's own Aquino-Cojuangco clan.

In some areas the fight is between father and son, between in-laws, and, in one case, among a man, his wife and their son. The race has attracted movie and television personalities, beauty queens, and offspring of old politicos.

What to many cynical Filipinos is a circus, however, is also attracting idealistic non-politicians moved by an appeal from the President for good and well-meaning people to run. If we leave government to politicians, the President told Elsa Payumo, a career woman running for councilor in the country's financial district, what will happen to our country?

Legal left-wing political groups are also joining the fray but on a limited and cautious scale. The fledgling People's Party said that by fielding its candidates, it aims ``to educate the masses on the real picture of society.'' And, because of the violence directed at leftists in recent months, People's Party candidates are running either under other banners or as independents.

Although shootings and kidnappings have become a daily occurrence, police have done little to apprehend the perpetrators. Routinely, the incidents are reported as committed by ``unknown assailants.'' Often, military reports single out the outlawed communist New People's Army (NPA) as the probable culprit. Defense department sources said, however, most of the incidents are politically motivated and are committed by followers of rival candidates.

The rebels themselves have stated they will protect the interests of the masses during the polls and would impose ``punitive actions'' against candidates who commit irregularities.

What can be attributed to the NPA, sources said, are the kidnappings of candidates and the imposition of ``taxes'' of $500 to $2,500 in exchange for a permit to campaign in rebel-controlled areas.

Aquino's call for peaceful elections included an appeal to candidates ``to conduct their campaigns with more sobriety and respect for the democratic process.''

In a race characterized by the hallmarks of traditional Philippine elections - guns, goons, gold and clans - it is unlikely that political hostilities will even be reduced during this exercise.

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