By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
BULUAN, MAGUINDANAO—Things were different when the previous sitting President last visited this province.
Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s low-profile stop at Shariff Aguak, the capital of Maguindanao, late in March 2009 was hardly note-worthy and routine at most.
On her itinerary was a briefing on the Solid Waste Management Program in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and a ribbon-cutting at the newly-built P218-million provincial capitol complex.
The photo-ops of Arroyo and her hosts, the Ampatuans, took a different light eight months later, when 57 corpses of civilians and media workers were found and dug up in Ampatuan town.
The so-called Maguindanao massacre was tagged on the ruling clan, particularly Andal Sr. and his son, Andal Jr. In turn, it also tainted Arroyo’s term being the climax of hundreds of extra-judicial killings during her stay in power.
Year 2013 found them replaced by rivals and detained under criminal charges. But politics has its way of repeating itself. Maguindanao still proves the election trophy crucial even to opposing administrations.
Last April 12, red, yellow, and green frills welcomed Pres. Benigno Aquino III to Buluan, hometown of re-electionist Gov. Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu.
No longer is the governor’s seat in Shariff Aguak, where the palatial capitol complex came to signify the opulence of the Ampatuans amid the squalor of the province.
Aquino flew from Cotabato City where he checked on projects being implemented by Mujiv Hataman, the ARMM caretaker governor who is vying for an elected term this May.
This next stop was more political than administrative—an opportunity to raise the hands of Mangudadatu, Hataman, and the Liberal Party (LP) bets here. Nearly all top officials in ARMM and Maguindanao had now aligned themselves with Aquino.
Buluan’s nearly-completed gymnasium hosted the area’s first LP rally. Residents–estimated from 50,000 to 70,000–endured the midday heat and lined up through security checks.
The covered court could not contain all, explaining the second stage put up outside. Spectators listened to local candidates there while sitting or standing under gigantic umbrellas.
There, Team PNoy senatorial candidates Koko Pimentel, Jun Magsaysay, Risa Hontiveros, Bam Aquino, Sonny Angara, and Loren Legarda first gave their campaign speeches before repeating them inside the gym.
The attendance shows what has changed in Maguindanao in more than three years. Even a political rally here was unthinkable before.
The understated memory here is the 2007 elections, when then-Congressman Aquino and other senatorial bets lost heavily here due to systematic cheating.
Aquino recalled seeing the election returns from Maguindanao.
“Huwag mo na tignan, sasama pa loob mo,” he remembered fellow candidate Chiz Escudero telling him. Where election inspectors had already signed off a candidate’s supposedly “finished” tally, new rows of marks were expediently added.
“Kung sasama ang loob ko, mas sasama loob mo,” Aquino remembers replying. “Tinalo kita dito.” Aquino said he got 13 votes in that return; Escudero, 12.
Arroyo’s Team Unity slate bagged a landslide “12-0” in Maguindanao, allegedly helped by the Ampatuans. While it did not affect Aquino and Escudero’s ultimate wins, Maguindanao spelled the difference between Pimentel and Team Unity bet Miguel Zubiri for the final Senate slot. Pimentel lost, but gained the seat after Zubiri resigned over the cheating allegations.
Still, no one is openly declaring a 12-0 in Maguindanao for Team PNoy–despite some bold claims for the national results.
Gov. Toto Mangudadatu avoided the term when reporter Jorge Cariño asked him about it, since it evoked poll fraud. “Wala na iyon ngayon. Pero kampante ako magsalita na mananalo silang lahat dito,” he said.
Buluan Mayor Ibrahim Mangudadatu could only urge his allies to commit an 80-percent vote for the LP. At this, the President commented, “Kung tataasan nyo pa sa 80 percent, ‘di po ako magagalit sa inyo.”
What mattered, said Pimentel, was that the true votes of Maguindanaoans would be cast and counted this time.
“Kung lahat kami manalo–ang Team PNoy, so be it. Kung mahaluan kami ng from UNA (United Nationalist Alliance), so be it.”
Aquino’s keynote address was tellingly more sales pitch than accomplishment report–no different from his recent speeches at other “community meetings” elsewhere.
With no direct attacks on his predecessor, Aquino’s allusions to the “transformation” of Maguindanao were commentary enough.
Cotabato City Mayor Japal Guiani Jr., while unnamed, did not escape Aquino’s tirades. He said Guiani was hostile to aid sent by the national government amid flooding in mid-2011. Guiani is gunning for another term against current vice mayor and LP bet Muslimin Sema.
“Inaway ang lahat ng tumutulong sa kanya,” Aquino said. “Ang reklamo lang pala ay, ‘Bakit hindi niyo idinaan sa akin lahat ng tulong na iyan?’”
Earlier, Hataman hinted at his own opponents in the regional race: “Kahit pulitiko mula sa ibang probinsya, gusto nang mamuno sa ARMM dahil sa mga reporma na ginagawa natin.”
Foremost among those reforms is the Sajahatra Bangsamoro project set to create an entity replacing the ARMM. Tellingly, there were no reported hostilities that day, a far cry from the clashes that killed 27 when Arroyo came in 2009.
But beyond the much-raved headway in the peace process, the audience inside and outside the gym hardly heard specific responses to other issues plaguing the region.
Power outages disrupted the program. The longest delayed the President’s appearance onstage. The sound system conked out and the Malacañang video technicians had to wait for electricity to resume their coverage. No mention of the now-common occurrence when Aquino took the podium.
He barely touched on the Maguindanao massacre, only noting how Mangudadatu “gained strength” from it to govern and reconcile disputes. No one has yet to be convicted for the killings–a hanging point for Aquino’s administration.
Aquino did say he doesn’t promise an end to the nation’s problems.
“Palagay ko kaya kong ipangako sa inyo na pagbaba ko sa pwesto at nagkita tayo muli, sasabihin niyo may problema pa kayo.” Problems, he said, borne of the solutions his government is pursuing.
President Aquino is counting on the May elections to reflect the changes his administration has made here in transparency and good governance. Yet he is hoping those changes would also convince the citizens of ARMM’s most vote-rich province to support him and his handpicked teammates.
*This writer was also in Maguindanao during the 2010 elections. Read his blog entries about the polls here.