By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
BULUAN, MAGUINDANAO–The rural air is occasionally broken by blaring music. It’s different from the familiar amplified chants calling Muslims to prayer five times a day. The sources of the music: roving rented mini-pickups packed with speakers and dressed in campaign posters.
One vehicle plays a down-tempo, pop tune repeating the nickname of a provincial candidate as a chorus. Another passes by moments later, blasting a rap-style song in Maguindanaoan extolling the virtues of another candidate.
It’s my second election coverage here in Maguindanao. With me are the same reporter, a few same crew mates, and some newbies to this election hotspot. Some elements have changed in three years, the sound of campaign jingles one pleasant surprise.
Our haunts have changed too, mirroring the changes in local politics. Since we arrived, we’ve set up our live point outside the Rajah Buayan Silongan Peace Center here in Buluan–the de facto capitol building which was not around in 2010.
Last election, we were stationed outside the provincial complex in capital Shariff Aguak. The capitol there is still imposing but unoccupied. The compound’s sole tenants are a brigade of soldiers.
We merely pass by Shariff Aguak on our two-to-three-hour trips from Cotabato City. The standout mansions of the Ampatuans still loom near the capitol, yet even this bailiwick of the clan seems less hushed than it looked before. More residents roam the town center, and the campaign posters are more varied.
There is less tension in the air as Maguindanao faces its second election since the infamous massacre in Ampatuan town. The main friction is largely political—the tiff between electoral rivals Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu and Sultan Kudarat Mayor Tucao Mastura.
A fragile peace accord holds up for now, and we have heard no reports of violence since our arrival in May 4. Security forces, while hands-off from the electoral process, are not taking chances.
(As this blog was being posted, the writer learned that a convoy of a mayoralty candidate in South Upi town was ambushed the day before, killing an escort.)
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF, a stakeholder in the current peace panel, is banking on the midterms elections to determine the turnout of the accord.
Interviewed by our reporter Jorge Cariño, MILF chairman Al Haj Murad says they encouraged registered MILF members to vote on May 13. But he adds the command gave no specific candidates to vote for.
It rains here at least once a day, a cool respite from otherwise hot afternoons. But the interruptions that still need getting used to are the daily power outages that have plagued Mindanao for months.
Stable electricity is crucial for an election reliant on automated machines to count votes. Such concern met the arrival of convoyed trucks hauling Precinct Count Optical Scanner (PCOS) machines and other election paraphernalia to the Maguindanao towns.
At some subsequent final testing activities, the power outages coupled with delays and the hot weather gave a preview of what to avoid come Election Day.
Flown from Manila to Cotabato City, the election equipment are first kept under lock, key, and plastic cuffs at a warehouse there. A handful of trucks divide the transit of 722 PCOS machines throughout the province. Each delivers to one town at a time and returns to Cotabato for the next batch.
Once received at municipal halls, the paraphernalia are stored in a room whose door is padlocked, nailed shut, sealed with packing tape, and signed by three officials. The three should also be present when the room is opened for the testing.
None of the 17 PCOS machines assigned to Datu Saudi town malfunctioned during the final testing and sealing witnessed by our news crew there. But the testing only begun by noon instead of the 9 a.m. schedule. One of the officials arrived late.
Then a blackout struck as the testing began, putting the reserve batteries for the PCOS machines to use. Each machine has two.
The Commission on Elections already dismissed concerns of power failure disturbing the polls, pointing to backups like the batteries and portable generators which were delivered with the machines.
Amid the testy testing illuminated only by sunlight, the election officer of Datu Saudi had to reach a compromise with restive election watchers unable to observe inside the cramped testing hall.
Still, a good report in this area so far.
Maguindanaoans, like other Filipinos, are counting that their votes on Monday will get counted correctly and with few, if any, problems.
- The President campaigns in Maguindanao (pinoyjourn.wordpress.com)