Preparations for the BARMM Parliamentary Elections in 2022 must start now

By Atty. Emilio Marañon III
Research Fellow, Access Bangsamoro
July 14, 2020

The historic “Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao” was signed by President Duterte on July 27, 2018. The said law created the “Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao” (BARMM) which replaced the old Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). This new political entity is the realization of the Moro peoples’ aspiration for “self-governance” but “within the framework of the Constitution and the national sovereignty as well as territorial integrity of the Republic of the Philippines.”

In further pursuit of this aspiration of self-governance in the BARMM, the peoples of the Bangsamoro are set to elect their own parliamentary officials in a free and democratic region-wide election to be held on May 9, 2022.

This election is crucial not only because it will test the readiness of the peoples of the BARMM for “self-governance,” but it is an opportunity to quell the doubts of those who believe otherwise. Article XVI Section 13 of the said law provides:

“The first regular election for the Bangsamoro Government under this Organic Law shall be held and synchronized with the 2022 national elections. The Commission on Elections, through the Bangsamoro Electoral Office, shall promulgate rules and regulations for the conduct of the elections, enforce and administer them pursuant to national laws, this Organic Law and the Bangsamoro Electoral Code.”

To prepare for this historic election, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) in Section 40 of the law was tasked to establish a “Bangsamoro Electoral Office” (BEO) which shall administratively fall within its full supervision and control. The BEO shall in essence operate as “the” COMELEC in the BARMM, but unlike the present ARMM Regional Office it is envisioned with more powers and discretion.

The creation of the BEO will entail innovation for COMELEC as it will mean partially decentralizing its powers in turn requiring some rewriting and redesign in its own structure. While there are significant improvements in the past decade, COMELEC’s decision-making process over administrative matters is still quite centralized. Discretion of its field offices over administrative matters remains very minimal. Thus, establishing a BEO with an equally “self-governing” status would be a key innovation for BARMM and also a novel step for the agency.

Presently, with less than two (2) years before the 2022 BARMM elections, the COMELEC has yet to issue an official resolution setting the structure of the BEO. Clearly, COMELEC may need to support to address these urgent issues.

Concurrent to the constitution of the BEO, the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) is separately mandated by the BARMM’s Organic Law to ensure the enactment of a Bangsamoro Electoral Code, which is one of those set as its “priority legislations.”

The said Code in Section 7 (a) is supposed to set the qualifications for groups in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region who shall seek to register and participate in the elections for “Party Representatives.” Party Representatives constitute fifty percent (50%) of the 80-person Bangsamoro Parliament. Setting these qualifications is a necessary pre-condition to hold elections for Party Representatives in 2022. One cannot overemphasize the importance of that process which will determine half of the BARMM Parliament.

There are also related matters that need immediate settlement. One of the most crucial is the status of the 63 barangays in North Cotabato which voted to be included in the BARMM. Under which municipality, legislative district or province will they be attached for the purpose of 2022 elections? This should be settled in order to secure their right to vote in the 2022 elections.

For COMELEC to adequately prepare for the 2022 BARMM elections, all of these concerns should have been settled last year, 2019. It must be remembered that an automated election takes at least three (3) years of preparation. For Comelec to prepare, it needs to know beforehand the number of voters, the positions to be voted for, the number of ballots needed, among others. The 2022 election is less than two (2) years from now yet there is no electoral code in sight. This makes the remaining period dangerously tight from the perspective of election management.

One example is that under COMELEC Resolution no. 9366, the last working day of March 2021 would already be the supposed deadline for registration of political parties and party-list groups. Under Republic Act No. 7941, those who seek to register must prove that they have been existing at least one year prior to or as early as March, 2020. If this requirement will be carried over in the Bangsamoro Electoral Code, how can new parties qualify this late? The remaining alternative is to relax the requirements for party registration, yet this too implies a potential trade-off in terms of established track record.

Also, COMELEC has already submitted its budget to cover the expenses for the preparatory activities in 2021 and soon for the year 2022 itself. The procurement process which takes a minimum of nine (9) months is also expected to start soon. Of course, without an electoral code and loose ends being tied first, COMELEC preparations will be tight. In summary, with the extended delays, the period for preparation for BARMM has become very tight. It appears that the next few months will need to be urgently leveraged in order to make the 2022 BARMM parliamentary elections the preeminent expression of Bangsamoro democratic self-governance.

Atty. Emilio Marañon III is a research fellow of the Access Bangsamoro Project. He was the former Chief of Staff of former COMELEC Chairperson Sixto Brillantes, and has been practicing election law after his sint in COMELEC. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Access Bangsamoro, its proponents, or affiliates.