Opportunities and Pitfalls for Political Communication for the 2022 BARMM Polls

By Hansley A. Juliano, M.A.
Instructor, Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University
10 December 2020 (version as of 17 September 2020

 

The 2022 polls herald a momentous occasion due to the pioneering parliamentary elections of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) on May 9. Calls for preparation for the BARMM parliamentary polls have already been sounded. We must note that parliamentary elections, by the nature of its institutional setup, expect that political parties are consolidated and animated by a common and explicitly-stated policy agenda. In a way, the institutional design seems to be the perceived panacea for the heavily-personalistic and clan-based politics of the region. That said, the nature of elections in the Bangsamoro has hardly been defined by long-term political party and genuine democratic institution-building.

At the same time, even countries with long-standing and advanced parliaments are experiencing increasing “personalization” and “presidentialization” of political struggles—due not only to influential and disproportionately-powerful party leaderships, but also the complicity of the media and news environment. Acknowledging how this occurs in parliamentary governments and how they can be regulated is therefore vital towards ensuring discipline amongst the participating parties, as well as engendering a new, more horizontal and accountable political environment in the Bangsamoro.

 

Political Communication Issues Faced by Parties

In recounting the literature about the nature of political communication throughout the 20th and 21st century, Magin, et. al. (2017) periodized four (4) ages of political communication, which saw the transition from print media towards electronic and more widely-distributed media formats. Recent history falls under the 3rd age (1990-2008, multi-channel television and the rise of the internet) and the 4th age (persistence of multi-channel platforms, and the growth of Web 2.0—particularly the ubiquity of social networking sites.[1]

Values and trends that grew under this context include (but are not limited to) modernization, individualization, secularization, economization, aestheticization, rationalization and mediatization[2]. Coincidentally, most of post-EDSA Philippines grew and developed under the 3rd and 4th age of political communications and have shared these values.

The areas under BARMM, however, may not necessarily be ready for policies or even campaign discourses that hew specifically to such, especially with the postcolonial and religio-cultural tensions rife in the region—especially in contrast to their more urbanized/developed regional neighbors. At the same time, they have not been immune to such developments—and political actors within the BARMM are definitely utilizing modern technology and political communication strategies for their campaigns, be they good or ill.

Modernization and technology are not the sole arbiters of determining the political communication playing field. The development and scope of usage of mass propaganda, media campaigning and political marketing can also determine to what extent does the electorate respond to manufactured messages and policy proposals—as well as the willingness of political parties to engage in market research.[3] These trends are already visible in contemporary Philippine politics, even outside the BARMM.

However, BARMM’s transition towards parliamentary government structures does not automatically guarantee that they have seen off the worst of presidential/single-executive political campaign strife. Even politicians under parliamentary governments precisely see the value of personalizing political campaigns and mobilizing followers instead of promoting long-term discourse, and social networking sites (SNS) are tailor-fit for such a purpose.[4] Furthermore, the possibility of coalition governments inside a parliamentary structure also opens a new set of tensions for participating parties—wherein they play “a mixed-motive game in which coalition parties have to reconcile the tension between policy compromise to maintain government stability and policy differentiation to ensure electoral success.”[5]

Parliamentary parties, therefore, run the risks involved not only in offering and maintaining compromises among themselves, but also ensuring that their allies, members and followers will be on side whatever decision or policy they implement. While rabid polarization (even under Duterte) has not wholly developed throughout the country and even in the Bangsamoro, “cross-class, clientelistic coalitions”[6] may nonetheless become possible fault-lines in every upcoming election cycle.

 

The Challenges of Party-Building in the Bangsamoro

As early as the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, there have been efforts towards addressing the gaps in political party development in the Bangsamoro. In a 2014 report of The Asia Foundation, it consistently identified the nature of the political economy of the Bangsamoro as a significant roadblock, characterized by (but are not limited to):[7]

  • the predominance of traditional leaders and the clan system over formal institutions;
  • extensive patronage traditions;
  • the significant lack of economic opportunities;
  • the undue intervention and influence of Malacañang in local tensions; as well as
  • the exacerbation of post-conflict tensions.

In turn, the Asia Foundation (at the time) identified the most relevant political parties that were established / operational within the Bangsamoro[8]:

National Parties Party-List Parties Islamic Parties Potential Parties
·       Liberal Party (LP)

·       Akbayan

·       Anak Mindanao (AMIN)

·       Suara Bangsamoro

·       Ang Laban ng Indigenong Filipino  (ALIF)

·       Ompia Party

·       Muslim Reform Party

·       People’s Consultative Party (Mushawara)

·       Ummah  Party

·       Islamic Party of the  Philippines (IPP)

·       Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)

·       Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)

The transition in 2016 towards the administration of Rodrigo Duterte (and the current ruling party of PDP-Laban) obviously dislodged the dominance of the LP-Akbayan coalition. LP and Akbayan have struggled to retain a significant national presence since (with their oppositional senatorial slate, including an ALIF representative, handily defeated by the Duterte-sponsored coalition during the 2019 midterm elections)[9]. As of writing, most of the party-lists and Islamic parties remain operational. For its part, the erstwhile Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has also established its own party, the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP), slated to put their innovations in parliamentary-building to the test.[10] That being said, the fundamental politico-economic relationship between Bangsamoro political entities and Malacañang does not seem to have changed—especially with the high-handed way Duterte has governed the terrorist situation in the Bangsamoro.[11]

International and local civil society actors have also been involved in promoting party development and enjoining the aforementioned political parties. Forums and programs have been sponsored in 2016 by Democratic Party Development (DEPADEV) – Bangsamoro (jointly supported by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the Institute of Autonomy and Governance and the European Union/EU).[12] International IDEA and the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society (CBCS) also facilitated strategic planning workshop for civil society representatives on the matter in 2019[13], and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) is slated to implement similar projects this 2020.[14]

In most of these meetings, a common refrain highlighted was that party-development was motivated by money-making and  resource-mobilization instead of policy development, if only because 1) “no political party engag[es] across sectors” (as evidenced by the segmentation of party constituencies highlighted above); 2) there is “no political party with membership among the Muslims and Christians” (or at least a common congress platform between them; and 3), the “lack of understanding of political parties on how the people participates”.[15] There has been no indication that the situation has changed as of 2020. This means, therefore, that we can realistically expect the reassertion of clan ties and top-down political loyalties. New political parties engaging in this process, therefore, need to a) discipline and override longstanding clan loyalties, as well as b) actively build movements/bases that are both inclusive of the sectors within Bangsamoro, as well as allied with recommended progressive forces.

 

The BARMM Elections in a post-COVID-19 context

We must admit that the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic complicates normal (and even planned) cyclical political activities. The Philippines is not going to be immune to the fact that should pandemic containment not change, we also run the risk of complicating/affecting the conduct of scheduled elections by 2022. EU countries have already suspended a total of 1 Presidential Election, 2 Parliamentary Elections, 5 Referenda and 5 Regional/Local Elections.[16] While the polls are still two years away, the fact that the Duterte government does not have any significant achievement on containment does not spell confidence on normalization by 2022.

In Asia, the gold standard for post-COVID-19 electoral exercises would be South Korea, whose government under President Moon Jae-in has been hailed in their decisive and effective response for COVID-19 transmissions. Their national elections were conducted on schedule and no transmissions were recorded.[17] Quite understandably, President Moon’s government won a sizeable victory in these elections—with his governance style itself a key case study in effective governance and political communication guaranteeing public confidence and support.[18]

The same pressure will be visited amongst the political parties who will be engaging in the 2022 BARMM polls—with their constituents on the line. Should the polls be postponed or delayed due to pandemic-related risks, the BARMM electorate are bound to ask questions. Are these political parties really involved either in direct aid and relief? Have they been advocating to government in reforming and addressing long-standing public health necessities and infrastructure shortfalls? Or has this current health crisis rendered them paralyzed—and what does that imply for their actual competence in governance?

This can serve as a risk for such parties (who run the likelihood of being labelled ‘machinery vote delivery’ parties for Malacañang), or an opportunity for them to assert their genuine independence and institutionalization. These parties, therefore, should be encouraged to begin strategizing and preparing for the following dynamics:

  1. Coalition and constituency-building. The aforementioned segmentation of the BARMM electorate has led to the creation of multiple parties, but they remain small and inconsequential in actually defeating long-standing political families (if they are not in fact mere fronts for such political families). Addition is paramount in a numbers game, and previous research/civil society engagements have suggested a level of potential rapprochement between certain sectors and parties. Opposition forces aligned against the Duterte government have the biggest impetus to engage in this, if only to recapture a potential public audience. At the same time, third-way/alternative coalitions to the weakened “liberal” opposition would also be a good opportunity to reorganize forces, as well as offer an alternative view of Mindanaoan politics that does not center from Davao.
  2. Party differentiation. One clear risk in party development is that most parties’ ideological bases/frameworks are competing with the same limited audience—the purported Moro majority within BARMM. There are nonetheless other marginalized yet sizeable constituencies needing representation (such as the non-Muslim/traditional indigenous peoples). Building parties that not only integrate them with sympathetic Moro constituencies (as well as urbanized Moro and Christian organizations) could also help in creating a sizeable mass base. Of course, if polarization and Moro-exclusive representation becomes the dominant narrative in the upcoming polls, this has its risks.
  3. Campaign innovation. Nearly every political party is currently incentivized in increasing its online footprint—especially with social distancing protocols prohibiting any traditional political campaigns on the ground. Investing in online platforms and public engagements may not only cast their activities on a more progressive and modern light, they may also be able to engage the youth sector who have access to such platforms. At the same time, the reality of lack of access to telecommunications by certain impoverished sectors remains a major roadblock—especially if these parties are seeking to empower them. In this, a good blend of traditional campaign machinery and communications innovation can spell the difference.

 


 

Mr. Hansley Juliano, M.A. is a political scientist. He served as faculty of the Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University from 2013 to 2020. Communication is welcome at hjuliano@ateneo.edu. 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.

 


[1] Melanie Magin, Nicole Podschuweit, Jörg Haßler & Uta Russmann (2017). “Campaigning in the fourth age of political communication. A multi-method study on the use of Facebook by German and Austrian parties in the 2013 national election campaigns,” Information, Communication & Society 20(11) (DOI:10.1080/1369118X.2016.1254269), 1699-1700.

[2] Jay G. Blumler and Dennis Kavanagh (1999). “The Third Age of Political Communication: Influences and Features,”  Political Communication 16, 210-211.

[3] Dominic Wring (2001), “Power as well as Persuasion: political communication and party development,” in Bartle, J. & Griffiths, D.(eds.) Political Communication Transformed (Hampshire: Macmillan-Palgrave).

[4] Gunn Sara Enli & Eli Skogerbø (2013), “Personalized Campaigns on Party-Centred Politics,” Information, Communication & Society  16(5) (DOI:10.1080/1369118X.2013.782330), 13-14.

[5] Iñaki Sagarzazu and Heike Klüver (2017), “Coalition Governments and Party Competition: Political Communication Strategies of Coalition Parties.” Political Science Research and Methods 5(2), (DOI:10.1017/psrm.2015.56), 14.

[6] Paul D. Kenny (2020), “Why Is There No Political Polarization in the Philippines?” in Thomas Carothers and Andrew O’Donohue, eds., Political Polarization in South and Southeast Asia: Old Divisions, New Dangers (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), 87.

[7] Tim Meisburger (2014). Developing Political Parties in the Bangsamoro: An Assessment of Needs and Opportunities (Ortigas Center: The Asia Foundation), 7-11.

[8] Ibid. (Meisburger 2014), 14-24.

[9] JC Gotinga (2019), “Duterte allies beat opposition in key Philippines midterm vote”, Al Jazeera, <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/duterte-allies-beat-opposition-key-philippines-midterm-vote-190515004157332.html>, accessed September 15, 2020.

[10]Tajallih S. Basman (2019), “MILF prepares UBJP party for 2022 polls as BARMM transitions in post-midterm elections,” Businessworld <https://www.bworldonline.com/milf-prepares-ubjp-party-for-2022-polls-as-barmm-transitions-in-post-midterm-elections/> , accessed September 15, 2020.

[11] Ted Regencia (2019), “’A failure’: Marawi verdict on Duterte ahead of annual address,” Al Jazeera <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/07/failure-marawi-verdict-duterte-annual-address-190722010958139.html>, accessed September 15, 2020.

[12] Jun Enriquez (2016), “DEPADEV works on political party development in the Bangsamoro,” DELACSE-Bangsamoro < http://www.delacse.com.ph/depadev-works-political-party-development-bangsamoro/>, accessed September 15, 2020.

[13] Nyla Grace Prieto and Frank Kayltare (2019), “Strategic planning on forming political parties in Bangsamoro,”International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (Int-IDEA), <https://www.idea.int/news-media/news/strategic-planning-forming-political-parties-bangsamoro>, accessed September 15, 2020.

[14] Westminster Foundation for Democracy (2020),“Political Party Adviser to support WFD’s Bangsamoro programme,” WFD <https://www.wfd.org/2020/07/07/political-party-adviser-to-support-wfds-bangsamoro-programme/>, accessed September 15, 2020.

[15] Enriquez (2016).

[16] Council of Europe (2020), “Impact of COVID-19 on elections and referenda in Europe,” <https://www.coe.int/en/web/electoral-assistance/elecdata-covid-impact>, accessed September 15, 2020.

[17] Sangmi Cha (2020), “South Korea: no new domestic coronavirus cases, no transmission from election,” World Economic Forum <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/south-korea-domestic-coronavirus-transmission-election-covid19/>, accessed September 15, 2020.

[18] Scott A. Snyder (2020), “Implications of South Korea’s Historic COVID-19 Elections,” Council on Foreign Relations, <https://www.cfr.org/blog/implications-south-koreas-historic-covid-19-elections>, accessed September 15, 2020.