More than lines on a map: Re the Maguindanao split

THE PEOPLE of Maguindanao have spoken. The plebiscite on September 17 confirmed the split of the province into two — Maguindanao del Norte and Maguindanao del Sur. 

Media failed to provide background on the event, which could have provided their audiences some sense of the political implications of the division. 

Journalists instead reported only such information as the orderly and peaceful conduct of the vote, the high voter turnout, and the percentage of votes received by the pros and the cons on the matter. 

From Shariff Kabunsuan to Maguindanao del Norte and del Sur 

Ahead of the plebiscite, some media organizations provided insightful reports on the significance of the issue. Reports from Rappler and CNN Philippines traced the event to Republic Act (RA) No. 11550, a law signed by former president Duterte in May 2021 mandating the division of the province into Maguindanao del Norte and Maguindanao del Sur, with separate provincial governments. The implementation of the law was decided by the plebiscite.

Datu Roonie Sinsuat Sr. and Esmael Mangudadatu, representing the 1st and 2nd districts of Maguindanao, championed the measure in the 18th Congress. The Senate adopted the House bill sponsored by Sen. Francis Tolentino. 

The bill took into account the sheer size of the province and the challenges to provincial governments in providing services and other mandates. The two provinces would increase the number of agencies that would improve people’s access to health care, education, and transportation in remote areas. The improved capacity to cater to public needs would also spur development in otherwise overlooked municipalities. 

Maguindanao is the sixth largest province in the country with a land area of 9,968.31 square kilometers. In comparison, the National Capital Region (NCR) has 619.54 square kilometers. The Philippine Statistics Authority’s (PSA) 2020 Census recorded Maguindanao’s population at 1.34 million, which accounted for 5.11 percent of the Mindanao region’s population. Additionally, the PSA’s 2018 data showed that the poverty incidence in the area that is now Maguindanao del Sur is at a staggering 65.73 percent. In its northern counterpart, the figure stands slightly lower at 61.43 percent.

A TV Patrol report aired the day before the plebiscite featured some citizens and local government officials who shared Tolentino’s view that the split would indeed be beneficial to the average Maguindanao resident. Access to government services would be significantly improved since travel time and travel costs would be reduced for those living at a distance from the government center in Buluan.

The origins of the plebiscite can be traced to a move by the now-defunct Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao’s (ARMM) Regional Legislative Assembly (RLA) in 2006. The lawmaking body enacted the Muslim Mindanao Autonomy Act No. 201, which created the province of Shariff Kabunsuan through a similar plebiscite held in October 2006. The act effectively transferred ten municipalities from the mother province of Maguindanao to make up the new province, Shariff Kabunsuan. 

The RLA drew its authority to create new local government units (LGUs) 

from Republic Act No. 9140 or the Expanded ARMM Law. At the time, local officials believed that the creation of new municipalities and barangays resulted in less political conflict by giving political clans designated territories to govern. 

Supreme Court Intervenes 

Shariff Kabunsuan’s undoing began with an electoral dispute between rival politicians in the 2007 elections. After losing in the congressional polls to incumbent Rep. Didagen Dilangalen, Bai Sandra Sema questioned the propriety of her opponent’s being the Shariff Kabunsuan Representative while residing in Cotabato City, a different congressional district. When the province of Shariff Kabunsuan was created, Cotabato City was excluded and thus became a separate congressional district by default.  

This triggered a series of consolidated court cases and investigations culminating in the abolition of Shariff Kabunsuan. Voting 8-6, the Supreme Court (SC) later declared the RLA’s action illegal and in violation of the Constitution. The 2008 SC ruling stated that only Congress had the power to create legislative districts, which rendered unconstitutional the creation of Shariff Kabunsuan as unconstitutional. The two-year-old province was abolished and left defunct its short-lived provincial government. The decision also covered the municipalities and barangays created by the RLA.  

For “democratic competition” or political dynasties? 

While the lawmakers of the 18th Congress and local officials of the now-defunct ARMM were more focused on fostering economic development and improving the peace situation respectively, media sought insights from experts on how the split would change the political landscape. TeleRadyo interviewed lawyer Benedicto Bacani, Executive Director of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance for more background. For Bacani, the creation of new elective positions would lead to new players in local politics, opening up the democratic space for greater public participation and would be good for “democratic competition.” 

A report from Rappler, however, disputed Bacani’s view. Maria Ela Atienza, a University of the Philippines political science professor, identified that political dynasties that would stand to benefit from the division, which would not serve further democratization, but would insure control by established political clans and their monopoly over the subdivided areas. 

The May elections had already placed the Sinsuats and Mangudadatus in provincial government. They will now take over the top positions in the subdivided provincial units. But officials from other political families were also elected: Mastura and Midtimbang, which indicate the opening up of the political field to more players. 

Reports from TV Patrol and Rappler said transitory provisions in RA No. 11550 point to a lot of work that has to be done because of the division. Provincial appointive posts must be filled within 60 days, and the president must appoint new provincial board members in case of vacancies. By 2025, regular elections will be held in the new provinces for the first time, ushering in its second set of government officials. Other considerations such as employees, properties, and budget, must also be sorted out within the transitory period.

It is thus too early to say what the new map of Maguindanao will do for the politics of the area. Whatever the outcome, national media should keep up with developments as these affect the quality of government service to the people. This after all is the goal of democracy and elections anywhere in the country.