[Headlines] Batangas confronts looming poll violence

 

BATANGAS CITY——Elections in this country, even when automated voting became the major electoral reform measure three years ago, never felt entirely peaceful. Two men sitting at this city’’s Plaza Mabini know that for a fact.

The Batangueno police force has always been on guard during elections, especially since the province remains to be an election hotspot. Photo by Marlon Luistro (The Filipino Connection)

The Batangueno police force has always been on guard during elections, especially since the province remains to be an election hotspot.
Photo by Marlon Luistro (The Filipino Connection)

 

While the country just started its gun ban to formally start this year’’s election period, these two voters refused to be identified, recognizing ““tensions”” in this city’’s electoral race. ““It is difficult to talk about it (political situation in Batangas),”” both men said.

Not only are these Filipino voters tight-lipped to say their simple, humble views about local politics. Law enforcement authorities and election officers were also observed to be careful ——or is it confusing?—— in saying which areas of the country are ““hotspots,”” to the point that lists of these hotspots had been changing as the weeks progress.

With local safety on the line, ensuring peaceful elections in Philippine places like Batangas becomes a verbal ballgame that voters may have to watch out for. Officials say the area is ““peaceful”” (amid previous episodes of election-related violent incidents or ERVIs), or that the list of identified election hotspots is never as definite.

 

Hotspots?

Local police authorities, not surprisingly, patrolling the initially-identified hotspots by the Commission on Elections had declared their areas as ““peaceful””. Some of these authorities shrug off tags by the Manila headquarters of Comelec that 889 areas in 15 provinces, including their Batangueño cities and municipalities, are placed under the poll body’’s ““watchlist””. (Incidentally, Comelec consulted the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philip- pines to check if these 889 areas, are hotspots.)

There was a chilling effect ——even confusion—— of such announcement on the ground. Previously, regional PNP officials were quoted as saying that eight private armies of local politicians in Cavite and Batangas provinces are being monitored, and that eight Batangueño areas ——this city, Lipa City, Tanauan City, and the towns of Balete, Taysan, Tuy, Bauan and Calatagan are in Comelec’’s watchlist. The towns of  Lemery, Mabini, Mataasnakahoy, Rosario, San Juan, Bauan, Talisay and Padre Garcia were likewise placed on the list of areas with ““possible intense political rivalry,”” allegedly due to presence of armed followers and for the case of Bauan and Talisay, a battle for political supremacy.

Last Jan. 10, the provincial PNP said only three municipalities namely Bauan, Talisay and Padre Garcia are in the election watchlist.

But prior to the delisting, a wave of declarations swept some of these hotspot areas. Balete is an example, with that town’’s chief of police PSI Allan Nidua declaring that Balete ““is in its normal, peaceful situation as of this time””.

Another is sugar-rich Tuy, with police chief PSI Jose Sulit saying ““everything is normal.”” Citing recent developments be- tween candidates, Sulit says Tuy ““might not have election-related problems, or misunderstanding. Tuy will be having a ‘‘problem-free, smooth’’ election.””

So is Batangas City, says that city’’s election officer Atty. Grollen Mar Liwag. ““Everything is good. I do not see any politically-related problem to arise as elections near.””

Deputy Regional Director for Administration Chief Supt. Abner Dimabuyu of the Calabarzon PNP said that, there are zero reports of ERVIs in Batangas since October last year. That regional police force is even ““highly-optimistic”” the provincial police force will be able to maintain that record.

““It may look impossible (zero election-related violence) but it’’s not improbable,”” added Dimabuyu, who also heads PNP Calabarzon’’s Regional Special Operations Task Group (RSOTG)-Batangas.

 

Hush?

But apart from poll automation that diffused previous episodes of electoral fraud, a ““changing local political atmosphere”” may contribute to the fostering of more peaceful local elections in areas like Batangas.

Law enforcement authorities here think that since there are new personalities who filed candidacies in some areas, the local contest may not be ““as intense”” as compared to previous elections.

Like in Taysan town, remembered for the burning of an elementary school that killed three and injured six in the 2007 elections. Sitting mayor and vice mayor (Victor Portugal and Grande Gutierrez, respectively) will run unopposed this May. So Taysan this May will be ““more peaceful,”” municipal police chief PSI Simeon Aldovino told The Filipino Connection.

Incumbent mayors and vice mayors in Balete, Malvar and Tingloy towns will also run unopposed this May. Province-wide, it seems a sure victory for incumbent Gov. Vilma Santos-Recto as supposed challenger, Rep. Hermilando Mandanas, backed out.

 

Contentions

Nevertheless, ERVIs of re- cent memory continue to haunt vote-rich Philippine provinces like Batangas.

In the 2010 elections, there were five reported ERVIs although provincial police chief Senior Supt. Rosauro Acio confirmed that only one of the five reported incidents is ““election-related””.

There’’s also an eye on the three municipalities in the Comelec’’s watchlist. Contending mayoral candidates in one of these three municipalities, said a high-ranking police official who spoke under the condition of anonymity, reportedly had private armies.

In another municipality, a mayoral candidate allegedly broke a gentleman’’s agreement between two political families by deciding to run against the other political family.

And in the third municipality, there’’s an ongoing rift be- tween the sitting incumbent and a candidate who, in the 2010 elections, claimed that the winner and her runningmate (now deceased) allegedly ““cheated their way”” to victory.

 

Measures

Given the start of the five-month gun ban Jan. 13 that corresponded with the formal start of the election period, RSOTG- Batangas is up-and-about against loose firearms, private armies, the most wanted persons, and the criminal gangs-for-hire.

The province has recorded about 6,896 firearms with expired licenses. From December 10, 2012 to January 4 this year, at least 568 firearms have been renewed and processed by the Firearms and Explosives Division of PNP Batangas’’ Provincial Operations and Plans Branch. Local candidates for mayor, vice mayor, congressman, councilor and barangay captains have also surrendered 76 firearms for police safekeeping. These local candidates were also disallowed to hire policemen as security escorts; should they request for police escorts, there will be an ““intense threat assessment”” by the local police.

Of the 15 provinces tagged as hotspots, only Batangas, Misamis Occidental, Basilan, Ilocos Sur, Cagayan and Nueva Vizcaya had zero ERVIs reported from the period Oct. 1, 2012 to Jan. 2, 2013. Within that period also, the national PNP had reported 39 alleged ERVIs.

““The icing on the cake is that no ERVI occurs (here),”” Acio told police officials in a recent command conference. ““We should maintain that … or else the province will forever be placed (on the watchlist).””

But whether a Batangueño area is an acknowledged hotspot, was previously a hotspot, or had no history of ERVI, what if election-related security threats are for real? ““Well hopefully,”” says Batangas City’’s police chief Supt. Nicolas Torre, ““things like those (ERVIs) won’’t arise in the coming elections.””

““But whatever happens,”” Torre adds, ““we are prepared.””

 

About MARLON ALEXANDER S. LUISTRO