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Election Day in the Philippines Means 500 Guns, 191 Knives and 68 Grenades

The Philippines boasts one of Asia’s oldest democracies. But as it struggles to rein in political violence and corruption, that distinction is exactly a point of pride. On Monday, more than 40,000 villages in the Philippines voted in municipal elections and, in the run-up, at least 22 candidates and supporters were killed in election-related violence, ...

ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images
ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

The Philippines boasts one of Asia’s oldest democracies. But as it struggles to rein in political violence and corruption, that distinction is exactly a point of pride.

On Monday, more than 40,000 villages in the Philippines voted in municipal elections and, in the run-up, at least 22 candidates and supporters were killed in election-related violence, according to the Associated Press. Across the country, 27 others were wounded in shootouts between rival candidates, and 588 were arrested for violating the election gun ban. (Police also confiscated some "500 firearms, 4,000 rounds of ammunition, 191 knives and 68 grenades.") Before the polls opened on Monday, the Commission on Elections (called Comelec) had announced that 889 areas of the country were on their watch list because of the presence of private armies, intense political rivalries, and hrecent histories of election-related violence. Some 94 villages failed to hold elections at all, while more than 300 others reported massive vote buying.

Elections — the most visible mechanism of a representative government — are regularly the impetus for chaos and bloodshed in the Philippines, where even the lowest levels of government are plagued by violence, fraud and the weak rule of law.

In the worst case of election violence to date, 58 people were massacred on November 23, 2009, by the private army of a powerful political family in Maguindanao. Among the dead were relatives of a rival candidate, as well as 30 media workers covering the election. The killers used a backhoe to bury the bodies in a mass grave, some still alive.  About 200 people have been charged in association with the murders, but no one has been convicted.

In theory, the Philippines has the makings of a vibrant democracy: an engaged electorate, a strong constitution, and a history of successful popular movements. But political clans, rather than political parties, continue to dominate public discourse and control public office. The historic concentration of wealth in the hands of a few families has helped to create powerful, political dynasties, while a measure signed by former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ensured the proliferation of private armies and state-backed militias, often used to secure political victories for wealthy candidates. Though President Aquino revoked the measure last year, and promised to dismantle private armies ahead of the 2013 elections, cracking down on political violence has proven much more difficult than expected.

Election-related violence usually begins 90 days before polling day (sometimes well before, as in in the case of the Maguindanao massacre), and often continues for up 30 days afterwards. In Mindanao, losing candidates have been known to engage in kidnappings and violence to recoup the financial losses associated with their unsuccessful bids. Winning, of course, offers huge financial rewards. Congressional representatives, for example, receive millions of dollars per year in discretionary money from the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) — purportedly for the purpose of local infrastructure projects. In reality, members of Congress have been using the money as a slush fund for re-election efforts or for other types personal gain.

The Aquino administration’s much-touted anti-corruption campaign has borne some small successes — such as the impeachment of an unscrupulous chief justice — but has yet to meaningfully address the culture of corruption and cronyism plaguing the country’s political system.

It’s often said that one of the Philippines’ proudest moments came after the People Power Revolution in 1986. when CBS reporter Bob Simon declared that the Filipinos were "teaching the world" about democracy. But as the country struggles to hold elections free of violence nearly 30 years later, it seems the Philippines still has a lot to learn.

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