Examining Democracy in ARMM – a Lesson for the Upcoming Bangsamoro Government


The four-decade-old Moro rebellion in Mindanao is finally set to end with the signed Organic Law on Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The new political entity that will be established from this signed law has the potential to give a bigger autonomy for the Muslim minority (Bangsamoros) in the southern Philippines. It is seen as the vehicle for realizing the dream of the Bangsamoros of self-determination.

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This paper reviews studies on the experience of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as the existing political structure to draw lessons for the replacing government. Three challenges has been highlighted and discussed, the management of administration and election, formation of principled political parties, and civil society involvement. Addressing these challenges is key to a government that truly embody the democratic values.

Key words: Democracy, Autonomy, Election, Political Party, Civil Society, Bangsamoro


The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is an autonomous government for the Muslims in the Philippines established in 1989 through Republic Act No. 6734 and strengthened in 2001 through Republic Act No. 9054 (Marcelo, 2018). It is the result of the peace negotiation between the Government of the Philippines and the Moro National Liberation Front, a rebel group that sought independence for Mindanao and Sulu archipelago (Lingga, 2016). The Philippine government, aimed at solving the conflict emanating from the century old Moro problem, has drafted and reach various accords with Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) (Hernandez, 2017). MILF founded by Salamat Hashim, is the breakaway group from the MNLF. MILF demands a different kind of autonomy. It is a kind of autonomy that promote self-determination, or the freedom to determine and own political status and to pursue economic, social and cultural development. This right is also enshrined in Article 55 of the United Nations.

Even with the existence of ARMM, MILF continued its peace negotiations with the Philippine Government. The almost two decades of negotiation between the Philippine government and the MILF culminated in the signing of the historic Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB) last March 27, 2014 (Linga, 2016). CAB yield to the drafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law which after four years was signed into law known officially as the Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (OLBARMM). On January 21, 2019, a local plebiscite will take place in the Bangsamoro territory. This plebiscite will determine if the people agree to the inclusion of their territory to the new political entity, Bangsamoro, which will abolish and replace the existing authority of ARMM.

The existence of ARMM as a political entity did not satisfy many Bangsamoros. Many have complained that ARMM did not deliver the kind of self-governance they have envisioned and sought in the negotiations with the Philippine government. ARMM, although an autonomous government follows a unitary form and does not truly echo the will of the Bangsamoro people. The CAB revisits previous agreement (Tripoli Agreement) that took place between MNLF and Philippine government. It aimed particularly at restoring two core political provisions of the Tripoli Agreement, the establishment of a ministerial form of government in the Bangsamoro region and having an asymmetrical relationship with the central government (Linga, 2016). These two core provisions were not implemented in ARMM. However in the Bangsamoro government, these two will be implemented.

It is against this backdrop that this paper reexamines the experience of ARMM as an autonomous government, the democracy perceived and experienced by the Bangsamoro under ARMM, and draw lessons for which the replacing political entity can learn and apply to ensure its success.

Material and Methods

This paper is a literature review on the experience of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as a political entity that failed to deliver true democracy to its constituents. Several other studies have been reviewed and cited, including the recently published “Political Science” by Atilla Yayla to guide in the theoretical foundation of the concept of democracy. A citizen-led democracy assessment conducted in ARMM “State of Local Democracy in ARMM” is used as the main source of information in the review of the experience of the autonomous region. In drawing the lessons out of this experience, a chapter written by Abhoud Syed M. Lingga “Building the Bangsamoro Government” have been reviewed and incorporated into the paper. And finally, a book entitled “Democracy. Decentralization, Development” is used as the guiding principle for the recommendations on the development of effective party system in the Bangsamoro.


A. Theories of Democracy

Democracy is one of the greatest ideas invented or discovered by men (Sosmeña, 2015). It is also the most used and most abused concept in political literature (Yayla, 2018) From the time its idea was conceived in the Ancient Greek town of Athens where it was first practiced to its development in the modern world over the centuries, the definition of democracy has evolved. U.S. president Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address defined democracy as the government of the people, by the people, for the people (Epstein, 2011). This definition pose a challenge both for the politicians and for the people. Yayla (2018) simplified the concept of democracy as the political regime in which the citizens have the right to say something and express their preference through the impactful and fruitful mechanism in the process of taking public decisions and determining the political governors. Sosmeña has enumerated four elements the progressive writers identified important for democracy:

  1. A governmental system that is democratic and free,
  2. A constitution that guarantees basic individual political rights,
  3. Fair and free election, and
  4. An independent court of law.

According to the political scientist Robert Dahl, there are two basis of democratic ideals: political participation, where all eligible person can vote in a free, fair and competitive election, and political contestation, where people has the ability to express their discontent through the freedom of press and expression. People can exercise these ideals through the two main types of democracy, direct and representative.

Direct democracy places all power in the hands of the individual. It is the democracy exercised in the Ancient Athens whereby those who have political rights attend meetings (assemblies), take part in the discussion and decide on every public issue covered in the assembly (Yayla, 2018). Today, this type is embodied in various level of engagements between the governor and governed, from the lowest barangay assembly to the highest form of people’s initiative, the regular election conducted to choose leaders (Co et al, 2013). We commonly term it as participative democracy.

Representative democracy is the political arrangement that establishes an intermediary political actor between the individual and the policy outputs of the state. Through the electoral process, one person or a group of people are elected and assigned with the task of making decisions on behalf of the group of citizens that they represent. This type is a natural result of the growth of the societies in volume and the emergence of modern states (Yayla, 2018). Citizens in representative democracy elect the people who will represent them. These representatives carry out political activities on behalf of those who elect them.

There are two subcomponents of representative type, the parliamentary system and the presidential system. The parliamentary system gives more power to its legislature. Even the executive branch derives its power from the legislative body. In this system, the executive is split between the head of state and the head of government. However, the parliament can amend this and have the same head of state and government as in the case of Turkey in 2018. Parliament appoints the head of government and through a “vote of no confidence” can remove him/her.

In the presidential system, the president of a state holds a significant amount of power and is directly or indirectly elected by the citizens of the state. The survival of the president in office is not dependent on the parliament however he/she must establish a relationship of cooperation the parliamentary. The president can only be removed if he/she committed a criminal offense.

B. Democracy in ARMM

The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is established in response to the demands for independence from people in the historically separate and culturally different Muslim region the Philippines (Meisburger, 2014). Philippines is a country overwhelmingly Christian in religion and determinedly Western-biased, stemming from its Spanish and American colonial past. It is a democratic country styled after the political system of its mentor, the United States of America.

The creation of ARMM sought to give the Muslim Filipinos (Bangsamoros) a free hand in running their political affairs in consonance with local traditions and beliefs (Co et al, 2013). However, ARMM provided limited autonomy to the Bangsamoro people. It failed to produce the results that were expected in the plight of the Bangsamoros, whose conditions barely improved two decades after the autonomy was granted.

Co et al (2013) describes ARMM to be very unique because among the regional structures in the Philippines, it is the only one with regional level of governance and the rest are purely administrative. The political structure in ARMM takes after the Philippine presidential system. Like other administrative regions in the Philippines, ARMM is dependent on the annual funding allocation from the central government. The other source of funds of ARMM are shares in the internal revenue taxes, block grants and other budgetary allocations from the national government. It is also empowered to levy taxes, fees and charges (Lingga, 2016).

Like the central government, the ARMM regional government is divided between the executive branch and the legislative branch. Both branches are selected into popular vote. The executive is headed by the regional governor, while the legislative is composed of members elected by popular votes from each legislative districts in the territory of ARMM.

This set up is very far from the parliamentary arrangement envisage in the Tripoli Agreement. In the upcoming Bangsamoro, it is specified that it will utilize a parliamentary system, whereby voters elect the members of the parliament and the parliament in turn elects the executive.

A joint project of Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Association of the United States Army (AUSA) identified issues that are necessarily address in post-conflict reconstruction. The list includes security, justice and reconciliation, social and economic well-being and governance and participation. Among the four issues mentioned, a particular focus is needed to be given on the governance and participation.

The solution to the Moro problem has always been viewed to be address politically. The success of the upcoming Bangsamoro government lies in its practice of good governance. An essential change that the Bangsamoro government must consider is in the management of administration and election, formation of principled political parties, and civil society involvement (Lingga, 2016).

1. Management of Administration and Election

A study State of the Local Democracy in ARMM conducted in 2013 provides an intensive evaluation of the performance of ARMM and outlined loopholes and gaps in the structure of representation and governance in ARMM. The necessary powers and authorization that would bring ARMM to become a fully empowered region were not clearly defined and cemented. For example, while there is an existence of an Organic Act that aimed at empowering ARMM, some national policies and practices retain power at the national level. It was also pointed out in the assessment that the political authority of the region has not been match with fiscal autonomy required to make ARMM fully functional and effective. ARMM then became just an autonomous region in paper.

In the occurrence of election frauds, the most often blamed are those who administered the election. All elections in the Philippines, including the elections in ARMM, are administered by in independent constitutional body, the Commission on Elections (COMELEC). The respondents in the assessment have observed prevalence of political dominance, including the practices of vote-buying, flying voters, coercion and manipulation and other forms of electoral distortion of the voters’ will. While these conditions are observed, citizens are silent or nonchalant to these and accepted to be part of the political culture in ARMM. Clearly, an important element of democracy, free and fair election is undermine.

Lingga (2016) has enumerated reforms that must be done in the electoral management body of Bangsamoro. To do away with election-related problems and to be able to adapt the management of elections with the cultural milieu of the are, the electoral management must be free from the bureaucratic red tape of the central governments Commission on Election. A simplified system of adjudicating election protests should be installed to easily facilitate reports of election frauds. Electoral system should be computerized and voters lists should be voided at a regular integral and new registrations of voters must be conducted. Finally, an independent body to pursue prosecution of election-related offenses should be establish. The trust of the citizens to electoral management must be restored. And the citizens must recognize the legitimacy of the elected officials.

2. Formation of Principled Political Parties

Giovanni Sartori, an Italian scholar defined political party as “any political group identified at election and is capable of placing through election a candidate for public office”. Meisburger (2014) described the party system in the Bangsamoro as a combination of traditional local notable an clientistic system. The power structure in the traditional local notable is clan or tribal-based, and the personal power of an individual is tied to a locality. The clientistic party tend to be paternalistic and rely for electoral mobilization on exchange of favors or overt coercion. In ARMM, there exist a growing frustration on the current party system which is dominated by clans and dynasties. Most of the existing political parties are not founded on the needs and aspirations of the people and does not truly provide representation to the marginalized population in the Bangsamoro. Further, the seat can be bought because elites and dynasties use money to influence the occupation of seats in the party.

As the Bangsamoro government is shifting from presidential to ministerial political structure, there is a strong emphasis on the formation of a political party that is effective, functional, living, institutionalized and with a national purpose that will promote democratic values in the region. Sosmeña (2015) in his book “Democracy, Decentralization, Development” wrote a brief guidelines for the formation of political parties in the Philippines. These include having a permanent organization that will exert in the formation of public policy and opinion in governance. It should be a living institution, active all year and not only during election period. It should initiate activities and programs for its members including political education, good governance and development of future political leaders. Lingga (2016) added that once these parties are formed, there should be training on how to generate funding. In this way, qualified party members has a better chance of being nominated and winning the election. And to avoid dictation of clan interests in the nomination, there should be internal democracy in these political parties.

3. Civic Society Engagement

The great challenge to the new political entity, Bangsamoro, is the level of support it will have from the Bangsamoro people, including the MNLF and other political groups (Lingga, 2016). The true essence of a participatory democracy can be examine through the quality of the engagement of the people, of communities and of civil society in civic and public affairs and in finding consensual decisions and policy making (Co et al, 2013).

The result of the assessment in the State of Local Democracy in ARMM points to a weak and minimal participation of the people due to several factors. The factors mentioned includes the existence of command votes, whereby people adhere to whatever the Datu (clan ruler) says. Because of this, some people feels that other forms of participation other than voting are futile. Poverty, lack of education, lack of political will of local officials, frequent absence of leaders, lack of awareness of basic rights of many citizens, fear of militarization, lack of venues for participation, feeling of helplessness and not being invited to consultations are just few of the other factors that were identified by the respondents.

The results points to a need for institutional reform of local government in the region. The Bangsamoro government must exert in the practice of citizen participation. Laws and policies already provide the legal framework. The primary concern is operationalizing such laws and informing the people about it and what the local government is doing. Empowering the citizens in active participation not just during election but also in the discussion and decision making of local policies is key to achieving self-governing citizens.


This paper has highlighted only three challenges that the upcoming Bangsamoro government must give an emphasis on, the management of administration and election, formation of principled political parties, and civil society involvement. These are essential in the sense that they form both the structural backbone of affecting change in the society, both at the socio-political level and at the individual level.

A Bangsamoro government that demonstrates good governance will give the Bangsamoro citizens a greater sense of ownership in their representative institutions. It will inspire greater people participation, give legitimacy to the elected officials, deliver effective and efficient services to the people and will express the true will of the people.

There are many other aspects that the upcoming Bangsamoro government should work on to ensure that the gaps incurred in ARMM will not be repeated. These include but are not limited to building foundations for a new style of politics, forming political parties, strengthening the legislative assembly and the bureaucracy, ensuring equal representation and connectivity to the government, revenue creation and budget management, curbing corruption in all forms and fostering good governance in all level of the government. The Bangsamoro people have place their hopes into the new political entity and believe it to be the solution to the century old problems of the Bangsamoros.


Co E Fernan R Diola MRasul A Sadain M Latiph A Guiam R Bacani BJr. R

(2013) State of Local Democracy in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao

(SoLD ARMM) pp: 1-249

Lingga, A. S. M. (2004). Understanding Bangsamoro Independence as a Mode of Self

Determination. Mindanao Journal, XXVII, 3–12.

M. Lingga, A. S. (2008). Understanding the Bangsamoro Right to Self-Determination. In

B. M. Tuazon (Ed.), The Moro Reader History and Contemporary Struggle of the

Bangsamoro People.

Saylor. (1970). The Saylor Foundation Saylor.org Page 1 of 5, 3–7.

The Asia Foundation. (1955). New England Journal of Medicine, 253(3), 114–115.


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