Indigenous people (IP) make up an estimated 14 percent of the Philippine population. IFES-supported consultations on the right to suffrage revealed that intimidation, discrimination and inaccessibility were recurring concerns for IP groups. Many IPs hike through mountains for more than three hours to get to town centers where registration and election activities are held – just one of the many obstacles they face in participating in the political process.
The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act describes IPs as those who have “possessed customs, tradition and other distinctive cultural traits” and those who “through resistance to political, social and cultural inroads of colonization, non-indigenous religions and culture, became historically differentiated from the majority of Filipinos.” This differentiation is central to their exclusion from the electoral process; policies crafted in the context of the so-called majority fail to account for IPs’ ways of life.
The Philippine Commission on Elections (COMELEC) convened the Inter-Agency, NGO and PO [People’s Organization] Network on Empowering IPs in the Electoral Processes on January 11, 2012, to engage IP, government and civil society stakeholders in proposing reforms that will effectively enfranchise the sector.
IFES assisted the working group by facilitating partnerships; sharing international standards and best practices on IP suffrage; and supporting the process of proposing electoral mechanisms that would benefit IP communities.
COMELEC promulgated Resolution 9427 on May 15, 2012, providing new procedures that would allow IPs to register without identification documents. The supplementary data section of the registration form was revised to include ethnic group affiliation. An affidavit of identification was provided to allow those indigenous persons without documentation to be identified before an election officer by any registered voter from the same precinct or by any relative within the fourth civil degree of affinity or consanguinity.
To implement the new procedures, IP pilot registration activities were rolled out in the Philippines’ seven ethnographic regions from July to October 2012. COMELEC, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples and the Department of Interior and Local Government entered into a memorandum of agreement to support registration in the IP communities.
The registration teams in these far-flung IP communities faced difficulties that highlighted the challenges of enfranchising IPs. Voter registration machines had to be transported by foot or over muddy mountain roads by truck. In the IP communities of South Upi, Maguindanao, where pilot registration was conducted in line with the general registration of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao in July 2012, the presence of armed groups presented security issues that made registration and voter information activities a challenge for that team. Nevertheless, some 10,817 IPs in the municipality of South Upi were able to register for the first time using the new procedures. The total population of South Upi at the time of the 2010 census was 35,990, making the number of new registrants quite significant.
While one aspect of empowering indigenous populations in the electoral process is aiding them during voting and registration, this assistance sometimes becomes an avenue for mistreatment. In South Upi, local politicians assisted IPs during registration, even those who were not illiterate, in attempts to manipulate voters and ensure votes for themselves on Election Day. Jude Jover of the Kutawato Center for Peace and Justice said, “IPs are helpless in these situations because if they refuse the assistance, the barangay official and his private army may retaliate when we [observers] are gone.”
Rebecca Mokudef, an arbiter of the Teduray traditional justice system, shared that a large number of her people are illiterate and do need assistance on Election Day. However, those who assist do not always complete ballots according to the Teduray voters’ choices. Mokudef stressed the importance of designing safeguards to ensure that illiterate IP voters are not abused in this way.
The new registration procedures have enhanced the service orientation of the COMELEC and other stakeholders, and allowed thousands of IPs to register to vote. Still, much work lies ahead to ensure that IPs are empowered to vote on Election Day.