COTABATO CITY, Philippines – Against all odds, the coveted “crown jewel” of the Bangsamoro region has been won.
Cotabato City has voted to join the proposed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), according to unofficial results from the City Board of Canvassers at about 8:42 pm on Tuesday, January 22.
The results are as follows:
The ballots of a total of 61,676 voters were counted.
Cotabato City’s astounding vote goes against its voting history. It had twice rejected inclusion in the ARMM, in 1989 and in 2001.
After a close race in the morning, the "yes" vote took over the "no" vote at about 2 pm with 15,115 voters supporting the BOL and 15,023 against it.
Before that, at about 12:07 pm, votes were neck and neck with 13,484 "yes" votes and 13,681 "no" votes. By the time canvassing was over, Cotabato City chose a new Bangsamoro region.
This is a huge victory for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and supporters of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL).
Asked for his reaction to Cotabato City's decision, MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim told Rappler, "Simple, the people have spoken and choose to side with the BOL despite very strong pressure from oppositors."
It also means that if the BOL is ratified, the BARMM will be at least one city larger than the region it replaced, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
MILF chairman Murad Ebrahim, in a Rappler Talk interview on Tuesday, said while they were confident most Cotabateños were in favor of BARMM inclusion, there was a real risk of spoilers.
"Our only fear was manipulation of votes because we learned of barangay officials trying to intervene," he said in Filipino.
Ben Bacani of the Institute of Autonomy and Governance, a longtime observer of the region, had also said “no” to BARMM inclusion would likely win if the voter turnout was high.
Cotabato City was ground zero in the Bangsamoro plebiscite debate as those taking “pro” and “anti” stances had both been equally aggressive. Some “antis” had burnt and taken down pro-BOL displays and posters while some “pros” have been accused of intimidating the other side.
Local politics has also colored the debate because the city’s mayor Cynthia Guiani Sayadi is openly anti-BARMM inclusion. In villages where the captain is an ally of the mayor, residents who are supportive of BARMM inclusion told Rappler they are afraid to speak out. (READ: Key personalities in the Bangsamoro plebiscite)
Such was the intensity of plebiscite fever in the city where crowds lined the road leading to the ARMM government complex as trucks brought election returns and ballot boxes inside for canvassing.
But the hard-won victory of the BOL supporters will forever change the city, which had, for decades, been capital to a region it was not even part of.
The ARMM is governed from Cotabato City since its offices are stationed there, despite the city being outside of ARMM.
The MILF and BOL proponents will likely savor their win of such a critical, contested city but the challenge that this big change brings awaits. – Rappler.com
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Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at email@example.com.