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Elections in the mountains as models for peaceful politics
by Harley Palangchao

While violence is erupting in election hotspots around the country, two major areas in the Cordillera region are singing a different tune.

Cordillera is distinctly marked by an ambience of small town friendliness where people know one another and the spirit of empathy thrives. This neighborly environment stretches to politics.

Take the anecdote in 1992 of long-time politician, Raul Molintas, who was then running for congressman in Benguet. He had gladly invited Jimmy Pa-nganiban, a candidate for governor, for a ride to northern Benguet even if the latter belonged to a different political party.

There years later, Molintas and Panganiban both ran for governor of Benguet, which the former eventually won.

And while Molintas was leading in terms of votes for the highly contested seat, Panganiban earned much admiration from the Benguet electorate for gladly conceding and raising the hand of his rival even before the canvassing was finished.

“The gesture was overwhelming,” said Molintas then, who acknowledged that politics in Benguet and Baguio City is ever gentle and peaceful.

In one election period, Molintas said his once political nemesis for congressman turned out to be his tandem, while his previous tandem became his opponent for the same electoral post.

“But nothing bad happened. The election was peaceful as expected because we are just temporary political enemies. We remain permanent friends,” he said.

The former governor likewise noted the recent unification of the prominent Dangwa and Cosalan clans in Benguet set a precedent in the province’s political arena.

In Baguio and Benguet, there is only unification of once oppo-sing candidates and no political dynasties. These areas hold that distinction.

Except for Apayao, Cordillera provinces, particularly Benguet and some parts of Mountain Province, are recommended as study sites to analyze why political dynasty does not thrive in the highlands.

Even in the proposed 3rd Organic Act for the Cordillera region, prohibiting political dynasty is one of the special provisions people want advocates to consider in pushing for an autonomous region.

Templates for peaceful elections

Incumbent and past officials of Benguet and Baguio City have agreed that the culture of peace and other best practices during elections in the locality can be considered as templates in line with the bid of the Commission on Elections for measures to ensure peaceful and orderly elections.

Benguet Gov. Nestor Fongwan, who marked almost two decades in politics, said he goes out campaigning in his province without being escorted by heavily armed guards.

“Let the police who are supposed to escort the politicians do other important jobs for the people,” said Fongwan, adding Benguet voters would surely be intimidated by politicians employing heavily armed escorts.

Benguet Rep. Ronald Cosalan said he has not witnessed any politically motivated violence ever happening in the province since he joined the political bandwagon in the early ‘90s.

“There is no such thing as perfect politics but the people of Benguet, including us politicians, really strive hard to maintain zero violence related to elections. In fact, no single shot was ever fired against a politician in our province,” Cosalan said.

The solon believes Benguet can be a pilot study by Comelec and even the Philippine National Police in coming out with strategies on how to lay down the groundwork for peaceful and orderly elections in other areas in the archipelago.

One thing unique in Benguet, Baguio, and the Mountain Province, politicians and supporters claim, is that candidates running for the same position can readily sit down in one table and share guffaws over cups of coffee.

“This is one thing very interesting in local politics. Opposing candidates can shake hands and call it a day,” Cosalan added.

Molintas, Fongwan, and Cosalan share the same view that Benguet voters consider politics synonymous to public service, not a business venture. They believe political patronage or politics of vengeance, intimidation, and violence has no room in a province that cherishes the culture of peace.

Politics in Baguio and Benguet is always gentle, according to Mayor Mauricio Domogan, who in his more than 20 years as a politician, never suffered a scratch due to political violence.

“Elections in Baguio is not only peaceful. As a highly urbanized city, no reported cases of rampant vote-buying has been reported,” the mayor said, adding majority of voters cast their votes according to the dictate of their conscience.

Domogan, who served nine years as a congressman and 12 years as mayor, said it will be very unlikely for Baguio voters to go for politicians who employ the evils of elections, referring to “goons, gold, and guns.”

Domogan’s long-time tandem, Rep. Bernardo Vergara, who was once defeated in his mayoral bid, said elections in Baguio has been distinctively a gentleman’s contest.

“Nothing violent happens in other places. Maybe we have heated campaign speeches, but  these are generally more jovial than jeering. Candidates are friendlier while personal attack is an exception than a rule,” Vergara said.

Opposing candidates

on one stage in rallies

Baguio has lots of catching up with Benguet in terms of good practices like the holding of same rallies by different opposing candidates.

For decades now, the towns of Sablan, Bokod, and Kabayan are known for having opposing candidates sharing resources to feed the people during campaign rallies they hold at the same time in one place.

Incumbent Sablan Mayor Arthur Baldo, who is running for re-election unopposed, recalls that the practice of holding rallies at the same time was intensified during their term as councilors.

“The holding of rallies by politicians under different parties, including independent candidates, helped us cut down our campaign expenses. In fact, it cautions candidates from issuing below the belt speeches,” Baldo said.

Such practice, however, was set aside this year because of some personal reasons between the camps of two candidates running for the same position. “Nevertheless, peace still reigns in our place and we expect the practice of conducting rallies at the same time will resume soon,” Baldo said.

Kabayan Mayor Faustino Aquisan, who is also seeking re-election unopposed, said candidates hold their fora together in one place upon the request of community elders and residents.

Aquisan, despite being uncontested, was in a candidates’ forum attended by the majority of candidates under different political parties, when he was sought for his comments on best practices during election period.

“This practice should be maintained and must be passed on to the next generation if we want to make future elections free from mudslinging and violence,” the Kabayan mayor said.

The culture of peace in Benguet and Baguio has been acknowledged both by the ranking officials of the PNP and Comelec, claiming the two localities as models for peaceful election studies. The stark contrast between peaceful political campaigns and the grim violence in other towns is glaring, thus, peaceful elections are being assured in Baguio and Benguet with none of its politician or political group perceived as a threat to the peace and order towards the May 13 elections.

In a recent press forum, Police Regional Office-Cordillera Director Benjamin Magalong did not include Baguio and Benguet as among the areas in the region to be in the watchlist of the PNP because these do not have a history of violence or presence of armed groups in previous elections.

Last month, Baguio City Police Office Director Jesus Cambay Jr. and Benguet Police Provincial Police Office Director Rodolfo Azurin Jr. confirmed there are no serious threats against politicians in these two localities.

“What is good about Benguet politics is that candidates who are running in the same position are very much ready to shake the hand of his rival or they could sit down together over a cup of coffee. This scenario is the same in Baguio,” Azurin said.

Inayan: A Golden Rule

It all boils down to cultural upbringing.

Like the people of Mountain Province, voters in Benguet and Baguio maintain a high respect for the cultural value of inayan, which is considered by the Igorot Christians as synonymous to the Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you like others do unto you.”

The high respect for the value of inayan, by many indications, has greatly contributed to keeping the towns and villages in the northern highlands safe from lawlessness, including during election period.

Rev. Fr. Jonathan Obar, parish priest of the Episcopal Church of Epiphany in La Trinidad, Benguet described the word inayan as the summation of the 10 Commandments of God.

“When we preach, we tell the people that it’s inayan to steal and it’s inayan to sell their votes and their freedom. Likewise, it’s inayan to take advantage of fellow candidates,” said Obar.

Dr. Purificacion Delima of the College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines Baguio, reported in her research paper that inayan embodies all virtues/morals of tribal members – humility, truthfulness, fidelity, honesty, and commitment, among other things.

All told, elections in the northern highlands particularly Benguet, Baguio, and some parts of Mountain Province will be ever gentle and peaceful, a template that can be replicated for better elections in other parts of the country.

The rest is for the Comelec to do its part.
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