December 4, 2022

BAGUIO CITY — Even in the expected highly-contested May 2022 local and national elections, it would be a walk in the park for the 78 unopposed aspirants for various elective positions in the Cordillera region, as they are assured of their seats come July 2022.

After the deadline for withdrawal of certificates of candidacy on Nov. 15, records of the regional Commission on Elections show that out of the 78 unopposed candidates, 21 are running for mayor, 22 for vice mayor, 32 for councilors, one for governor, and two for district representative.

Records show there are other 845 contested positions in the region, including six seats for governor, six for vice governor, 77 each for mayor and vice mayor, even for district representative, 50 for board members, and 622 for councilors.

Abra province, which has a long-history of election-related violence, has the most number of unopposed candidates, most of whom are currently occupying the positions they are vying for.

Notable in the long list of unopposed candidates are incumbent Abra Rep. Joseph Bernos, who is running for mayor in his hometown La Paz while his wife, Menchie, is running unopposed for the congressional race. His wife is the current mayor of La Paz.

Out of the 27 mayoral posts in the province, five of the 11 unopposed candidates are incumbents while eight of the 12 unopposed vice mayoralty bets are also seeking reelection.

Around 32 candidates for councilor, or eight each in the towns of Danglas, La Paz, Langiden, and Lagangilang are likewise unopposed.

In Apayao province, four of the seven towns have unopposed candidates for mayor and three uncontested bets for vice mayor.

Incumbent Rep. Elias Bulut, Jr. is running for governor run opposed while his sister, Gov. Eleanor Begtang, has no challenger in her bid for Apayao’s lone district representative.

In Benguet pro-vince, only Kibungan Mayor Cesar Molitas is running unopposed among the 12 of 13 incumbent mayors seeking reelection. 

In the vice mayoral race, vice mayors Angelito Galao of Atok, Maria Carantes of Tuba, and Juan Esnara of Tublay have no opponents in their reelection bid.

In Ifugao province, two of 11 municipalities have unopposed candidates for mayor and vice mayor.

Kiangan Mayor Raldis Bulayungan and Vice Mayor Michellee Baguilat and Mayoyao Mayor Jimmy Padchanan, Jr. and Vice Mayor Rudy Chilagan, Jr. have no challengers.

In Kalinga province, Rizal Mayor Karl Baac is assured of his reelection bid after his lone contender, Efren dela Cruz, has backed out.

In Mountain Province, the unopposed candidates are mayors Clark Ngaya of Barlig and Constito Masweng of Tadian, Bontoc Vice Mayor Eusebio Cablusen, and George Bisen, Jr. who is lone vice mayoral bet in Tadian.

No opposition means fewer election-related offenses

Elections in this highland region is generally peaceful and the increasing number of uncontested candidates – from 48 candidates in the 2019 midterm elections to 78 in next year’s Presidential polls — proved to be helpful in preventing election-related violence and other offenses.

Benguet Provincial Election Supervisor Elenita Capuyan said having unopposed candidates means election officers will simply perform their ministerial functions.

“It could also mean lesser cases of disqualification and lesser monitoring of poll-related violations,” she said.

Dr. Donnavila Marie Panday, a Political Science professor at the University of Baguio, said uncontested candidates bring about an environment where there is no mudslinging, no name calling, and no vote-buying, which are among the unpleasant practices during elections.

This is shared by Diocese of Abra Bishop Leopoldo Jaucian, who said there will be lesser election-related violence when candidates do not have contenders.

For a locality that bears a record of election-related hostilities, Jaucian said if there are no oppositions, there’s no reason for other parties to engage in aggression and other forms of unlawful acts that disrupt the conduct of elections.

What brings about unopposed

politicians

Election lawyers and indigenous peoples’ leaders agree that having no opposition can be both advantageous and disadvantageous, especially for the voters and to the public in general.

Baguio City Election Officer John Paul Martin said there are reasons why politicians are unopposed in their bids – either their performance is outstanding and their constituents want them to continue their service, or the culture of fear thrives in a locality.

“If the reason candidates are running unopposed is their good track record, that is acceptable; but if threat or fear is the reason why no one is challenging them, that’s unhealthy,” Martin said.

In the mystic town of Sagada, Mountain Province where election is peaceful and gentle for the past decades, IP elder Jaime Dugao or lakay Tigan-o, claimed the only acceptable reasons why candidates should not face oppositions are effective leadership and the high public’s trust and confidence in their ability to bring about positive changes in their communities.

He said voters should not find delight in having uncontested candidates under an environment of fear or under a backdrop where money decides the politicians’ success in their intentions to seek public office.

For lakay Tigan-o, the best unopposed candidates are those chosen through consensus, a decision-making process employed by the IPs in choosing the development and future of their communities.

“Deciding on having no opposition candidates should be by consensus and should be because of their good record or because the community trusts the leadership abilities of the aspirants,” he said.

He added: “Consensus means everybody, not just the majority, has agreed to let politicians run unopposed.”

In Benguet, the elders play a crucial role in the existence of unopposed candidates.

Panday said some IP communities have the practice of allowing politicians to finish three terms in office or let them ‘graduate’ before giving others the chance to lead.

For some IP groups like the Kankana-eys, the elders “give their blessing” to a politician and advice pros-pective candidates to support the one they endorsed and wait for their turn.

Leopoldo Lamsis, an elder from the Benguet Ibaloy ethnic group, said elders consent to unopposed politicians who are qualified for the office they are vying for and those who earned the respect of their constituents.

“When elders agree to have uncontested candidates, it is because we believe that they will work for the best interest of their constituents,” Lamsis said.

Downside of not challenging

candidates

In a democracy, where the voters’ right to choose reigns supreme, having no opposition candidates is not ideal, especially if they are the same people or they are of the same lineage.

Lamsis acknowledges that having uncontested politicians can be counterproductive.

“For one, they may perform poorly in office because they did not have a platform or agenda when they were running. They did not make a vow to their constituents,” he said.

For election officials, a healthy political exercise is one where the voters can freely exercise their freedom to choose.

“If a locality has unopposed candidates, the voters’ right to choose is lost and they are the ones that will suffer the drawback if their leaders do not deliver the quality services they deserve,” according to Martin.

Capuyan, for her part, said the public is deprived of other equally qualified candidates if they allow an environment where the same politicians rule, although she admitted a lot of voters are traditional and do not want change.

“If we keep choosing the same breed of leaders because for us, they are good, we are depriving ourselves from experiencing better leaders. Voters should consi-der change as good,” she said.

At the same time, Capuyan said discouraging equally qualified candidates violates an individual’s right to be voted for.

“In a democratic society, there should be multiple candidates.” 

Panday echoed these sentiments: “The presence of opposing candidates, opposing political parties is a manifestation of a healthy exercise of a democratic-republican government where the people are empowered to choose their representatives to govern.”

Disparity

A region of diverse people, the Cordillera’s political landscape can be described as either peaceful or awfully aggressive, depending on the attitude of politicians and voters of a locality. 

In Benguet, politicians do not resort to mudslinging. It is also one of the provinces where political dynasty is frowned upon.

With the exception of Abra and Apayao, one would hardly find candidates with the same surnames or belonging to one family in other provinces, Baguio City and Tabuk City, Kalinga.

Martin said in the case of Baguio City, the awareness of voters and active participation of stakeholders does not allow dynasties to thrive.

Also in Mountain Province, voters res-pect an individual’s right to seek public office.

“Nobody can prohibit people from filing (their COC). Even those who resided for a long time in the city can come home and run for public office. They even win,” lakay Tigan-o said.

While political families do not succeed in other Cordillera provinces, it thrives in Abra and Apayao.

In Abra, six of the 27 towns with unopposed bets for the mayoral and vice mayoral posts bear the same surnames: the Balao-as of Boliney, Bernos of Danglas and La Paz, Pacsa of San Isidro, Bautista of San Juan, Crisologo of Tineg, and Lagen of Villaviciosa.

In Apayao, the Buluts are perennial unopposed candidates, although the posts they are seeking are the governor and district representative, often simply swapping posts.

The Bulut siblings have been reigning over the political landscape in the province with Elias Jr. served as governor from 2010 to 2019 while his sister served as congresswoman during the same period.

Their father, the late Elias Bulut Sr., considered the godfather of Apayao politics, has sponsored a bill in Lower House that separated Apayao from the original Kalinga-Apayao province in 1995.

When Apayao became a separate province, Bulut Sr. served as governor from 2001 to 2010.

He was the incumbent mayor of Calanasan town when he died at age 76 in 2015.

In terms of peace and order, Abra remains an area of concern for the Comelec every election period and even beyond.

In 2019, it was one of the provinces in the country that were placed under Category Red in terms of election hot spot classification. Areas under Category Red are those with history of poll-related events as well as the presence of insurgent groups and history of intense political rivalry.

Bishop Jaucian, however, said the political situation in Abra is gradually improving, as candidates now have become more open to engaging in dialogues rather than hostilities.

One of the convenors of the Abra Multi-stakeholder Group that aimed to address election-related violence in the province, Jaucian said candidates now have embraced dialogues and agree on who should be supported to run, rather than resorting to violence.

“Somehow, candidates no longer resort to guns and goons,” he said.

He is optimistic that with the initiatives being done by stakeholders in the province, the vision of a peaceful Abra during the elections will finally be realized and for politicians to respect the will of the people so they may be freed from the culture of fear that has enveloped the province.

“My aspiration is the same: For aspiring leaders to always work for the common good and to continue respecting one’s right to life.”