Zamboanga (AsiaNews) Some 12,000 troops and police have been deployed to guard polling stations and protect voting in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (southern Philippines). Security services said they have picked out 120 election "hot-spots" where there is a higher risk of unrest and electoral fraud.
Voters are choosing the new governor, vice-governor and 24-member legislature. Nine people are running for each of the two executive posts; 114 are vying for a seat in the local parliament.
"We will make sure that we will not only have a violence-free election, but an honest and credible process," Ricardo de Leon, the deputy national police chief said.
The 2004 presidential and congressional elections were marred by accusations of electoral fraud against outgoing and eventual winner President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and have contributed to the current political crisis that is gripping the Philippines.
Mindanao is considered high risk for several reasons.
It has a long history of violence between the separatists of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Filipino army. A peace deal was signed in 1996 after decades of guerrilla warfare but only after it cost the lives of 120,000 people. However, some armed groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are still demanding Mindanao's independence and negotiating with the central government. Finally, there is Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic group linked to al-Qaeda.
Today, news reports have been published indicating the possible presence of ten suicide bombers from Indonesia who are said to be trying to buy explosives for new attacks in the country. The alarm, which was made by the Philippines security services, has raised great concern because of the presence in Mindanao of Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesia-based extremist Islamic group that many observers consider closely tied to al-Qaeda.
The country has already been targeted by terrorist attacks; for example, on February 27, 2004, an attack against Superferry 14 left more than a hundred people dead.
Catholic sources on the island warn that no one can vote freely "despite efforts by Christian and Muslim leaders to urge voters to act responsibly when they cast their ballots".
According to Father Benjamin Torreto, from the archdiocese of Cotabato, people are likely to be influenced by Manila politicians and village leaders. "Voters are not interested in the outcome", he said.
Missionaries with the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions (PIME) who operate in the area agree. "Those who cannot buy votes can't even run. People have become very apathetic and resigned; they either abstain or vote for highest bidder".
The Church, the missionaries stress, has this challenge to face, namely "uproot this mentality. But to do so, we must have heroic role models who renew faith in everyday life".