MASBATE CITY // When it comes to political violence in the Philippines, the central province of Masbate has always been high on the list. For decades, politics in this poor, backward province has been decided, not through the ballot box, but through the barrel of a gun.
The former bishop of Masbate, Joel Baylon, once described the province as a "microcosm of all that is wrong with the Philippines". But with only days to go before the May 10 elections, Masbate is striving to prove to itself and the nation that it can hold peaceful polls without resorting to the sort of violence seen in the past. Gun bans have been rigidly imposed and many weapons seized and politicians are allowed only two armed police escorts.
The police and military began beefing up their numbers in Masbate at the end of last year in order to prevent bloodshed. In January, the Masbate police director, who had been in the job for less than two months, was replaced by Senior Superintendent Eddie Benigay. The latter's tough stand on law and order has been so successful that one political figure has placed a contract out on him for 2 million pesos (Dh161,000).
"I know who the politician is and he knows I know," he said in an interview. "We aim to keep these elections the most peaceful this province has seen," Senior Supt Benigay said. "But getting the various leading politicians together to sit around the same table is next to impossible. They don't even speak to one another." There are already two battalions of soldiers in the province - about 1,000 troops - with a number of them just back from UN peacekeeping duties in Haiti and Liberia. Hundreds of police and police commandos have also been flown in as part of Task Force Masbate.
So far the number of recorded political deaths since January is six, against 49 in 2004 election period. Father Leo Casas of the Masbate Pastoral Council has been a leading advocate for peace in the province. He said he previously did not think much of the Philippine National Police, but admits that since January, "I have changed my mind". "The police and military have distanced themselves from politics," he said. "In the past, they were in the pay of the politicians."
Father Casas, 34, who was born and raised in Masbate, has devoted his working life to helping the people of the province. "The people want change. They want an end to the fear and intimidation they have lived with all their lives. This is a very rich province. It has minerals and agriculture but at the same time it is one of the poorest in the country," said Father Casas, who has received many death threats, including a bullet in the post, and knows he is "being watched".
In March, the Catholic Church, police, military and non-governmental organisations put together a march for honest, orderly and meaningful elections that attracted 4,000 people in Masbate City, capital of the province. However, Father Casas said: "Trying to get the leading politicians to sit around the same table is impossible." Politics in Masbate, known throughout the Philippines as "cowboy" country because of its cattle ranches, has been dominated by a handful of families that cling to power through fear and intimidation.
For decades the Espinosas, a rich, cattle-ranching family, dominated Masbate politics. But after the midterm elections in 2007 when it was defeated in every major post it contested - governor, congress and local municipal positions - the family called it a day and distanced itself from politics. The Espinosas have probably suffered more than any other family. In 1989, congressman Moises Espinosa was killed at Masbate airport seconds after he had stepped off a flight from Manila. Six years later, his brother Tito, also a congressman, was shot dead on the steps of the House of Representatives in Manila, and in 2001 Moises Espinosa Jr was cut down in a hail of bullets while attending a town festival. He had been mayor of Masbate City for just 40 days.
Like so many political murders in the Philippines, those who order the killings are rarely caught. Indeed, one of those implicated in the killing of Moises Espinosa is the former three-term governor Antonio Kho, who was one of the most powerful and feared politicians in the province. His wife, Elisa Kho, is the current governor - the first woman to hold the post - and has also been the target of an assassination attempt. She has been a strong advocate for peace in the province, publicly at least. Many question her sincerity, especially given the reputation of her husband.
"This province has been ruled by a culture of fear and silence for decades," Father Casas said. "But the rally in March was a wake-up call to the politicians. "Without armed men on the streets the threat of intimidation is lessened somewhat. The big question is whether this sort of order can be maintained after the elections." For ordinary Masbatenos, the increased security and drop in violence could all be an illusion. As one street vendor, who gave his name as Ricardo, said: "They [the politicians] may say they want peace but the reality is they don't want change and don't want to give up what they have got. That's just the way it is."