MANILA, Philippines // A 150-day ban on the carrying of firearms outside residences across the Philippines began today to prevent violence that could erupt during May 13 congressional and local elections in a country awash with weapons and plagued by a history of deadly poll rivalries.
Sixto Brillantes Jr, chairman of the commission on elections, said the ban that ends June 12 suspends all permits to carry firearms in public areas and exempts only top officials, on-duty troops and police, and people facing threats. Violators could be jailed up to six years.
Election and police officials staged a march in metropolitan Manila and inspected security checkpoints to dramatize their call for peaceful mid-term elections - an often-futile goal in a country where rivalry for power among old and new political clans has been blamed for electoral violence and fraud in past years.
In the country's worst elections-related violence, 58 people, including 32 media workers, were killed by more than 100 gunmen in a 2009 massacre blamed on political rivalry between two powerful clans in southern Maguindanao province. The existence of private militias and more than half a million unlicensed firearms have fuelled fears of violence, officials said.
Army-backed police contingents began to enforce the ban on guns and armed bodyguards, especially in about 800 towns in 15 provinces, including Maguindanao, considered security hotspots because of a recent history of election violence or the presence of private armed groups, elections commissioner Rene Sarmiento said.
Police have identified at least 60 privately maintained militias across the country, along with 43 criminal gangs, which could be tapped by candidates in the elections, Mr Sarmiento said, adding that a government crackdown is under way to hunt down and dismantle those groups.
In Maguindanao, about 900 kilometres south of Manila, army troops and police manned checkpoints and staked out bus stations and other crowded public areas, checking people for guns.
Around 50 million Filipinos have registered to elect more than 18,000 national and local government officials, including nearly 300 members of the senate and the house of representatives, on May 13. Simultaneous elections will also be held in a five-province Muslim autonomous region in the country's south that is notorious for poll violence and fraud.