By Conor Cronin
Philippine lawmakers on September 23 set December 16 as the new deadline for passing the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), after their earlier plans to approve the draft legislation before the congressional recess from October 10 to November 2 unraveled. There is, however, a possibility that the proposed law, which will implement the peace agreement between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), will not get passed at all. Even if it does limp through the Philippine Congress, the prospects of its implementation appear slim.
Following the Mamasapano incident in January, which left 44 Special Action Force members dead, the timeline for passage of the BBL has become more uncertain. The expected passage of the bill has slipped from spring to summer to late fall, as consecutive Senate hearings about the botched operation raised alarm bells in Manila about the danger of devolving power to Mindanao at a time when public approval for the peace process continues to plummet. Lawmakers were hoping to pass the bill by late September, but with the last two weeks of the session allotted to passing the 2016 national budget, they pushed back deliberations on the BBL again.
There is no guarantee that Congress can pass the BBL by the December deadline when it reconvenes in early November. House majority leader Neptali Gonzales laid out the legislative hurdles that confront the BBL in the House of Representatives, including floor debates, amendments, debates on amendments, and a vote on second reading. If the bill passes the House, it will move on to the Senate, which will go through a similar process before ratifying it. Lawmakers will also need to factor in the time it will take to resolve any differences between the two approved bills.
If the bill sails through both houses and the Supreme Court does not challenge its constitutionality, it will still face its toughest critic, the MILF, which will decide whether it agrees to the changes made by lawmakers to the original draft. Chief MILF negotiator Mohagher Iqbal on September 18 called those changes unacceptable, and said the MILF was growing anxious over the BBL’s prospects. If the MILF does not agree to the terms of the approved bill, efforts to expedite the BBL’s passage later this year will ultimately prove futile.
The BBL also faces obstacles beyond the legislative process. Before the agreement can be implemented, it needs to undergo a plebiscite for public approval. The plebiscite is a chance for residents in the areas that will form the Bangsamoro entity to vote up or down on the proposed law. Even if the BBL sails through Congress in December, the plebiscite will most likely not take place until June 2016, after the presidential elections and just days before President Benigno Aquino’s term ends, since the Commission on Elections (Comelec) needs a six-month planning period for holding the plebiscite. Comelec officials now estimate that they could trim the planning period to around 90 or 120 days by skipping the public bidding process and using alternate methods of procurement. Nonetheless, this would still leave the Aquino government little room to maneuver.
One of the greatest challenges in implementing the BBL has to do with the process of decommissioning MILF fighters. According to the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which the Aquino government signed with the MILF in March 2014, 30 percent of MILF combatants and weapons will be decommissioned once the BBL is passed. Another 35 percent will be decommissioned after the plebiscite, and the remaining once leaders of the new Bangsamoro entity are elected and a government is firmly in place. While government officials have called for the decommissioning process to take place separately from passage of the BBL, Mindanao politicians made clear that whether the MILF will commit to setting down their weapons depends on the outcomes of the deliberation process on the BBL in Congress. The MILF on June 16 held a decommissioning ceremony, mostly as a show of good faith, but only 145 combatants and 75 weapons were decommissioned then.
Many of these issues might be easier to resolve if the Aquino administration had more time. Furthermore, the fate of the BBL will look extremely uncertain if it does not pass Congress in December. The Aquino government faces the distinct possibility that the next administration, which takes office in 2016, might be hostile to an unimplemented BBL or decide to scuttle it entirely.
Out of the three current frontrunners for the presidency—Vice President Jejomar Binay, Senator Grace Poe, and Secretary of the Interior Mar Roxas—two have publicly spoken against the draft proposed by Aquino’s government. Poe, a prominent face in the hearings on the Mamasapano fiasco earlier in 2015, has voiced her opposition to the BBL as it stands. Meanwhile, Binay said he plans to pursue peace if elected president, but those plans do not seem to involve the existing mechanisms. The only hope for the BBL, in the event it cannot be rushed through before Aquino leaves office, might be a victory by Roxas, the standard bearer and presidential candidate of Aquino’s Liberal Party.