COTABATO CITY --- The February 11 visit to Maguindanao of President Benigno Aquino, III gave two rival politicians aspiring to become governor of the province a chance to shake hands and peacefully huddle with each other for the first time since they filed last year their certificates of candidacy for what local voters now see as a “hotly contested” elective post.
Call it coincidence, but re-electionist Governor Esmael Mangudadatu, who is the provincial chairman of the Liberal Party, and challenger Hadji Tucao Mastura, mayor of Sultan Kudarat, the town which the President visited February 11, indeed had a cordial face off, in the presence of leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, while at the venue of the presidential engagement.
Majority of the 36 mayors in Maguindanao are members of the Liberal Party.
Mangudadatu and Mastura were political allies in the 2010 local elections, but eventually parted ways over seemingly irreconcilable differences.
The vice-governor of Maguindanao, Dustin Mastura, a nephew of the mayor, was Mangudadatu’s running mate during the last elections.
The vice-governor is a candidate for a seat in the Regional Assembly of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, whose regional elections is to be held simultaneous with the May 2013 synchronized local and midterm elections.
Mastura is running for Maguindanao governor under the banner of the United Nationalist Alliance-Partidong Demokratikong Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan.
Maguindanao once hogged the headlines as a result of the November 23, 2009 election-related massacre by partisans of 58 people, among them Mangudadatu’s wife, Genalyn, and more than 30 print and broadcast journalists, to prevent them from filing the candidacy for governor then of the now re-electionist provincial governor.
The victims were on their way to the provincial capitol in Shariff Aguak town to file the COC Mangudadatu, then vice-mayor of Buluan town, when they were flagged down by policemen and members of the private militia of the Ampatuan clan, allegedly led by Datu Andal Ampatuan, Jr., herded into a nearby hill and, there, mowed with assault rifles and machineguns.
Ampatuan, Jr., then mayor of Datu Unsay town in the second district of the province, was the supposed candidate for governor in the 2010 local elections of their clan, which, in those days, ruled the province with an "iron hand" and absolute intolerance for political opposition.
Mangudadatu and Mastura shook hands and huddled with each other at the compound of the Bangsamoro Management and Leadership Institute in Simuay area in Sultan Kudarat, just before President Aquino arrived to launch, along with the MILF’s chieftain, Al-Haj Murad, his administration’s “Sajahatra Bangsamoro” program for far-flung areas where Moro rebels reside.
The Sajahatra project is a convergence of social welfare, health, education services, and other government interventions, including generation of livelihood opportunities, to address poverty and underdevelopment in Moro-dominated communities.
Mangudadatu said he is ready to sign an “election peace covenant” with Mastura that would bind them both to abide by the Omnibus Election Code.
Mastura and his running mate, Kagui Ali Midtimbang, PDP-Laban’s candidate for Maguindanao vice-governor, are both as ready to forge an election truce with their rivals in the Liberal Party.
Mangudadatu told reporters he can assure voters in all of Maguindanao’s 36 towns that “no trouble will ever come from the ranks of the Liberal Party in Maguindanao” during the May elections.
“We will not do anything that can derail the conduct of elections in the province and embarrass the Liberal Party, because this is the party of President Aquino,” Mangudadatu said.
Mastura and Midtimbang are to use as campaign pitch their group’s maxim “spiritual awakening” towards good governance, peace, and development in Maguindanao.
The province is a known bastion of the MILF.
Mastura and Mangudadatu have both been persistently so vocal about their support to President Aquino’s peace overture with the rebel group. (JOHN M. UNSON)