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This Lanao town needed a coffee break

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WAO, Lanao del Sur, Philippines—Just what this town needed to defuse the rising tension between political rivals after Monday’s elections—a coffee break.

People were alarmed Tuesday when Alexis Pablico, 38, a mayoral candidate, went to the municipal hall of Wao, Lanao del Sur, to invite incumbent Mayor Elvino Balicao Sr., the father of his opponent, for a cup of coffee. Tempers had been running high and violence had threatened to erupt among supporters of Pablico, a third-term vice mayor, and of Elvino Balicao Jr.

But when the older Balicao came out to welcome his former ally, everyone heaved a sigh of relief.

“We’ve been through all those bloody fighting. We don’t want them to happen again,” said Tom Carumba, community relations officer of Chiquita Unifruitti Philippines, who persuaded Pablico, his cousin, to make up with Balicao.

“We want peace to reign, we don’t want blood to flow.”

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A third candidate, Ben Pangkatan, a Maranao, was reportedly winning in the predominantly Muslim barangays of Bulatin, Panang, Mimbuaya, Pilintangan and the Muslim Village.

Carumba said it was only by keeping the climate of peace that a small town like Wao could keep attracting big companies.

Wao is host to a multimillion-peso investment of Unifrutti-Chiquita, which recently put up a 1,000-hectare plantation of pineapples for export to Japan, Korea and the Middle East. It has 24,000 voters.

The town’s bloody history of fighting goes as far back as 1972, when the paramilitary group Ilaga and the Muslim Blackshirts were active. Violence among armed political clans had always threatened to break out to this day, Carumba said.

“We want to calm down members of the family who have these tendencies because when violence starts, there’s a danger for it to [go overboard]. Everything will break loose,” said Carumba, who lost to Pablico in the 2001 vice mayoral contest.

Third-term Councilor Mary Ruth Catalan, who is running for vice mayor, said residents heard gunfire on Monday night while the ballots were being counted. The shooting happened somewhere in the flea market.

“No one got hurt because most of the people were in the counting area,” Catalan said.

“Another burst of gunfire erupted late in the night, this time coming from an M-79 and lasted several seconds,” she added.

“We wanted the Commission on Elections to declare our area among those areas of immediate concern. We would have wanted the counting to be held in Marawi City, but the election officer in the area said the burst of gunfire was not ground enough to centralize the counting of ballots,” Catalan said.

Even with the reconciliation of the two dominant political clans, she said, the threats continued to exist.

She noted a number of lawyers watching the canvassing of votes and the possibilities of legal protests.


“It was just a gesture of reconciliation,” said Pablico of the coffee invitation. But he was not yet conceding defeat to Balicao. “It was just to tell him, we are getting back to work.”

On Thursday, ballots from 56 of the 104 voting precincts were already counted. Pablico said he still had a chance to catch up with Balicao Jr.

She said the counting had been very slow because of frequent complaints and protests of some lawyers about tampered ballots and the composition of the municipal board of canvassers.

Reports of rampant vote-buying in Wao had earlier reached the nationwide election watch group Kontra Daya.

“Vote buying is already normal here,” said Catalan.

Carumba said it was only up to the candidates to say how much they were willing to spend during the elections.

“We call it ‘poverty alleviation,’” he said, “because that’s the only time when people get a taste of money coming from their political leaders.”

But he said everyone wanted some kind of healing after the highly divisive political exercise. “It’s no longer important who will win as long as relationships heal and everyone can sleep peacefully. Even our Muslim brothers want peace,” he said.