Security forces were on high alert across the Philippines on Monday as millions of voters went to the polls to choose village leaders, with 22 people killed in pre-election violence.
Poll officials said about 336,000 village chief and councillor posts were up for grabs in the country’s dynamic but corrupt brand of democracy, where politicians are infamous for employing private armies to kill or intimidate rivals.
While villages are the smallest government units, they are hotly contested because they serve as the connection for major political parties to cultivate their grassroots network and widen their support base.
“There has been violence due to intense political rivalry with emotions running high on the ground between rivals,” national police spokesman Reuben Theodore Sindac said.
He said 22 people had been killed in the four-week run-up to the polls, half of them incumbent politicians running for re-election.
Twenty-seven other people were hurt in election related violence, including two police officers and two election officers who were ambushed by unidentified gunmen in the central island province of Masbate on Sunday.
Despite efforts by President Benigno Aquino to curb the power of political warlords and their private armies, Sindac said this year’s violence was worse than the last village polls in 2010, when 15 people were killed.
“We have intensified our efforts to protect the security of everyone,” Sindac said.
Police were guarding polling booths across the country, while the military was called in for back-up in well-known hotspots such as the restive southern region of Mindanao.
Unlike the last presidential and congressional elections, where vote tallying was done automatically, Monday’s polling reverted to manual counting.
The automatic polling had been widely considered a success in reducing violence, as it largely took away the opportunity for politicians to tamper with ballot boxes.
The election commission said there were already reports on Monday morning of some candidates’ supporters snatching ballot boxes in far-flung communities in remote islands well-known for election cheating.
In November 2009, 58 people were killed in the Philippines’ worst political massacre when followers of one powerful Muslim clan and journalists were gunned down by a rival political family.
The Commission on Elections said up to 800,000 candidates contested positions on Monday in over 42,000 villages spread across the country.
It said it expected more than 70 per cent of the country’s 54 million registered voters to go to the polls.