Voters in the southern Philippines went to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to expand Muslim self-rule in a region that has been the scene of a 30 year separatist rebellion. Officials hope the move will help end the violence and bring some prosperity to the area.
Philippine election officials say about half of the eligible voters turned out Tuesday in the 11 southern provinces participating in the plebiscite. Voters are deciding whether to expand the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, known by its acronym ARMM.
Currently ARMM consists of four predominantly Muslim provinces in the mostly-Roman Catholic country. The government granted the region limited self-rule in 1996 as part of a peace agreement with one of the major rebel groups, the Moro National Liberation Front.
Residents in the autonomous region were also voting on whether to approve expansion. But analysts predict the measure is likely to fail since most of the provinces voting are predominately Christian.
Philippine President Gloria Arroyo has campaigned for the plebiscite calling it an intelligent alternative to guerrilla demands for a separate state and more years of violence.
The governor of the Autonomous Region and chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front, Nur Misuari, opposes the government-endorsed plebiscite. Governor Misuari has been criticized for failing to address poverty in the ARMM, but he blames the central government for failing to provide financial support.
A professor at Mindanao State University, Jamail Kamlian, says many people in the area are against any further expansion of autonomy. "The people are very apprehensive and lukewarm to the situation because they don't want to join the expanded autonomy because of the dismal performance of ARMM under the leadership of the MNLF, especially under Misuari," Mr. Kamlian said.
A leader of the MNLF, Farouk Hussin, acknowledges there has been little progress under the current governor. But he told VOA if there is no expansion under the plebiscite, it may not sit well with Philippine Muslims. "So we hope, we pray that at least the Muslim dominated cities and provinces will join in today's plebiscite so there will be no disappointment among the people in the area," he said.
Voting in a number of villages was postponed due to heavy rains. Balloting was also postponed in parts of western Palawan province after a ferryboat carrying election materials capsized. And votes in remote villages in Basilan province were transferred because of a government offensive against Abu Sayyaf Muslim guerrillas who are holding a score of hostages.
Election officials say results are to be announced in about a week.