MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A 150-day ban on the carrying of firearms outside residences across the Philippines began Sunday to prevent violence that could erupt during May 13 congressional and local elections in a country awash with weapons and plagued by a history of deadly poll rivalries.
Commission on Elections Chairman Sixto Brillantes Jr. said the ban, which ends June 12, suspends all permits to carry firearms in public areas and exempts only top officials, on-duty troops and police, and people facing threats. Violators could be jailed up to six years.
Election and police officials staged a march in metropolitan Manila and inspected security checkpoints to dramatize their call for peaceful mid-term elections — an often-futile goal in a country where rivalry for power among old and new political clans has been blamed for electoral violence and fraud in past years.
In the country's worst elections-related violence, 58 people, including 32 media workers, were killed by more than 100 gunmen in a 2009 massacre blamed on a political rivalry between two powerful clans in southern Maguindanao province. The existence of private militias and more than half a million unlicensed firearms have fueled fears of violence, officials said.
Army-backed police contingents began to enforce the ban on guns and armed bodyguards, especially in about 800 towns in 15 provinces, including Maguindanao, considered security hotspots because of a recent history of election violence or the presence of private armed groups, Elections Commissioner Rene Sarmiento said.
Police have identified at least 60 privately maintained militias across the country, along with 43 criminal gangs, which could be tapped by candidates in the elections, Sarmiento said, adding that a government crackdown was under way to hunt down and dismantle those groups.
In Maguindanao on Sunday, army troops and police manned checkpoints and staked out bus stations and other crowded public areas, checking people for guns.
President Benigno Aquino III said Saturday that aside from aiming for peaceful elections, a crackdown against illegal firearms and private militias was launched to reinforce law and order in communities following a number of widely publicized killings that have revived a debate over gun control.
The crackdown has so far led to the seizure of 249 firearms and the arrest of more than 100 members of privately run armed groups. Police have also made home visits to more than 25,000 gun owners with expired permits to ask them to renew the licenses or face confiscation of their firearms, Aquino told an anti-crime convention.
An anti-gun group has proposed that the elections firearms ban be made permanent, but Aquino, a known gun enthusiast, has wondered whether such a total gun ban or better law enforcement could deter criminals and gunslingers.
Around 50 million Filipinos have registered to elect more than 18,000 national and local government officials, including nearly 300 members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, on May 13. Simultaneous elections will also be held in a five-province Muslim autonomous region in the country's south that is notorious for poll violence and fraud.
As in the 2010 presidential election, optical counting machines will be used to tally votes to speed up the notoriously slow hand-counting of ballots that fostered cheating, violence and unrest in the past, Sarmiento said.
But such automation cannot prevent vote-buying and intimidation, he said.
"There's danger because of the armed groups," Sarmiento said. "My other fear is there might be massive vote-buying."