Since the 1992 national elections, votes from Mindanao, particularly from the Muslim provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi, have been very important.

There are only about 2.1 million votes from the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) but the region’s votes remain very crucial to the outcome of elections.

They make or break politicians. Fidel V. Ramos and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo won big in this region in the 1992 and 2004 presidential elections, which their opponents said were rigged in their favor. Both Ramos and Arroyo won narrowly in the elections.

There could be some truth to tales of vote-rigging in the five Muslim provinces but fraudulent results can also occur in other areas in the country.

How can one forget that Fernando Poe Jr. got zero votes in a town in Pangasinan?

This was similar to what had happened in Maguindanao, where the late movie action hero got zero votes in several towns controlled by the powerful Ampatuan family, a close ally of the incumbent president at that time.

Journalists who have been covering elections in Muslim Mindanao are familiar with the irregularities happening during election day.

In some areas, where there are more goats than people, less than 10 percent of the population cast their ballots near the closing time of precincts. Only people living near the town center cast their votes. In the villages, where people have to hike and cross rivers or seas, voters do not bother to cast their ballots.

But when the votes are canvassed hours later, these areas would show a high 70- to 80-percent turnout. Amazing how many people would rush to the polling precincts with only an hour left before the polls closed.

In one town in Maguindanao, when PCOS machines were first used in the 2010 elections, the number of ballots stuffed into the machines exceeded the allowable votes to be tallied — 1,000 ballots per machine. The story was not anecdotal. It was based on an electoral case filed at the Commission on Elections and at the House of Representatives Electoral Tribunal.

The Muslim Mindanao region could be microcosm of the country’s feudal political system which influences the elections. In most provinces, only a few families with vast private armies have full control of their territories. They also dominate the local economy.

Political patronage remained entrenched, reminiscent of the hacienda system during the Spanish colonial times and the early period in the 20th century even if some lands have been redistributed under the government’s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.

The local elections in Sulu, for instance, after EDSA, were bloody and violent. Opposing political camps exchanged mortar rounds, keeping the military and police at the sidelines for fear of getting caught in the crossfire.

The worst political rivalry led to the senseless killing of 58 people, including 33 media workers, in Maguindanao on November 23, 2009. It was the worst politically motivated mass murder in history, a grim reminder of how elections in the country can be violent if the government fails to rein in political warlords to control local areas.

In areas where there are two opposing political families, chances of political violence are higher due to intense rivalry.

The volatile situation is exacerbated by the presence of armed lawless and rebel groups, like the Communist New People’s Amy (NPAs), Muslim revolutionary groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MIFLF) and Islamist militants, like the Abu Sayyaf Group of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

These non-state actors could likely influence the outcome of elections.

The rampant fraudulent activities and political violence in Muslim Mindanao were magnified during elections but these irregularities also happened in other distant provinces in Luzon and in the Visayas, but were largely unnoticed.

When elections were automated in 2010 and security forces began cracking down on private armed groups, the level of violence dramatically went down.

But political families continued to have a tight grip on areas where they have ruled for decades, buying votes by directly handing out 500 pesos to 1,000 pesos to voters on the eve of balloting.

There had been anecdotal reports that sales of fast-food chains, like Jollibee or McDonalds, and pharmacies like Mercury Drug Store, would sharply rise during elections.

Dominant and powerful political families have the ability to dictate to their constituents whom to vote for through a combination of money, intimidation, harassment, and direct pressure. The votes generated by political families are called “command votes.”

“Command votes” are not unique in Muslim provinces. There are also “command votes” in other provinces where there is usually only one dominant political family, like in the Ilocos region.

The Marcos family has been in power since 1949 in Ilocos Norte and the Ortegas have lorded over La Union for more than a century. The Singsons are unchallenged in Ilocos Sur. The combined votes in the three provinces represent the “solid north.”

The “solid north” appears formidable. However, the number of votes in the whole Ilocos region remains small at 3.3 million, with nearly 2 million coming from Pangasinan. Ilocos Norte only has more than 416,000 registered voters.

The Southern Tagalog region, or Calabarzon, has the most number of votes at more than 8 million, followed by the National Capital Region with 7 million and the Central Luzon region with more than 6 million votes.

Nearly 40 percent of the votes, or more than 23 million votes in the 2022 elections, will come from the Pangasinan to Quezon corridor.

Visayas and Mindanao have about 12 million votes each while Central Visayas and Western Visayas have nearly 10 million votes combined.

The Bicol region also represents a big chunk of the votes at more than 3.6 million, and more than 1.1 million votes come from the biggest province of Camarines Sur alone.

Filipinos are regionalistic. Whether driven by political families or not, the votes for the May 2022 elections will come from these bailiwick regions and provinces.

But the electorates behave differently especially in the more urban and highly developed regions, like Central Luzon, Southern Tagalog and the National Capital Region.

That’s why there is a need for political families to push hard for the candidates they are aligned with. In this situation, the votes from the Muslim provinces matter because there is a long history of command votes in these areas.

People have long suspected that elections were rigged because results from Muslim provinces usually came last during the canvassing in every balloting since 1992.

Blame it on the region’s terrain and lack of infrastructure. Fraud and violence can happen in other parts of the country unnoticed. It is not only in Mindanao.

However, because of public perception, the votes from Mindanao, particularly from the Muslim region, have become every election’s game changer.