Start of Bangsamoro plebiscite faces challenges

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 21) — The historic plebiscite to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law began on Monday, but it was not without challenges and delays.

Some polling precincts in areas of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), Isabela City in Basilan, and Cotabato City started accepting voters at 7 a.m. on Monday, while others opened late. Precincts will close at 3 p.m.

Sero Central School in Cotabato City, one of the biggest voting centers in the city, opened an hour late. The designated election workers and their paraphernalia were not transported to the school on time, causing delays and forcing the voters to endure long queues under the scorching heat.

A special polling center in a temporary shelter in Barangay Sagonsongan in Marawi City faced an unusual problem.

Dozens of voters from Marawi City's ground zero, mostly displaced residents, were forced to cast their votes on the ground. No armchairs were provided inside the multi-purpose hall. Secrecy folders were placed on the floor, making voters kneel, squat, or sit on the ground while placing the vote whether or not to ratify the Bangsamoro Organic Law and determine the areas that will make up the new region.

The Commission on Elections said that all polling precincts in Basulta, Maguindanao, and Isabela City have opened. 97.5 percent of voting centers in Lanao del Sur have also opened, while the poll body is still awaiting for information from Cotabato City.

The counting of votes will be done manually. Comelec said it will not release the official results about 4 days from voting day since the final tabulation will be done through a national canvassing board in Manila.

BOL is envisioned to be a major step towards finally achieving lasting peace in Mindanao, which suffers from decades-long conflict. Once ratified, the landmark legislation will abolish the current ARMM to make way for the creation of a new autonomous Bangsamoro region.

A second plebiscite for Lanao del Norte excluding Iligan City, North Cotabato and the 28 areas which petitioned for inclusion into the new Bangsamoro region is scheduled for February 6.

If the BOL is ratified, it will automatically include the entire ARMM — Sulu, Basilan except for Isabela City, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and Tawi-Tawi. Cotabato City and Isabela City in Basilan will also vote if they want to be part of BARMM (Bangsamoro ARMM).

CNN Philippines senior correspondent David Santos, correspondents Gerg Cahiles and Triciah Terada contributed to this report.