Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte deserves credit for staging a historic referendum that will almost certainly give many Muslim Filipinos a high degree of self-government.
The referendum on creating the so-called Bangsamoro (the nation of Moros), held in two phases (on Jan. 21 and Feb. 6), is expected to win backing for the autonomy plan for key Muslim-majority provinces and determine the geographical size of the new entity.
There should be, however, no room for complacency. Just a week following the the first vote, extremists targeted a Sunday Mass at a Catholic church in Jolo city, killing at least 20 and injuring many more. Islamic State immediately claimed responsibility for what it said was a suicide bombing. The Philippine authorities contend that the local Abu Sayyaf Group, an IS-affiliate, carried out the attack, using remote-controlled bombs. The military responded with an air strike on alleged suspects fleeing from pursuing troops.
The episode highlights the fragility of the peace process in the face of political violence on the restive island of Mindanao. The Philippine government should provide maximum assistance to the Bangsamoro leadership. A failed autonomy project would create a new wave of disgruntlement, create a dangerous political vacuum and potentially escalating conflict.
The first stage of the complex plebiscite was held across five provinces grouped in the so-called Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which already has limited self-rule, plus two cosmopolitan cities, Isabela and Cotobato, that are geographically in ARMM but politically separate.
The next phase will take place on Feb. 6, covering the two nearby provinces of North Cotobato and Lanao del Norte as well as some smaller municipalities that petitioned to join the Bangsamoro.
The total population in the proposed territory is 4.5 million people, out of the country's 100 million. Not enough to threaten national unity but more than enough, through years of violent uprisings, to be a blight on Mindanao and a thorn in Manila's side.
Contrary to earlier expectations, the first vote took place with little violence at the ballot box, and was judged as credible by international observers.
Still, the poll was preceded by terror attacks in Cotobato on New Year's Eve and followed by the Jolo church outrage.
Adding to authorities' worries is opposition from Cotobato's popular Mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi to her city's inclusion in the Bangsamoro. Some feared the mayor would mobilize violent opposition. She and other leaders of local political dynasties and militias are now concerned over their futures.
If approved, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) would replace the much smaller ARMM. The older entity, established in 1990, is now seen as a failed experiment, undermined by corruption, notoriously underdeveloped state institutions, and limited support from Manila.
With eight out of ten Muslim Filipinos supporting BARMM, according to the Social Weather Stations' latest survey, the plan is widely expected to be approved. Partial and unofficial results, so far, suggest that autonomous territory will include Cotobato City, even though the mayor contests the results. There was, however, a significant opposition vote in Isabela City.
The proposed entity will have a more diverse ethnic and religious composition, and a significantly expanded resource and revenue base. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Philippines' largest rebel group, is expected to play a central role in the transition and the new government.
Duterte's commitment to the project creates a sense of optimism. The tough-talking leader made the establishment of a Bangsamoro a central theme of his 2016 election campaign, despite public opposition among the Christian-majority Filipinos. According to Social Weather Stations, barely a third of Filipinos support the Bangsamoro plan.
But Duterte grasps the depth of Muslim alienation -- and the danger it poses, as the violence has repeatedly shown. Currently, there is not a single Muslim Supreme Court Justice or senator in the Philippines, and no Moro has been a major contender for top executive positions. Though nominally Christian, Duterte promised in 2016: "If I become president, if Allah gives his blessing, before I die since I am old, I will leave to you all a Mindanao that is governed in peace."
Two years into office, he convinced a reluctant national legislature to pass the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which paved the way for the referendum. Committed to correct 'historical injustices' against the Moros, Duterte ensured that Bangsamoro will receive sufficient support from the national government.
These include greater share of natural resources in areas that fall under Bangsamoro jurisdiction, plus fiscal transfers that amounting to 5% of total national government revenues, or more than $1 billion annually. The new entity will also remit only a quarter (as opposed to two-fifths in other provinces) of its local tax revenues to the national government.
The depth of poverty means the region will require long term support, with average incomes per head only a fifth of national average and two-fifths of the Mindanao figure. But the government's initial promise should be enough to launch institution-building and basic development. It will ultimately be up to the Bangsamoro authorities themselves to raise sufficient revenues through effective tax collection and utilization of considerable local natural resources, including precious metals, fisheries and offshore energy.
The BARMM leadership will control the establishment of religious institutions and of Sharia courts, but the national government will be in charge of law enforcement, currency and security.
The incoming Bangsamoro leadership, however, faces an uphill battle against poverty, the challenge of reconstructing Marawi and other war-ravaged areas, and extremist groups, which are still intent on establishing a puritanical Islamic State. Constant coordination between the BARMM authorities and Manila will be vital well beyond Duterte's term, which is due to end in 2022.
Moreover, the national and local governments should ensure minority rights will be protected. The exact share of non-Sunni Muslims, Christians, and other non-Muslims, including indigenous groups, in the local population is not clear but it is likely these groups will form a significant minority in Cotobato, Isabela, Marawi and some other major urban centers.
Of great concern to Manila is the infiltration of Wahabist-Salafist and other forms of ultraconservative groups, which have propagated radical Islam and called for draconian laws. And the survival of violent extremists groups like Abu Sayyaf.
In Indonesia's autonomous region of Banda Aceh, the only place in that country where Sharia laws are in place, the past two decades have seen ultraconservative legislation and a growing crackdown on LGBT people and other minorities. The Philippines should ensure that the Bangsamoro does not follow the same fate.
But, after almost half-a-century of conflict, Mindanao can cautiously hope for a better tomorrow. And a controversial president, his name mostly associated with a scorched-earth war on drugs, might yet have a claim to be a peacemaker.
Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author; his latest book is "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy."