The southern Philippines is potentially closer to peace than at any time in the four decades since Muslim insurgents started fighting for independence, but the substantial progress over the past six years is also fragile. The new President, Rodrigo Duterte, needs to build quickly on the foundations laid by the last administration or the process risks collapse.

President Duterte is a supporter of a peace deal in the south. On the campaign trail he spoke about the 'historical injustice' done to the Muslims, and declared 'nothing will appease the Moro people' except autonomy. But he has also said that he does not intend to pick up where his predecessor, President Benigno Aquino, left off.

At the beginning of 2015, after almost five years of negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Philippines’ Congress was close to passing enabling legislation based on the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro that would have granted a wide degree of autonomy to a Muslim homeland based on and around the southern island of Mindanao.

But a botched attempt in January 2015 to capture a pair of militants being held by a renegade MILF splinter group near the town of Mamasapano — 44 police, 18 MILF fighters and five civilians were killed — led to a public outcry and the legislative process was slowed to a pace where it failed to pass before President Aquino left office.

Rather than dusting off the drafts that have already been prepared, President Duterte has suggested setting up a 'Moro Convention', which would include Christians, the Lumad (Mindanao’s indigenous groups) and other constituencies, to discuss a new draft. The idea has attractions — one of the criticisms of the previous peace process was that it was an MILF monoculture — but it could also bring problems.

Mindanao is a complex patchwork of religious, ethnic and clan-based interests, and there is a danger that the new Convention could degenerate into a faction-ridden talking shop that ends up emphasising the differences between the agendas of competing groups rather than reconciling them.

But the biggest constraint is time. The separatist insurgency on Mindanao has been going on for 47 years and some 120,000 people have died. A series of agreements — the Tripoli agreement in 1976, the Jeddah Accord in 1987, the Final Agreement on the Tripoli Agreement in 1996 to name a few — have come and gone, leaving many Muslims in the south believing they have been serially deceived by Manila. For them, the failure last year to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law, as the enabling legislation was called, fits a cynical pattern of undelivered promises. Unless the new administration moves fast to deliver autonomy, or some unequivocal gestures of goodwill that indicate that meaningful autonomy is imminent, their patience is likely to run out.

MILF has said it is, and will remain, committed to the peace process. The real potential problem lies not with MILF cadres, but with disaffected youth who could lose hope the negotiations will deliver peace and prosperity. There is a real danger of accelerated criminalisation or radicalisation. The matrix to encourage this shift, in the form of clan-based gangs or militant movements like Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (both of which have pledged allegiance to Islamic State) already exists. At the moment, the government and MILF cooperate on security in many areas and keep the problem contained if not controlled: a breakdown in law and order risks creating the sort of ungoverned spaces where criminality or radicalism can flourish.

The other time constraint is the relationship between Duterte and the Congress. Duterte won the election with a margin of 16 percentage points over his nearest rival, and that mandate is likely to give him a longer-than-usual honeymoon period. But his big and controversial plans to turn the Philippines to a federalised, parliamentary system will eventually lead to friction. It would be a tragedy if the peace process, today so close to fruition, should fall victim to extended politicking in Manila; the longer the Duterte administration waits, the more likely that becomes.

But speed on its own will not be enough. As the Bangsamoro Basic Law staggered towards its eventual demise under the last administration, there were concerted efforts to roll back some of the key powers that had been promised under the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro. MILF is clear that although they are willing to be flexible in how autonomy is delivered, the final product must be CAB-compliant. 'The BBL has to be compliant with the CAB, but MILF is open to ideas or efforts either to improve or enhance it,' MILF’s chief negotiator, Mohagher Iqbal told the International Crisis Group.

There will be a delay whatever happens as the new government gets its feet under the table, and while that is a threat to the process, it is also an opportunity. Bangsamoro is ill-prepared for autonomy. MILF and civil groups, assisted by the peace process’ many international supporters, can use the time to boost their governance capacity, particularly in fields where they will inherit power but have little experience: taxation and fiscal governance, investment policy, and land management. MILF also needs to make more efforts to reach out to sceptical constituencies – particularly Christians and Lumad communities -- to reassure them they will not become second-class citizens under the new dispensation.

Duterte’s clear support for autonomy and his huge mandate has won him some time, but he cannot afford to delay too long. A breakdown in the peace process will not lead to a return to the status quo ante but to an unpredictable, and potentially much more violent future.

Tim Johnston's report 'The Philippines: Renewing Prospects for Peace in Mindanao' is available here.

Photo  J Gerard Seguia/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images