MANILA, Jan 7 (Reuters) - Maoist rebels in the Philippines are seeking to gain political clout in the country's general elections in May and and may use violence to help leftist groups win more seats in Congress, an army general said on Thursday.
The 4,000-member communist New People's Army (NPA), which is active in nearly all the country's 80 provinces, has been waging a protracted guerrilla war to overthrow the democratically elected government for about 40 years.
The conflict has killed more than 40,000 people and scared away potential investors.
"We recognise the leftists' attempt to gain political power through elections," Major-General Gaudencio Pangilinan, chief of the military's operations division, told Reuters in an interview.
"But they should not employ their partisan armed group to coerce and intimidate voters," he said. "We continue to see the NPA rebels as the country's biggest and long-term security threat, particularly during elections when they have the chance to influence results in the countryside."
Leftist groups gained seats in Congress for the first time in 1998 through a system that allocates 20 percent of all seats in the lower house for marginalised sectors like farmers, fishermen, women and indigenous people.
At least 10 of 52 seats reserved for these groups in the 268-member lower house of Congress are occupied by representatives from five leftist parties.
Leftist groups are seeking to win 24-27 seats, or about 50 percent of the allocated slots, in the May elections. They also hope to send two members to the upper house and capture 20 percent of 1,600 local positions.
The military believes the success of leftist groups in winning seats in Congress and in some remote municipalities was largely due to Maoist guerrillas' coercion and intimidation.
Leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines, most of them living in exile in the Netherlands, have been pushing their cadres to take part in elections to influence policies on social justice, agriculture, labour and industries.
Security officials said 32 percent of cities and towns across the country are on a watchlist for potential election-related violence due to intense political rivalry and presence of rebel forces.
Leftist lawmakers rejected military allegations that they were using Maoist-led guerrillas to win votes.
"The military is engaged in electioneering," Satur Ocampo, a leftist lawmaker seeking a seat in the Senate, told Reuters. (Reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Sugita Katyal)
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