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Palawan plebiscite a preview of problematic Election 2022

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - February 24, 2021 - 12:00am

Incumbents are using government resources for partisan ends. Public employees who must stay neutral are openly taking sides. Town halls are restricting the movements of rivals in the guise of pandemic safety. Voters are uninformed because of limited online and radio-TV coverage. Low turnout is expected on balloting day. Only a handful of electors will decide. The outcome will entrench political dynasties.

Those issues mar the coming plebiscite to split Palawan into three provinces. They also give a preview of undemocratic national-local elections in 2022.

On the surface, the division of the country’s largest province is economic and administrative. Having separate Palawan del Norte, Oriental and del Sur would “spark growth,” lawmakers said in enacting RA 11259 in 2019. Three provincial capitols would be abler to manage the island’s rich resources. More revenue shares from mining, fisheries and taxes would be retained by three local governments instead of just one.

NGOs oppose the split as potentially disastrous. If Balkanized, Palawan’s special three-decade old Strategic Environment Plan would be dumped. With three capitols allowing exploitation, the “last ecological frontier” would vanish. So will indigenous tribes and cultures. Local economies would sink, as befell earlier divided provinces.

Politics of the dirty kind taints the run-up to the March 13 plebiscite to ratify or reject the split. Political dynasties are mobilizing. They will benefit from having three provinces to rule rather than fighting over the present solo. More positions will be up for grabs: three governorships, vice governorships and sets of provincial boards. There will be four congressional seats from the present three: one each for the three provinces plus one for chartered Puerto Princesa City. Most enticing for the dynasts, splitting would enable them tighter grip of local businesses and investments – and the usual “tong-pats” (bribes) that come with it. Not only “powerlust” but also avarice spur dynasties.

The dynasts are incumbents. They use municipal funds, vehicles, equipment and staff to campaign for “yes,” cries the rejectionist Save Palawan Movement. The environment coalition complains of unfair tactics against their “no” drive. Culion parish priest Fr. Roderick Caabay alleges that a tarpaulin billboard and “no” posters in four barangay chapels were torn down. “Vote-buying has also been reported in many municipalities,” SPM says. Some are in the form of pandemic “ayuda” to barangays, notes Cynthia Sumagaysay del Rosario, convenor of One Palawan campaign. “Yes” proponents in Puerto Princesa city hall, though not part of the plebiscite, have clamped down on residents campaigning for “no” in outlying towns, she adds. A number of barangays have imposed two-week lockouts, choking the month-long campaign that started Feb. 11.

The SPM begs Comelec to enforce fairness. Still, pandemic constraints stunt the election body’s info drive. A Comelec roadshow of pros and antis was cancelled to avert COVID-19 infections. Both sides have been advised to make do with social and broadcast media.

Low turnout is expected due to lack of info, disinterest and coronavirus fear. Only a handful of locals can decide the fate of Palawan. The rule is majority of the votes cast, not majority of the 490,639 voters, says election commissioner Antonio Kho. If only the info drive can be stepped up, he hopes: “We cannot determine if there will be high voter turnout as this is the first time we will hold an electoral exercise with a public health emergency.” (The plebiscite was initially set last May, then moved to October, until approved for next month by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases.) SPM does not have the cash to match the free spending of the incumbents. It foresees the other side transporting voters to precincts on plebiscite day.

Expect those scenarios on May 9, 2022, national and local Election Day.

Incumbent dynasts will be calling the shots. Having amassed congressional pork barrels and local government payolas, they can easily buy votes. They will also gain name recall via media advertising. Underfinanced political newcomers will be disadvantaged. Tens of millions of voters who lost livelihoods due to pandemic lockdown will only be too wiling to sell their votes. A hungry man is not a free man.

COVID-19 will discourage newbie candidates. Mass inoculation of 70 percent of the population for herd immunity won’t happen till 2023-2025, vaccine czar Sec. Carlito Galvez says. Meager candidacy filings are expected this October; campaign dropouts will be many starting January.

Invoking pandemic protocols, partisan barangay officials and local policemen can curtail the activities of the incumbents’ rivals. Community lockdowns against contending campaigners will be imposed precisely due to spotty vaccination.

Worse, Comelec will still use the hocus-PCOS (precinct count optical scanners) of Venezuelan voting-machine maker Smartmatic. President Duterte has yet to fulfill his promise to replace the unreliable, cheating-prone, expensive gadgetry. Turnout will be dismal.

A reformist congressman predicts Election 2022 to be the most undemocratic in post-Marcos history. The result will be Filipinos in the clutches of a handful of politicos and clansmen for many more years.

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“Gotcha: An Exposé on the Philippine Government” is available as e-book and paperback. Get a free copy of “Chapter 1: Beijing’s Bullying and Duplicity”. Simply subscribe to my newsletter at: https://jariusbondoc.com/#subscribe. Book orders also accepted there.

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