Relevance of the Palawan “no” vote

FROM FAR AND NEAR - Ruben Almendras - The Freeman

With the resurgence of the COVID infections, the result of the plebiscite to divide Palawan into three provinces has been quietly forgotten. Maybe, it is also because the “No” votes won. That could have disappointed and unnerved the politicians/incumbent officials who had it toned down. However, the significance and relevance of the results are broader and longer for Philippine politics and democracy.

The March 13, 2021 plebiscite was a requirement of Republic Act 11259 which was passed by both houses of Congress to divide Palawan into three provinces, to make the law valid and be implemented. The arguments of the proponents, which were the incumbent provincial government officials and congressmen, were that it will make for faster progress and development of the island with the additional revenues and services coming from more government offices. The opposition saw the move as just a way to entrench, divide, and consolidate the power and turf of the politicians, which enlarges the bureaucracy without making it more effective. This was “gerrymandering”. The issue of environmental degradation and Chinese subversion were also brought up against the division of the province. Those against the division were from the civil society, non-government organizations, Peoples organizations, and Church-based groups.

The plebiscite had a 61% turnout of voters which is quite high given the pandemic situation, the lack of information and publicity, and the exclusion of Puerto Princesa City residents to vote in the plebiscite. The “No” got 172,304 votes as against the “Yes” 122,223 votes, a 60% to 40% majority. It was expected that if Puerto Princesa voters were allowed to vote and there was no pandemic, the turnout and the margin of the “No” votes would have reached 80%. The traditional political pressure politics with money were deployed by the proponents, while the opposition relied mainly on a social media awareness campaign. The results actually surprised not just the local but also the national politicians, and had them pondering the political and social implications.

The immediate consequence of the “No” vote win is that it will stop all the other pending Bills in Congress to divide provinces, including the proposed division of Cebu into three provinces. It may even stop the creation of more congressional districts, which is just a way to appease losing congressional candidates/aspirants. The intermediate implications of this “No” vote is its effect on the 2022 elections which is just 15 months away, and the filing of the certificates of candidacy only seven months away. Given the disastrous management of the public health and economic effects of the COVID pandemic on the people, the electorate’s voting power will be more potent. It is a rediscovering of “people power” via the vote beyond the mass demonstrations and rallies. It is the activists plus civil society, the Church and the silent majority. It took 18 years to depose Marcos but only three years to oust Estrada because the socio/political environment and awareness levels were different. The advances in the information and communication technologies have speeded and broadened these aspects, for most people to make informed and educated choices.

Voting freely or the freedom of choice is the bedrock of democratic societies, along with the moral principles of truth and justice, and these will always be the bone of contention between totalitarian and democratic governments. These are being played out now in the confrontations in Myanmar, Hong Kong, in some African and Middle Eastern countries, and in the face-offs between US/India/Japan against China, and between the US/Europe against Russia. From ancient Greece and Rome, through the Middle Ages, democracy has had a roller-coaster ride, but there have been substantial gains and the trajectory is upwards, in spite of attempts by dictators and populist leaders to push back freedoms.

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