Democracy, Palawan style


This week, the camp of Mayor Lucilo Bayron filed before the Commission on Elections (Comelec) a petition for recall against Vice Mayor Luis Marcaida III. The move was the latest twist in a protracted battle that has been going on for some time between the two quarreling camps.

If the petition is given due course by Comelec, Puerto Princesa City will hold a special elections for vice mayor before May next year. In this election, the battle will shift to the ballots and voters will either replace Marcaida with a Bayron nominee or reaffirm him as vice mayor.

Our people’s predilection with recall is shown by the fact that we have had at least four such initiatives taking place in the province in recent history – Edward Hagedorn vs. Dennis Socrates in 2002, Jose Alvarez vs. Abraham Mitra in 2012, Hagedorn vs. Bayron in 2015, and now this. Some have suggested we must be the recall capital of the Philippines.

These examples are nevertheless a treasure trove of case studies for academics and students of governance to figure out how “recall” and “people’s initiative” enshrined in our democratic Constitution works on the ground, or if it does work at all.

Since Hagedorn ousted Socrates in 2002, no other recall petition had succeeded in replacing an incumbent. It is too early to tell whether the Bayron camp’s recent attempt will even hurdle the Comelec and if it does, whether they will succeed in ousting the sitting vice mayor.

Having chronicled all these political wars, we observe that none of these battles were sparked by any spontaneous clamor that emanated from the electorate. Arguably, all of those recall initiatives were instigated by partisan camps, regardless of whether their agenda and intentions were noble, plainly legal, or outright selfish. A recall petition launched through platforms like change.org or 360.org should have been more spontaneous and electorate driven. We had none of that approach to a recall. We do have a lesser known case of people’s initiative that did not even get past the Comelec. Sometime in 2007, the village of Sumbiling, Bataraza gathered 10 percent of their electorate signatures in a noble attempt to establish a watershed. The Comelec declined to validate their signatures, simply stating they did not have funds.

Most of those recall signatures gathered had involved a major undertaking that deployed political resources, funding, warm bodies and machinery, and in many reported cases – harassment and intimidation. The conduct of those elections had been more virulent compared to the regular elections we’ve had, based on sheer reports of abuses and even deaths.

Last week when supporters of Mayor Bayron filed their case, they even proudly proclaimed they collected theirs within a record period of one-week – all 39,000 plus signatures. Compare this with the fact that Gina Lopez’ campaign to stop mining in Palawan managed to gather 10 million signatures across the Internet universe but it took her over five years to nudge the Aquino administration to effect some policy changes on the mining sector and ban new mining projects in the province. If Palawan’s electorate were really passionate on governance, we should be having recall elections every other week.

The framers of our present Constitution, emerging from an era of dictatorship and authoritarian rule, had this noble intention of empowering the electorate when they introduced recall, referendum and people’s initiative as tools to unseat an erring public official and to improve governance. If was an affirmative action to inject democratic ideals back to society. Those tools, however, now  serve to complicate our present electoral system and draw the attention of our elected officials away from performing their duties and serving the common good.

The conflict between Mayor Lucilo Bayron and Vice Mayor Luis Marcaida is, for all intents and purposes, a personal grudge. They used to be allies who publicly abhorred the idea of a recall when it was poised upon them by former Mayor Edward Hagedorn. How it happened that they parted ways and are now fighting a war of attrition on the recall battlefield had been adequately recorded by news media.

The positive takeaway we can harvest from having to go through this experience is the hope that everyone with a stake are learning hard lessons and that these are perhaps necessary steps for our entire body politic to finally reach maturity.

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