To divide or not to divide

The proposal to divide Palawan into three provinces has once again emerged in the provincial board. The initiative calls for a congressional action that will create three new and separate provinces, which shall in turn comprise a new region. This idea has a simple, straightforward rationale — breaking up into smaller provinces should allow their respective local governments to improve the delivery of basic services to its citizens.

A consensus is evident in the provincial legislative chamber, judging by Tuesday’s open deliberation. The agenda is set, which means there would soon be public consultations or some sort of a referendum to gather wide support for the proposal. As soon as it is done, or even before these consultations are completed, Palawan’s three congressmen will file the appropriate bill in the lower house to set the legislation in motion. If we’re lucky, the Senate will pass its counterpart version as the initiative gathers momentum to become a new law signed by the President.

Actually we had gone through this already before, in the late 1990s when it was first raised. The provincial government at that time spearheaded a campaign for its ratification, doing roadshows in the municipalities and clinching a resounding endorsement of the initiative. But it all went to naught as Congress never really got to pass the necessary enabling law.

What was sorely missing in that first iteration of the proposal to divide Palawan into several provinces was a real debate. The province did the roadshows to campaign for ratification, not to encourage an open discussion and allow the citizenry to make an informed decision.

We need to point this out because there are many issues that need to be addressed if we are indeed to break apart the political boundaries of the province. The mantra that division equals better public services is too simplistic to be embraced, for surely we all should know that things are more complicated than they are.

What is broke that needs to be fixed? If delivery of basic services is the root problem, have we tried fixing it through a more direct solution, say actually making the delivery systems work? Do we have to create three more gubernatorial posts and so many new elective positions underneath it to deliver those services that our people really need? Isn’t there an elite political agenda to this initiate? Have we tried other approaches like actually making the bureaucracy more efficient?

It is hard to disagree with the essential proposition that granting political autonomy to a subset of the province could help that subset progress economically. That is what autonomy and self rule is all about. That is the core premise of the Duterte administration’s vow for federalism.

We should be reminded though that the devil is in the details. How do we avoid encouraging political warlordism associated with our historical experiences? What are the risks involved for the municipal economies that remain dependent on the single city economy? Did the proponents of division study all its implications beyond the rhetoric that we hear? Where are those studies?

We are certain there are more questions that can be raised, if only all the stakeholders of Palawan are allowed to ask.

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