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The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) has decided to defer the holding of the plebiscite on the division of Palawan to a later date “when the COVID-19 situation in the province improves.”

In a reply letter dated July 16 addressed to the civil society group Save Palawan Movement, the poll body said they are adopting the recommendation of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) to defer the plebiscite which was supposed to have been conducted on May 11 but was overtaken by the pandemic.

COMELEC Acting Deputy Executive Director Helen Aguila-Flores said in the letter that they have adopted four recommendations of the IATF pertaining to the matter.

The stated in effect that it will let the IATF approve the scheduling of any electoral exercise.

The IATF has recommended that the COMELEC explore options to conduct a plebiscite with minimum exposure of the voting public to the possible spread of coronavirus.

It also required the poll body to provide additional resources to ensure proper health safety measures during the plebiscite, including seeing to it that there are additional polling precincts to avoid congestion.

The COMELEC shall first submit its plans to the IATF before a definite date for the plebiscite is decided.

“Presentation to the IATF shall be deferred until such time that the requests are met,” the COMELEC letter stated.

Cynthia Sumagaysay-Del Rosario, lead campaigner of the civil society group One Palawan and Save Palawan Movement, said Tuesday that the poll body’s response was prompted by their initiative to bring up the matter with the Malacanang Citizen’s Complaint Hotline.

“Huli namin na inihiling ay ang indefinite suspension ng plebisito dahil sa health crisis. Natanggap na pala ng COMELEC ang marami nating sulat at nagbaba sila ng mga recommendation. ‘Yong desisyon ng COMELEC ay depende sa IATF. Wala ring plebisito, effective March 25, 2020. Ang mga nababalita ay based siguro doon sa lumang resolution. Walang nilalabas na bagong order ang COMELEC,” Del Rosario said in an online press briefing.

She emphasized that holding of plebiscite requires mass gathering which is beyond the protocols imposed during the pandemic.

“Plebiscite kasi involves assemblies and rallies, ‘yong dalawang kampo at magi-ikot ‘yan magkakaroon ng mass gathering. Hindi rin makatwiran na ang budget ay mapupunta dito sa plebisito na hindi naman talagang kailangan,” Del Rosario said.

“Sana ‘wag muna ituloy, kaming mga katutubo ay nagkaisa na ‘wag muna dapat ito ituloy dahil maraming tao ang apektado lalo na doon sa presinto. Natatakot kaming mga elderly na baka makakuha pa doon ng virus,” Larry Orongan from the Tagbanua tribe said.

Fr. Roderick Caabay, One Palawan Movement member also said that plebiscite is not a pressing “concern” because there are more important issues that need more attention from  government.

“Ang concern po ng mga tao ngayon ay gutom at trabaho hindi plebisito. Kung itutuloy ito ay hindi ito ang focus ng mga tao dahil mas inaasikaso nila kung paano magsurvive ngayong pandemic,” he said.