The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) vowed it will be “non-partisan” in overseeing the conduct of the March 13 plebiscite in Palawan on Republic Act 11259 or the law dividing Palawan into three separate provinces, as it highlighted the official start of the campaign period in an online press conference Thursday.

Poll body officials announced they have completed the preparations for the polls, including the formulation of specific guidelines on its conduct, taking into account standard health safety protocols tailored for the plebiscite.

COMELEC chairman Sheriff M. Abbas said they are looking at the plebiscite as “sort of dry run” for the 2022 national elections, testing the capability of the poll body to hold an election amid the global pandemic.

“Masyadong importante itong plebisito dahil mate-test natin ang health at safety protocols na ipapatupad natin,” chairman Abbas said.

A total of 490,639 registered Palawan voters, as of October 21, 2019, are expected to participate in the polls, with the exception of Puerto Princesa City registered voters as provided under the law. There will be 2,959 clustered precincts, over 487 voting centers, with 3,446 plebiscite committees.

Only five voters can enter the polling center to cast their votes at a time.  Voters are expected to wear face shield, face masks, and observe minimum health protocols.

The polling precincts will run from 7:00 in the morning up to 3:00 in the afternoon. Disinfection station and foot bath would also be provided for every voting center.

Isolation polling booth

Among the new measures unique to the election exercise announced by the poll body was the designation of “isolation booths” in the voting precincts where registered voters showing up to cast their votes but having a body temperature of 37.5 Celsius or higher as possible symptoms of infection will be endorsed to a health team to allow them to vote inside the specially designated booths.

“If the voter registers 37.5 degrees Celsius or higher, he will be reevaluated and reassessed and he will be endorsed to isolation polling places for him to cast his vote,” deputy executive director for operations Teopisto E. Elnas, Jr., said.

Campaigning guidelines

Responding to media questions, the poll body said it is only during the campaign period that they will look into possible cases or complaints of violations.

Asked to comment on the provincial government of Palawan allocating funds for the holding of the plebiscite while endorsing the ratification of the law, COMELEC Commissioner Antonio T. Kho Jr., said there is no conflict of interest issue involved.

“They are providing COMELEC the budget necessary for the conduct of the plebiscite. I don’t see any conflict of interest in this situation that they are funding the plebiscite because this is specifically provided for by law,” Commissioner Kho said.

He noted however that except for “appointed government employees” elected officials may join the electoral campaign to support a specific stand on the plebiscite.

“Government employees appointed are prohibited in every electoral activity, except to vote. Nandiyan ‘yan sa Civil Service rules natin. Bawal sila mag-engage sa campaign. ‘Yong mga elected naman, they are exempt from participating because by reason of their office, their nature are political. Supreme Court already mentioned that they are not prohibited to join in the electoral campaign, except those that are appointed,” Kho said.

The provincial government has set aside at least P150 million for the conduct of the plebiscite.

Will “look into” Bayubay case

The poll body, asked to comment on the civil society group’s call to inhibit the top Department of Education (DepEd) official, Superintendent Natividad Bayubay, from the polls for alleged partiality, said they will look into the case. Bayubay has openly supported the division of Palawan, stating on several social media posts its advantages to the education sector.

DepEd Palawan Superintendent Natividad Bayubay on her Facebook post on January 29 said that dividing Palawan into three provinces would create “more job opportunities”.

“Tama ang naging action ng One Palawan Movement na i-refer ito sa DepEd. Normally, superintendents naman ay more on supervising naman sila sa mga ERB hindi sila nagiging member ng ERB. As far as COMELEC is concerned, we will investigate this one, and kung totoo, we will also refer it to the DepEd. We have to satisfy the due process doon sa taong inakusahan kasi baka naman accusations kaya bibigyan din natin siya ng due process,” Abbas said.

In one of her recent Facebook posts, Bayubay pointed out that the division of Palawan “has been in the bag” even before she became the top official in DepEd Palawan, and cited its benefit in creating “more job opportunities”.

“The 2021 Palawan division plebiscite has been in the bag and is finally happening in March 13 this year.  It has been in the bag before I ever happened in Palawan.  All I did was to clarify with DepEd personnel the reorganization of the division into three divisions. That there would be three SDOs, three SDSs, three ASDSs, three accountants, all positions multiple of three, more job opportunities, leaner work areas and more effective and efficient delivery of services,” Bayubay’s Facebook post stated.