The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) will be using radio broadcasts to hold debates on the upcoming division of Palawan plebiscite on March 13 for opposing parties and will be foregoing in-person debates due to mass gathering restrictions.

Also, independent poll-watcher Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV), an affiliate of the Roman Catholic church, vowed it will maintain neutrality even though the Apostolic Vicariate of Taytay (AVT) which covers the northern municipalities of the province is strongly campaigning against the proposal.

COMELEC spokesperson James Jimenez confirmed in an online presser Thursday (March 4) that the Commission has heard independent poll-watcher group LENTE’s (Legal Network for Truthful Election) call to hold radio-based debates before the plebiscite to air out the advantages and disadvantages of Republic Act 11259, or the law proposing to divide Palawan into three provinces.

“The COMELEC will be conducting campaigns starting next week. Diyan natin bibigyan ng platform ‘yong mga pro and anti [division of Palawan]. There will be no actual debates, as we are accustomed to thinking of such things, medyo kailangan pa rin tayong mag-ingat sa pandemiya. But we will be making sure that opposing sides are given equal opportunity to reach the public via radio,” he said.

Jimenez did not mention any specific date when they will start engaging radio stations in Palawan next week.

Jimenez added that holding their campaign on-air was deemed the best platform because of the lack of access to Internet-disseminated materials to most areas in Palawan.

“Sa ngayon nagfo-focus ang mga tao sa pulong-pulong. They are hyper-local. Once we start the on-air campaign, radio na ang gagamitin. COMELEC will be hitting every radio station in Palawan throughout the week before the [plebiscite],” Jimenez added.

LENTE will be deploying volunteers at the plebiscite areas to assess if the health protocols tailored to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are applicable to the 2022 national elections. The group also pledged to provide legal assistance to concerned persons if needed, and to do special monitoring on vulnerable voting sectors such as indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and senior citizens.

PPCRV also vowed to remain neutral stating that AVT being among the groups vocally expressing opposition to the division is not a participant in the group’s vote watching because of their stance. The Vicariate  has under its jurisdiction the northern municipalities, which is why the PPCRV will be focusing its poll-watching in southern towns.

“Dito natin sinasabi kung bakit ang management ng PPCRV, ang coverage lang ay ang southern district simula Aborlan hanggang Balabac. Although kasama ng vicariate ng Puerto Princesa ang Cagayancillo, pero makikita natin na ‘yan ang bibigyan natin ng focus. Isa sa mga plans ay magde-deploy kami ng correspondents sa Vicariate of Taytay, but they are under the Apostolic Vicariate of Puerto Princesa. Ibig sabihin, kami ang magde-deploy at hindi ang Apostolic Vicariate of Taytay,” said Fr. Jasper Lahan, a member of the Apostolic Vicariate of Puerto Princesa.

Aside from the PPCRV and LENTE, the National Citizens’ Movement or Free Elections (NAMFREL) will also be deploying seven-person teams across 11 municipalities – namely, Quezon, Narra, Balabac, Roxas, Coron, Taytay, Rizal, Aborlan, El Nido, Brooke’s Point, Bataraza.