Proponents of the No to division of Palawan raise their hands for the One Palawan sign at the Legislative Hall on March 16, 2021, where the canvassing of the referendum returns from the municipalities was done. | Palawan News photo

The gallery of the Legislative Hall erupted into a raucous celebration as the Provincial Plebiscite Board of Canvassers (PPBOC) proclaimed a victory for the No vote to conclude the March 13 plebiscite Tuesday (March 16) afternoon.

After three days of interrupted canvassing, the poll body wrapped up the plebiscite without needing to wait for the final votes from the smallest municipality of Kalayaan off the West Philippine Sea. After all, the vote count was already decisive – 172,304 No votes against 122,223 Yes votes.

(L-R) Provincial prosecutor and vice chairman of the board of canvassers Alen Ross Rodriguez, provincial COMELEC officer and PPBOC chairman Atty. Urbano Arlando, and PPBOC member Atty. Maricar Misa-Tan hold the certificate of canvass and proclamation which contains the summary of votes from the concluded plebiscite. | Palawan News photo

“As we promised, we will count the votes correctly. We delivered our promise. Maganda ang naging turn out,” commissioner-in-charge for Palawan Plebiscite Antonio Kho Jr. told Palawan News.

Kho said they decided not to wait for the Kalayaan canvass in order not to delay further the proclamation.

“Hindi maka-landing ang eroplano. But nevertheless, the board already decided on this.  The opponent has moved for proclamation, the proponent offer no objection, so they made the decision,” he said.

Anti-climactic outcome

The push to divide Palawan into three separate provinces was dead in the water long before the last ballot was officially canvassed. Governor Jose Alvarez, its most vocal proponent, formally conceded defeat in a press conference Monday (March 15) afternoon. Several other key political leaders had earlier done the same, notably Brooke’s Point Mayor Mary Jean Feliciano and board members Ryan Maminta and Juan Anton Alvarez.

Governor Alvarez said that while he was not at all surprised at their loss, he was not “bitter” about it, stressing that their intention was to help Palaweños in general.

“Siguro ito talaga ang kagustuhan ng ating mga kababayang Palaweño na tanggihan ang RA 11259 o paghahati,” lawyer Christian Jay Cojamco, speaking for the proponents, said.

The statement of votes by municipality showing the canvassed votes for Yes and No.

Intense debate

The debate to divide Palawan into three had been an oftentimes nasty discourse between the proponents of the Yes vote — which described itself as the “3 in 1 Palawan” movement — and the opposition group under One Palawan composed mainly of civil society organizations including the Catholic Church. The Apostolic Vicariate of Taytay (AVT), led by Bishop Juanich, called for an outright rejection of RA 11259 in the plebiscite, while its counterpart the Apostolic Vicariate of Puerto Princesa City (AVPP) assumed a more neutral stance.

Since the idea was first broached by Gov. Alvarez in a political caucus as early as 2018, it quickly breezed through Congress and was passed into law subject to a plebiscite.

“Maybe dividing Palawan into two makes for a valid case. But this one is politically motivated,” political analyst Ramon Casiple observed, noting the pre-eminence of the political leadership in pushing for the division. The One Palawan campaign had accused the framers of RA 11259 of failing to conduct consultations and studies appropriate to such a major decision for the province.

“All of a sudden your overhead is times three and your productive capacity has not increased. I don’t know how you can handle things like that,” Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said in a television interview early in the debate.

Campaign leaders for 3 in 1 dismissed the arguments of the opposition, pointing out that it went through proper deliberations in Congress and was even upheld by the Supreme Court (SC) in a ruling where One Palawan had tried to challenge its constitutionality.

Cynthia Sumagaysay-del Rosario, lead campaigner for One Palawan, likened the referendum to a “David and Goliath” fight, pointing out that the opposition ran on mere “human will” as opposed to the proponents with “large capital spending” during the campaign.

“Masaya kami siyempre David and Goliath ‘yong nangyaring istorya. Pero ‘yong pinakamalaking mensahe talaga dito ay kakayanin kung sama-sama, na ‘yong maliliit dati na parang natatakot magsalita, puwede na magkaroon ng lakas ng loob na magsalita,” she said.

One Palawan’s Atty. Gerthie Mayo-Anda admitted she was surprised at their winning margin.

“Ang isang realization ko, personally and I can speak na lang for ELAC is yong traditional electoral process na hindi namin nilalahukan, ako first time. In 30 years of work, yong paglalahok sa isang electoral process, kaya pala na isulong mo ang advocacy agenda mo,” she said.

Not bitter

Alvarez tried to dismiss the debacle of 3 in 1 as merely a casual setback, with the people of Palawan themselves being at the losing end.

“Personally, I would say we did not lose anything. Ang nawalan dito ay ang sambayanang Palawenyo,” Alvarez said. He stopped short at giving credit to the civil society leaders for successfully steering a victory for No, even daring them to run for elective positions in the regular local elections.

Vice Governor Dennis Socrates took the loss differently, candidly admitting he was “shocked” at the plebiscite outcome.

“I’m too old to cry but I’m too sad to laugh,”  Socrates said. (with reports from Romar Miranda, Aira Genesa Magdayao, Rachel Ganancial, Cedez Castro, and Lara Palay)

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