79-year-old Merly Villanueva of Panacan Uno in the municipality of Narra, assisted by her son, casts her vote in the Palawan plebiscite.

(This report is part 3 of a 7-part series that highlights key stories and events in Palawan and Puerto Princesa City throughout the year 2021)

The defining political event of 2021 was the plebiscite in March to determine the fate of Republic Act No. 11259, which sought to divide Palawan into three separate provinces—Palawan Del Norte, Palawan Del Sur, and Palawan Oriental.

Dubbed 3-in-1 Palawan by its proponents, the initiative was the first of several similar undertakings by past administrations to actually be put to a vote.

The law was not only passed by Congress in record fashion, but was also endorsed by no less than President Rodrigo Duterte and numerous other national leaders. RA 11259 was signed into law on April 5, 2019, but required a favorable plebiscite vote to take effect.

The civic group One Palawan Movement during the proclamation of the provincial board of canvassers that “no” votes won by a landslide in the Palawan’s three-way split.

Its proponents argued that the law was needed to more effectively manage an otherwise large province in terms of land mass and speed up development. Its critics, primarily local civil society groups, claimed it to be a form of gerrymandering, and said it was done without the benefit of proper local consultations.

With little resources to campaign, civic groups, including the Catholic church in northern Palawan, mounted a campaign for a “No” vote, utilizing mainly social media platforms as its medium. The One Palawan movement was started on Facebook as early as October 14, 2018.

Palawan plebiscite was the first electoral process held during the pandemic situation, which the COMELEC described as a “dry run” for the upcoming 2022 elections.

One Palawan also tried to challenge the constitutionality of the law before the Supreme Court but got no favorable decision, and the plebiscite was set for March 13, 2021.

“It was a David and Goliath fight. They have the money to orchestrate a mass campaign. We have nothing. We only knew that there was a huge task in front of us and we needed to do what had to be done,” Cynthia Sumagaysay–Del Rosario, lead campaigner of One Palawan, recalled.

Despite torrential rains throughout the Palawan province, voters went out to cast their vote in the plebiscite, with voter turnout of around 60%—exceeding COMELEC’s previous plebiscite record of only 47%.

“’Yong 3-in-1 mas traditional ang campaign nila kasi may pondo sila para pumunta sa iba’t ibang munisipyo. Pero since pandemic, nasa bahay lang ang mga tao, we mostly communicated through social media. Mas malakas kami sa social media,” she added.

The Apostolic Vicariate of Taytay, with 22 parish churches stretched in 12 northern Palawan municipalities, joined the One Palawan Movement’s call and actively participated in the campaign, urging the voters to vote “no”, pointing out that “the law was mostly due to personal and vested political interests, and not to pave the way for genuine human development.”

Barangay and municipal health workers donning personal protective equipment were stationed at the gate to check the temperature and the health declaration forms of the voters. Those who registered temperature over 37.5 degree Celsius were automatically endorsed to cast their votes at the designated isolation polling precinct.

The outcome of the plebiscite vote was unexpected even by many of the 3-in-1 critics and supporters. As the vote count ended on March 16, only four of the province’s 23 towns voted “Yes,” while the rest rejected it with close margins. In total, 172,304 voted “No” while 122,223 voted “Yes” to the proposed division of Palawan.

The defeat of the 3-in-1 proposal has set the tone for the upcoming regular elections in May 2022 and even emboldened One Palawan groups to field candidates in the electoral process.

“Civil society in Palawan normally limits itself to voter education during elections, but this time there was a consensus in the group that it should carry forward its advocacies to the electoral process,” lawyer Gerthie Anda told Palawan News.

(Next: Palawan’s power woes and energy debate)

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is a desk editor and senior reporter of Palawan News. He covers politics, environment, tourism, justice, and sports. In his free time, he enjoys long walks with his dog, Bayani.