Five months from now, in May this year, the people of Palawan will troop to the polls in a plebiscite that will determine whether the present province of Palawan will break up into three separate and administratively independent new provinces. It will be the culmination of a fairly intense debate between those genuinely believing it will be for the Palawan’s good and those adamantly maintaining it is not.

Barring any adverse ruling by the Supreme Court on a petition filed by local civil society groups assailing the constitutionality of Republic Act 11259 signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte in April last year, the Commission on Elections has stated they are prepared to proceed with the holding of the plebiscite.

The Supreme Court has set its deliberations on the case into motion, recently obliging the office of the Solicitor General to comment on their petition. Filed in June 2019, the petition assails RA 11259’s constitutionality based on three main arguments — that it was allegedly not subjected to proper public consultations and that its provisions on the sharing of natural wealth proceeds among local government units and the barring of Puerto Princesa City voters from joining the plebiscite were unconstitutional.

It remains to be seen whether the SC will act on that petition in time for the scheduled plebiscite. If it does, it will be a fairly prompt action compared to the high tribunal’s ruling on the Malampaya case which took nearly 10 years.

By far, the Commission on Elections has merely committed to be ready for the actual polling but has not stated any intention to initiate a politically neutral voter education campaign that can help voters better understand the issues attendant to the plebiscite. There is nothing in its current plans similar to the Comelec-sponsored debates it organizes among candidates during regular elections.

The influential Catholic Church, which has traditionally focused its efforts on non partisan voter education during regular elections, is not maintaining such neutrality in this forthcoming plebiscite. The northern Diocese, for instance, has already issued a pastoral letter calling on the faithful to reject the division plan.

The local government units from the provincial government to the municipal units, with their vast resources, are campaigning exclusively for a Yes vote, convinced as it is that such is its role.

There is a pressing need for other sectors of Palawan’s civil society, the media including and perhaps other organized sectors like business groups, the academe and private voluntary organizations, to step forward and fill this important gap.
At the very least, the Commission on Elections should undertake such a campaign.

With several months to go before the day of the plebiscite, there is arguably no evidence that the voting citizenry fairly understand what they are going to vote for and what are its repercussion in their ordinary lives.

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