David vs Goliath: Palawan edition

Published March 25, 2021, 6:00 AM

by J. Albert Gamboa

What was previously unthinkable happened this month in the country’s biggest and westernmost province, Palawan. A non-government organization (NGO) achieved a rare victory against powerful state forces in the recently concluded plebiscite seeking the Palaweños’ approval of a law that divided Palawan into three smaller provinces.

Save Palawan Movement (SPM), a grassroots NGO organized 10 years ago by the late Environment Secretary Regina Lopez, has succeeded in convincing Palawan’s electorate to disapprove Republic Act 11259 – a law which partitioned the province into Palawan del Norte, Palawan Oriental, and Palawan del Sur.

SPM was up against the partition’s proponents headed by Palawan Governor Jose Chavez Alvarez, a business tycoon turned politician. All of Palawan’s 23 municipal mayors and three district congressmen supported Alvarez, who was able to have the partition bill passed by the two houses of Congress and enacted into law by President Rodrigo Duterte in 2019.

According to SPM co-founder and environment lawyer Grizelda Anda, the One Palawan advocacy campaign was initiated by civil society organizations to turn back RA 11259. Among the cause-oriented groups backing the campaign were SPM and the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), an NGO formed in 1991 as a special project of the Protestant Lawyers League of the Philippines.

ELAC was a response to the emerging challenge of lawyering in the rural areas where environmental degradation is most felt. Anda recounted that ELAC was originally composed of volunteer lawyers who collaborated with other organizations in conducting seminars and paralegal training. Eventually it got involved in institutional capacity-building, community-based resource management, and advocacies such as the OnePalawan campaign.

Cynthia del Rosario, OnePalawan’s lead campaigner, said “the big lesson for politicians who attempted to divided Palawan into three is to make sure that the desire actually came from the people.” Without any electoral experience prior to becoming a civic leader, she won as the first-ever Miss Puerto Princesa City representing the capital of Palawan province. Del Rosario described the March 13 plebiscite as a duel between biblical characters David and Goliath.

In the final tally certified by the Commission on Elections (Comelec), the “Davids” garnered 172,304 “No” votes against 122,223 “Yes” votes obtained by the “Goliaths” during the most closely watched local referendum in years. Last March 15, the Comelec provincial board of canvassers proclaimed “No” as the winner.

One by one, the municipal mayors in 19 out of the 23 towns where “Yes” lost conceded defeat, followed by some provincial officials. Alvarez was subsequently interviewed by a national newspaper (not the Bulletin) and he attributed the loss to the slowness in the Comelec’s plebiscite information campaign as well as the “bad press and propaganda” by NGOs.

Another issue was gerrymandering as oppositors to RA 11259 alleged that there was undue haste in the proposed law’s passage by the House of Representatives and the Senate. But in the end, Alvarez accepted the people’s verdict although he regretted that it was a missed opportunity for Palaweños.

Meanwhile, the multi-sectoral coalition behind OnePalawan is gearing for their next battle versus the Goliaths of their province. Is the Palawan plebiscite a preview of the 2022 national and local elections?

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