In a plebiscite held on March 13, voters on the Philippines’ Palawan island rejected a law signed by President Rodrigo Duterte, which would have divided it into three separate provinces. The result is seen as a rebuff to the political clans that sponsored the law. Opposition parties also claimed it as a small but symbolic victory against Duterte and China’s maritime aggression.
Palawan is the country’s largest province, located on the western corridor of the Southern Tagalog region. It is known for its ecotourism destinations and rich natural resources. The island is regarded as the country’s “last ecological frontier” but years of logging and mining activities have led to its rapid deterioration.
Its strategic location near the West Philippine Sea, as the Philippines refers to its sections of the South China Sea, is highlighted by the fact that it is the country’s gateway to the Spratly Islands, whose ownership is being disputed by several countries, including China.
China’s aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea have affected the fishermen of Palawan. Chinese vessels are accused of poaching Palawan’s maritime resources. The buildup of Chinese military presence near Palawan is seen as an encroachment into the maritime borders of the Philippines.
Duterte signed a law in April 2019 which would have divided Palawan into three provinces: Palawan del Norte, Palawan Oriental, and Palawan del Sur. A plebiscite was initially scheduled in 2020 to ratify the law but was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plebiscite was finally conducted this year after the active campaigning of Governor Jose C. Alvarez. The governor said splitting Palawan into three provinces would improve the delivery of services and raise revenues for the island.
But this was fiercely contested by several civil society groups, environment advocates, and even Catholic Church leaders, who warned that the creation of smaller local government units would make it easier for loggers, miners, and even the Chinese government to impose their agenda on the island. They said that the law is an act of gerrymandering and added that there was no evidence that splitting the island into three provinces would lead to the faster and more efficient roll-out of services. Instead of dividing the island, they asked national authorities to empower the local government to strongly implement laws intended to protect the environment and indigenous peoples.
Those opposed to the law campaigned on a platform of “One Palawan” in a bid to defeat political dynasties, the extractive industry, and foreign powers – all of which would have gained a stronger bargaining position if they were to deal with three provinces whose leaders could be pitted against each other.
The plebiscite result was unexpected. Proponents of the law had ample machinery and government resources at their disposal to influence the decision of voters. They also had the backing of Duterte. But despite the climate of fear, which has worsened under the current government, voters chose to reject the president’s law.
Writer Gideon Lasco summed up the impact of the Palawan plebiscite: “Because it had so much support from local and national politicians, the division of Palawan into three provinces was something that many of us feared was a foregone conclusion. And yet, amid a pandemic, Palaweños overwhelmingly voted to reject this onerous proposal. There is hope.”
Detained opposition Senator Leila M. de Lima described the outcome as an “embodiment of democracy.” Even the communist National Democratic Front has issued a statement hailing the result as a people’s victory over local and foreign plunderers. Meanwhile, prominent economist and Duterte critic Solita Monsod wrote that “the Palawan plebiscite proves that financial and political resources are no match for the people’s will. So unity is an achievable objective.”
Many analysts and social media comments also noted that the plebiscite reflected the people’s rising anger over the incursion of China’s military into the waters of the Philippines.
The Palawan plebiscite should be a wake-up call to the ruling party and other pro-Duterte forces which are hoping to be returned to power in the 2022 presidential election. Duterte boasts of having a high public trust rating, yet his law was ditched by voters in Palawan. The island’s voters proved that it is possible to defy powerful political families. This is the reason why Manila-based opposition groups are celebrating the plebiscite result.
Suddenly, amid the surging pandemic and human rights abuses, they can cite a local political victory and use it to persuade their supporters and voters that Duterte can still be held accountable if the opposition unites to defeat him and his anointed successor at next year’s presidential election.