One Palawan Lang: The National Significance of the Palawan Plebiscite

  •  Mike Ollave in San Isidro Labrador Parish in Port Barton, San Vicente conducting an IEC activity for One Palawan
    Mike Ollave in San Isidro Labrador Parish in Port Barton, San Vicente conducting an IEC activity for One Palawan

By Mickel Ollave and Joy Aceron*

On March 16, 2021, the Provincial Plebiscite Board of Canvassers of the Commission on Elections (COMELEC) declared the plebiscite in Palawan a success. The people of Palawan voted against the splitting of their province into three. Palawan will remain as one province.

Signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte on April 5, 2019, Republic Act 11259 legislates the splitting of Palawan into Palawan del Norte, Palawan Oriental and Palawan del Sur. The law will only take effect, however, upon the ratification of the residents of Palawan. As of March 16 at 5:00pm, COMELEC counting shows that the “no” vote has won, garnering 172,304 votes as against the 122,233 “yes” votes and winning in 19 out of 23 municipalities.

Though directly affecting only Palawan province, the result of the recent plebiscite has national significance with positive implications. It shows that top-down agenda initiated by the powerful can still be defeated by mostly citizen resistance below. The Palawan election proves that a clean peaceful democratic electoral exercise remains feasible even amid the pandemic. An electoral exercise can still be issue-based and an opportunity for the powerful to be held to account.

Citizens prevailing over politicians

The proposal to split Palawan is an agenda concocted by politicians at the top swiftly authorized by the legislative process and presidential approval.

The formal proposal came from a unanimous resolution of the Palawan Provincial Board in December 2017. In less than a year, in August 2018, it passed third reading in the House of Representatives with the backing of key politicians of Palawan including its three congresspersons led by 1st district Congressman Franz Alvarez and Palawan Governor Jose Alvarez. Not long after, in November, the Senate approved the bill, voting 14-to-1 with only Senator Risa Hontiveros voting against it. In April 2019, the law was signed into law by President Duterte.

With strong support from the top, the re-election of its main proponent, Governor Jose Alvarez, in May 2019 and the huge vote garnered in the party-list elections by the Partido ng Pagbabago ng Palawan (another main proponent of the split), the ratification of the law through a plebiscite seemed almost unstoppable in the beginning.

The proponents promised big gains from the said measure. They said it can “hasten the economic and social progress” in Palawan and can make service delivery “more responsive and accessible.” The proponents conducted many information campaigns for “3 in 1” around Palawan, allegedly tapping officials of provincial and some municipal governments and using government resources.

However, citizen resistance did not cave in. People’s movements like One Palawan, the Save Palawan Movement and the Apostolic Vicariate of Taytay were organized and mobilized to resist and oppose the split. They called out the railroading in the House of Representatives, with the law getting passed without sufficient public consultation. Even the spokesperson of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) said he was not consulted at all on the proposed split. The various people’s movements called out the Alvarezes for pushing for the split as a way to perpetuate their political dynasty. They flagged the lack of evidence to prove the claimed gains from the proposed split and the lack of studies to look into its risks and costs.

Reliant mainly on citizen volunteers, people’s movements undertook grassroots campaigns to inform the people of the dangers of the proposed splitting of the province. They went down to the barangays and communities to explain why the proposed division of Palawan is disadvantageous to Palaweños. They conducted numerous dialogues and participated in the debates. They conducted motorcades targeting critical municipalities. They also had to deal with the dirty tactics employed by the pro-split proponents, such as petitioning the removal of a parish priest who was supporting the anti-split campaign and damaging anti-split campaign materials such as tarps in churches. 

Mainly utilizing social and traditional media, the people’s movements against the proposed split galvanized support from the ground up with the issue gaining national attention and with non-Palaweños taking interest in the campaign in no time.

Cynthia del Rosario of Save Palawan Movement articulates the key lessons from the campaign well in her interview with Rappler: “The big lesson for the politicians who attempted to divide Palawan into 3 is to make sure that the desire actually came from the people. They need to consult and include the people from the beginning. The desire of a few cannot win over the desire of the majority.”

The Palawan plebiscite shows citizen grassroots organizing and people-led pro-people campaign can defeat efforts and resources of politicians at the top.

Elections in the Philippines amidst pandemic is doable

The Palawan plebiscite took place as the Philippines enters the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Scheduled to take place originally in May 2020, the plebiscite was postponed for under a year due to COVID-19. It finally pushed through on March 13 from 7:00am to 3:00pm with the COMELEC and the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) passing new guidelines that take into account health protocols and safety measures.

Anti-COVID measures in the guidelines included logistical arrangements for the conduct of the plebiscite, the number of people allowed in a given physical space, the required physical distancing, thermal checks, requirement of face masks and face shields, disinfection stations, use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) by those overseeing the process, and other observance of minimum public health standards.

To avoid long queues, election officers posted the computerized list of voters in different barangays, municipal halls and COMELEC offices before election day. Voters’ assistance desks were set up to help voters find their polling precinct.

The voters were asked to answer the following question:

“Pumapayag ka ba na hatiin ang Probinsya ng Palawan sa tatlong (3) probinsya na papangalanang: Palawan del Norte, Palawan Oriental, at Palawan del Sur alinsunod sa Batas Republika Bilang 11259?”
(Do you allow the division of Palawan into three provinces namely Palawan del Norte, Palawan Oriental, and Palawan del Sur, in accordance with Republic Act No. 11259?)

Despite the safety threats and health risks that it entailed, over 297,000 registered residents of Palawan came out to vote last March 13. Three days after the casting of votes, COMELEC has been able to declare the result. The proponents immediately conceded without raising any criticisms on the conduct of the elections (though downplaying their defeat). The plebiscite was deemed clean, honest and peaceful.

Palawan showed that a democratic electoral exercise even amidst a pandemic can be done. This is badly needed as a strong evidence against those floating the idea of the need to postpone the 2022 national elections.

Elections can still be issue-based that holds power to account

People’s movements raised several reasons why they are against the splitting of Palawan. All the reasons belie the claimed gains peddled by pro-split politicians, revealing the real interest and agenda of the powerful.  

The people’s movements argued that dividing Palawan into three will bloat the bureaucracy, requiring huge sums of money for human resources of the provincial governments with no immediate mandate on local service delivery. The proponents argue that the main reason for their proposed splitting of the province is to make service delivery faster. However, in the Local Government Code (LGC), it is the city and municipal governments (not the provincial governments) that have the main mandate of delivering basic services to the people.

The people’s movements made the citizens aware that RA 11259, the law that divides Palawan into three, will decrease the resource revenue shares of the municipalities and barangays of Palawan. The LGC mandates the following allocation scheme of resource revenue share of local governments from the national wealth: 20% for the province, 45% for the municipalities and 35% for the barangays. Meanwhile, RA 11259 mandates the following allocation scheme: 60% for the province, 24% for municipalities and 16% for barangays. The anti-split movements were arguing that the percentage of resource revenue allocation in RA 11259 is unconstitutional and that it violates the LGC.

Some citizens and groups against the split also took advantage of the campaigns to uncover the political agenda behind the proposed split. A meme showing the Alvarezes dividing Palawan among themselves as governors is one of the most-shared campaign material against the split. Netizens also questioned whether Governor Alvarez is really a Palaweño to begin with.

The people’s movements hammered the political agenda behind the proposal since this seemed clearer and more apparent than its developmental gains. As one of the leaders of Save Palawan Movement, environmental lawyer Atty. Gerthie Anda quipped in an interview: "Gerrymandering nga.... Kasi walang cost-benefit analysis, walang masusi at maayos at malawakang pag-aaral. Bilang islang ecosystem, nanganganib ang Palawan. Ang paghati-hati ng Palawan ay pagtugon ba sa kahirapan? Wala namang pag-aaral e.” [It is gerrymandering. Because there is no cost-benefit analysis. No thorough studies. As an island ecosystem, Palawan is in danger. Dividing Palawan is the answer to poverty? No studies to prove that.”]

The grassroots campaign against the ratification of RA 11259 reveals the intent of the pro-split politicians to strengthen the province and weaken the municipalities and barangays. It also reveals the lack of critical discourse and basic due diligence in the process of legislating the proposed split. It uncovers an intent of those at the top to abuse their power in railroading a law that does not advance a clear common good, but instead perpetuates a dynastic political agenda that puts to risk the lives of the people and the development of the province of Palawan.

The electoral outcome of the Palawan plebiscite shows that electoral campaigns can serve as a platform for people to raise critical issues, check and balance the attempts of the powerful to advance their vested interests, and ultimately hold politicians to account for their proposals and actions.

* Mike Ollave is a Palaweño who is a community organizer in Puerto Princesa and a local coordinator of G-Watch ( He is also an active volunteer of Save Palawan Movement since 2012. Joy Aceron is Convenor-Director of G-Watch and Research Fellow-Adviser to Accountability Research Center ( She has been studying Puerto Princesa politics and governance for about 10 years now.