As soon as the President signed a bill providing for a plebiscite that could possibly split one province into three, the jokes started. We will soon have Palawan, Palatu and Palatri — though they will, of course, be more boringly called Palawan del Norte, Palawan del Sur and Palawan Oriental.
Interestingly, the residents of Puerto Princesa will be prohibited from voting in the referendum. Even more interestingly, the following list started becoming buzz-worthy online, with people claiming it was a list of the four prospective candidates for the governorships of the three new provinces: (1) Jose Chaves Alvarez (governor); (2) Franz Chicoy Alvarez (representative); (3) Antonio Alvarez (former representative); and (4) Pie Alvarez (mayor of San Vicente, Palawan).
Which only serves to underline the wisdom of the late Lorenzo Tañada when he appealed to his supporters in 1951 to oppose the possibility that the then subprovince of Aurora might become separated from Quezon Province. As I pointed out in 2010, back then Tañada argued that dividing the province was not the solution to charting its future or a way to improve the prospects of progress for the whole province, as it would only create what he called a new homegrown principalia interested only in their personal economic advancement.
Our former colleague in the Opinion section, Juan Mercado of Cebu, used to strongly argue that subdividing provinces is a form of gerrymandering — redrawing political lines on the map for the benefit of its proponents. What it fosters is the political dominance of the political class that engineered the creation of the new province.
We’ve gone from 52 provinces in 1951 to 81 provinces in 2019, and from 61 chartered cities in 1996 to 117 by 2004. By way of contrast, Indonesia had 10 provinces when it became independent, and today, 33 (seven of which became provinces since 2000). Since independence, Malaysia has created only two additional states to its original 11. Thailand has reduced its provinces from 83 in 1915 to 76 (provinces were actively merged from 1915 to 1950, and since then, only about 10 new provinces have been created).
Even the President, in a veiled sort of way, seems to refer in nostalgic terms to the old undivided province of Davao, which once comprised what are Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, Davao Occidental, Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley today.
To be sure, not every instance of winking and backslapping that leads to gerrymandering gets carried out. Efforts to divide Isabela, Cebu and Quezon, for example, failed in their respective plebiscites. By all accounts, the threefold cutting up of Palawan seems to have stirred up strong opposition in the province. But if the public has put on the brakes to some schemes, consolidation, on the other hand, is opposed by the powers-that-be, because it would create either too strong a territory or deprive too many dynasties of their turf.
Consider the obvious need to consolidate the local governments of Metro Manila:
Doing so would, on one hand, eliminate the fiefdoms of too many ruling local barons, while possibly creating an official — say, a governor of Metro Manila — of such potential stature as to give presidents sleepless nights. Perhaps a similar sense of insecurity led the President to immediately dismantle the Negros Island Region established under the previous administration.
The French, when they mounted their revolution and attempted to establish the government along scientific and rational lines in all things (giving us the metric system, for example), immediately set about abolishing all prerevolutionary provincial boundaries and established new departments, which aimed to break up historical regions and create political units that could be governed effectively. Borders were established so that component settlements would be within a day’s ride of the capital of the new department, which would have a name unrelated to old locations, adopting the names of natural features instead.
Not even the various confused (and confusing) federalism schemes dare, however, to take an axe to the cunningly gerrymandered provincial map of the country.