SC orders province-wide vote on Cabanatuan’s HUC status

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SC orders province-wide vote on Cabanatuan’s HUC status
After two postponements, the poll will finally push through but not limited to city voters. If classified as highly urbanized city, Cabanatuan will no longer vote for provincial posts

MANILA, Philippines – The Supreme Court (SC) has ordered the election commission to finally conduct the twice-postponed plebiscite on upgrading the status of Cabanatuan in Nueva Ecija from a component city into a highly urbanized city (HUC).

The poll, however, will be conducted across the province, not just within the affected city, the court decided in its en banc summer session in Baguio City on Tuesday, April 22.

Voting 9-5-1, the High Court declared null and void Comelec resolutions that set the plebiscite with only voters in Cabanatuan participating. Cabanatuan is Nueva Ecija’s most populous city.

An HUC status will exempt Cabanatuan voters from casting their votes for provincial posts, according to Section 452c of the Local Government Code (LGC).

The SC decision, penned by Justice Presbitero Velasco, ordered the conduct of the province-wide plebiscite 120 days from the finality of the SC decision. An SC decision is deemed final 15 days after parties to the case receive a copy of the decision, barring any bid to have the ruling reviewed.

Retiring Justice Roberto Abad took no part in the voting. Justice Marvic Leonen, along with Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, justices Martin Villarama Jr, Jose Mendoza, and Bienvenido Reyes wrote a separate dissenting opinion.

Political ramifications

The initial Comelec-set plebiscite was opposed before the High Court by Nueva Ecija Governor Aurelio Matias Umali, whose prayer for a temporary restraining order (TRO) on the plebiscite was granted by the High Court on January 14.

Cabanatuan voters account for half of the voting population of Nueva Ecija’s 3rd district, represented in Congress by Umali’s wife Czarina.

Umali – a former Lakas regional leader who defected to the Liberal Party – has a strong voter base in the city. Umali, however, is already on his third term as governor.

Incumbent Cabanatuan City Mayor Julius Cesar Jay Vergara, on the other hand, supports the conversion of Cabanatuan into an HUC. Vergara is a classmate and party mate of President Benigno Aquino III.

Plebiscite history

It was President Aquino who issued a proclamation in 2012 declaring Cabanatuan as an HUC, to be ratified through a plebiscite.

This plebiscite ordered by Aquino has been twice halted – first through a postponement by the Comelec and second through the TRO by the SC.

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) suspended the scheduled plebiscite in the city in December 2012, so as not to burden the poll body during its preparation for the midterm polls of 2013.

In ordering the plebiscite’s postponement, Comelec said it took “cognizance of the violence that has ensued during the plebiscite period.”

In 1998, a plebiscite on upgrading Cabanatuan’s status as a city was also held. President Fidel Ramos issued a proclamation to make Cabanatuan an HUC, but the voters rejected it.

The move to convert cities into an HUC is sanctioned by the LGC, which states that a city can be accorded HUC status if its population, as certified by the National Statistics Office, reaches at least 200,000, and its income is at least P50 million at 1991 constant prices.

City officials say that Cabanatuan City has a population of 259,267 as of 2007 and has an annual regular income of P235 million at 1991 constant prices.

Key province

The gubernatorial post in Nueva Ecija is a highly contested one. (READ: Pol rivalry in Comelec-controlled Nueva Ecija)

With over 1.3 million voters, Nueva Ecija is a major player especially in the delivery of votes for national candidates.

Nueva Ecija is one of 4 provinces tagged as an election hot spot for 4 consecutive elections now.

In 2009, the province received P1.2 million in Internal Revenue Allotment, the 10th highest in the country. –

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