MANILA, Philippines – Maguindanaoans have spoken: their home province needs to be divided.
A total of 706,558 voters – or 99.27% of plebiscite participants – cast their ballots in favor of the Southern Philippine province’s split into Maguindanao del Norte and Maguindanao del Sur. The turnout was 86%, the second highest in the history of Philippine province-wide plebiscites.
But what’s next? Will Maguindanaoans immediately feel the effect of the plebiscite’s result?
The shift to two smaller provinces will not happen overnight, based on the transitory provisions of Republic Act No. 11550, which is the law that Maguindanaoans ratified in the September 17 plebiscite.
The first thing that the two Maguindanao provinces need to do is establish their corporate existence. This will be achieved once the provincial governors, vice governors, and majority of board members have been identified, and assumed office.
Under the law, incumbent Maguindanao Vice Governor Ainee Sinsuat will become Maguindanao del Norte’s first governor, and lead its 12 municipalities. Governor Bai Mariam Sangki-Mangudadatu, meanwhile, will lead Maguindanao del Sur, overseeing 24 towns under her jurisdiction.
Incumbent elected provincial board members of Maguindanao’s first district are entitled to keep their posts and finish their term of office in the new Maguindanao del Norte. If there are vacancies, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is expected to appoint qualified residents of the new province.
Aside from elective posts, the two smaller provinces are also expected to fill within 60 days all provincial appointive positions.
These positions are already filled in the current Maguindanao province, but some of the incumbent appointees might be assigned to either of the new smaller provinces depending on where they live, resulting in vacant posts.
Division of assets, properties
Properties situated in the present Maguindanao shall belong to the province where these infrastructures are located.
As per obligations, debts and assets, these shall be “shared or paid equally by the provinces of Maguindanao del Norte and Maguindanao del Sur,” according to R.A. 11550.
“The debts that Maguindanao del Norte and Maguindanao del Sur have been identified. Technically, we are already prepared from our fixed assets to our human resources,” Maguindanao provincial administrator Cyrus Torreña said in a Rappler Talk interview on September 13.
“Employees who will be assigned to Maguindanao del Norte and Maguindanao del Sur have also been identified,” he added.
Former Department of Interior and Local Government undersecretary Austere Panadero told Rappler that hiring manpower will be among the “birth pains” of the new provincial capitols.
“If you have the money, the next step is to hire people and staffing. That takes a little time. You will create plantilla positions. It’s not necessarily difficult, but laborious,” said Panadero, who was in charge of local governments when the DILG retained jurisdiction over Davao Occidental after its creation in 2013.
In a separate press conference on plebiscite day on September 17, Governor Mangudadatu said a complete division the province is unlikely to be finished within the year.
“It will depend on the output and speed of board members in doing their job,” Mangudadatu explained. “But it will not be [fully] divided this 2022 because the 2022 elections are over, and the budgeting in 2021 intended for 2022 was already completed.”
“It will also depend on when the Department of Budget and Management will divide the internal revenue allotment for the two provinces,” Mangudadatu added.
Public finance expert Zy-za Suzara told Rappler that financing won’t be much of a problem. For one, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), of which Maguindanao is a part of, receives a block grant from the national government. That would be around P9.594 billion for 2023.
“With respect to allocations for basic services, the block grant of the BARMM can be used for that. BARMM has its own parliament which passes its own appropriations act for these things. The funds are already specifically allocated for the entire BARMM region regardless of the political subdivision,” said Suzara, who serves as executive director of think tank Institute for Leadership, Empowerment, and Democracy (iLead).
“Additionally, local government units in BARMM receive a national tax allotment from the national government. So if we’re talking about the NTA, then the national government will just recompute based on the law,” she added.
No political family opposed the division of Maguindanao, which is why the overwhelming number of “yes” votes in the plebiscite was also unsurprising.
Maguindanao’s split means one province will be ruled by a member of the Sinsuat family, and another by a member of the Mangudadatus.
For University of the Philippines political science professor Maria Ela Atienza, the challenge is to counter the proliferation of political dynasties that will benefit from Maguindanao’s split.
“Can we create civil society organizations or alternative political parties that can contest political power or challenge these political dynasties?” she asked. “If the creation of two separate provinces will result in the monopoly of the specific political families in each area, it is contrary to what is written in the Constitution, that our elections should be free, competitive, and fair.”
But provincial administrator Torreña believes the split does not necessarily mean that few political families will get to consolidate all the power.
“You won’t be able to survive three consecutive elections by yourself. You need to make alliances with every municipality,” he said. “You need to deliver what is expected from you, or else, you will be replaced by another leader in the next elections because you won’t get support from your alliance.”
Better access to basic services
For many Maguindanaoans who voted in favor of the split, they hope that the new era of the Southern Philippine province would mean improved quality of life.
Local officials and political experts have said that two smaller provinces could pave the way for improved access to basic services, such as health care, education, and transportation.
“You expect more resources that can be deployed to support [municipalities], instead of competing with the entire province,” Panadero said.
Years later, Maguindanao is still living in the shadows of a 2009 massacre that killed 58 lives, including dozens of journalists. Reports of violence in following years have also marred the province’s image.
While local officials are hopeful that the new Maguindanao del Norte and Maguindanao del Sur will usher in economic developments, thwarting violence in the region should remain a top priority.
“Peace and order definitely affects the economic stability, and viability of economic development of the new provinces that will be created,” Atienza said. “Investors will not come if the peace and order situation will not be improved.” – Rappler.com
(Quotes in Filipino were translated into English, and some were shortened for brevity.)