MANILA -- The May 2016 presidential elections is still about a year away but in Palawan's capital city of Puerto Princesa, the showdown between the ruling Liberal Party (LP) and opposition United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) begins tomorrow.
It's the eve of the May 8, 2015 recall elections for the office of city mayor, with 22 candidates vying for the post of recalled Puerto Princesa Mayor Lucilo Bayron.
However, observers said the recall elections will be a showdown between LP and Vice President Jejomar Binay's UNA.
Bayron, the subject of the recall elections, is UNA's candidate. Bayron's main challenger is former city mayor Edward Hagedorn of the ruling LP.
It's the second time Hagedorn is running in a recall election. He also won a recall election against then-Mayor Dennis Socrates.
Political strategist Malou Tiquia noted that Hagedorn is the only mayor who has successfully replaced an incumbent through recall polls.
"Recall is a right accorded by law. The Local Government Code does not allow the holding of recall elections within one year preceding a regular local election so that means it should be scheduled prior to May 9, 2015,'' Tiquia said.
''Hagedorn is the only mayor who has successfully recalled an incumbent. The first recall in the country took place in 2002 which resulted in ouster of Mayor Dennis Socrates."
For Tiquia, tomorrow's showdown in Puerto Princesa is a proxy war between LP and UNA.
''Attention should be focused on Bayron and Hagedorn despite the fact that 44 filed their certificate of candidacy for the manual election set on May 8."
Tiquia also explained what makes a recall this close to the general election viable.
"Puerto Princesa has a total number of registered voters of 127,000. A recall election is essentially getting one's base to the polls. It needs mobilization and logistics strategy. The incumbent tends to have an advantage but if the campaign becomes emotional regarding issues raised against an incumbent, the turnout could go up,'' she said.
''Since the campaign is only limited to 10 days, the messaging has to be targeted and the organizational dynamics already in an advanced stage. Though Puerto Princesa is small, it is the bellwether of the province. With Malacanang declaring May 8 as a non-working holiday, there is no reason for a low turnout. But the atmosphere of a heated campaign could turn off voters," Tiquia said.
Political analyst and University of Santo Tomas professor Edmund Tayao, meanwhile, said tomorrow's recall elections will have implications on the 2016 polls.
"The only advantage I can see for 2016 is Hagedorn's. National leaders would be courting his support to secure the city's vote. Whoever Hagedorn supports, it'll only show who gave the most to him. Of course, if you're running for a national position, winning Puerto Princesa would be a plus. But it is not as considerable as vote centers like Metro Manila, Pangasinan, Bulacan and Cebu,'' he said.
Lawyer Ona Caritos of election watchdog Lente has been monitoring events on the ground in the city. He said even though only a year is left before the city undergoes another election, tomorrow's event will still be significant.
"Malaki ang at stake kahit isang taon na lang. It's a year leading to the next election. Sino nakaupo will have big advantage,'' Caritos said.
''Hopeful naman...kami marami na nilagay na contingency. Yes, it is an opening salvo (between LP and UNA). Ang usap-usapan nga kapag sino nanalo dito, iyun ang mananalo sa eleksyon next year."
ALL SYSTEMS GO
On the election management side, Lente observed that it's all systems go.
''All systems go na eh, BEIs (boards of election inspectors) have been trained. May mga substitute na PNP erpsonnel trainees if ever may teachers na hindi dumating. At may mga monitors na: ang PPCRV [Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting] at Lente. We've trained watchers to monitor."
Still, the atmosphere is tense, he said.
"Iyung over-all atmosphere is more of confusion for the past 3 weeks. Lagi may kulang sa GI (general instructions). Laging may fear na madadaya sa system. May over-all fear of confusion leading to the recall."
On the eve of the recall election, candidates are already barred from campaigning. But before this, the candidates mounted a rather traditional campaign.
Caritos said, "It's Bayron vs Hagedorn. It's green vs red – traditional campaign. Sa radyo nag-blare sila ng jingle nila. Ang posters traditional. Maximized ang use ng local media. May mga candidates na sila rin ang may ari ng local media."
This early, Lente is already looking into reports of possible fraud.
"Pinakamatunog na violation na puro report pa lang is vote-buying. Lahat ng reports, wala pang nahuhuli. Wala pa caught in the act. Vote-buying is an election offense punishable 1-6 years imprisonment. It's a concern tomorrow."
Palawan provincial election office information officer Jomel Ordas, meanwhile, assured the public that city officials are prepared for tomorrow.
''Handang handa na ang preparasyon ng Comelec para sa gagawing recall elections. Mayroon tayong 127,162 registered voters. Ang clustered precincts na pagbobotohan ay 380,'' he said.
Voting starts at 7 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m. Counting proceeds afterwards.
The local Comelec will be joined by Comelec commissioners Christian Robert Lim and Arthur Lim.
The recall petition against Bayron was initiated by Al Roben Goh, citing loss of confidence. Under the Local Government Code, for the city's population, 15% of the registered voters must sign the recall petition to make it valid.
After verification, the recall petition was proven to have the backing of some 22,000 registered voters, which is more than the 19,000 required by law.