BULUAN, MAGUINDANAO – Berta Umal Ali, a vendor along the national road in the town of Talayan, worries daily about where to get food for her 5 grandchildren she cares for by herself.
While her stall seems fully stocked with bananas, coconuts, firewood, and charcoal, the 68-year-old said all these were paid by debt—one she finds difficult to pay.
The pandemic made it worse for their family since few, if any, people passed by the road.
“Sometimes I just feed the bananas to the children when we earn nothing,” Ali told ABS-CBN News in Tagalog.
“Other times, I walk far to sell the fruit so we could buy some rice.”
Despite being a senior citizen, she receives no regular benefits from the government, except for occasional aid from the local government unit (LGU).
Now, Ali said she holds out hope that a political move to redefine the territory of Maguindanao would bring some progress her way.
At least, that’s what she has been hearing from her community’s leaders, who said basic services would be made more accessible with less provincial territory.
“If it will benefit us, that’s what we will support,” Ali said.
“It would be good if government would be nearer to us so that our needs are met.”
Ali and over 800,000 residents of Maguindanao province go to the polls on Saturday to decide if splitting the province – already done over a decade and a half ago – is the best move for their future.
With most local officials supporting the split, residents are expected to ratify Republic Act 11550, the law passed in 2021 dividing the populous province into Maguindanao Del Norte and Maguindanao Del Sur.
The result of the plebiscite is anticipated to be out by Sunday, with police and poll officials positive there would be no major acts of violence in the polls.
Proponents of the split said creating new provincial centers closer will be able to extend aid and projects to those who need it—indigenous peoples (IPs) among them.
“The LGU will be able to focus on our countrymen in the inner parts of the region,” said Alimama Nhor, secretary to Talayan Mayor Datu Tungkang Midtimbang.
“Our IPs could be able to access towns with better roads.”
Gayak Utto, a former village chief in neighboring Guindulungan town, added the vote only formalizes the law already pushed months before.
“It would be easier to solve problems because governors have smaller territories to worry about,” he said in Tagalog.
QUALITY OF LIFE
If the plebiscite succeeds in creating the 2 new provinces, both will face the challenge of lifting the quality of life for their residents.
Maguindanao Del Norte, which will have 12 towns, will carry with it the 3 biggest municipalities in Maguindanao: Datu Odin Sinsuat (the prospective capital), Parang, and Sultan Kudarat.
Maguindanao Del Sur, meanwhile, will have more towns (24), but with it, a bigger average poverty incidence at 65.73%, based on Philippine Statistics Authority data.
The areas in Maguindanao Del Norte have a lower average poverty incidence of 65.73%.
But Samira Gutoc of advocacy rights group Ako Bakwit believes adding more government officials and representatives would ensure equal development for both new provinces.
“Congressional representation is needed, therefore a strong representation from Maguindanao. There will be many tribes that will finally have their voices heard in Congress,” she told TeleRadyo on Friday.
She also believes the possible entrenchment of political dynasties in the province could be curtailed.
Precedent for this plebiscite comes from the 2006 vote ratifying the creation of Shariff Kabunsuan from 8 municipalities in the northern part of Maguindanao.
A majority of 285,372 affirmative votes or 97% won the vote.
But Shariff Kabunsuan was short-lived for 2 years after the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the power of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao to create new territories.
Commission on Elections chair Commissioner George Garcia said they expect 60% of the registered voters to troop to the polls.
Whatever the turnout, the majority vote will be followed, he said.