Anything goes
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - January 21, 2019 - 12:00am

If you think it’s currently a case of anything goes in the campaign for the midterm elections in May, you’re absolutely right.

Commission on Elections spokesman James Jimenez, who faced The Chiefs last week on One News / Cignal TV, told us that the only time the Comelec can step in is when the official campaign period starts. This is on Feb. 12 for candidates for the Senate and the House of Representatives including party-list groups, and March 29 for those seeking local government posts.

This is thanks to the Supreme Court, which ruled on Nov. 25, 2009 that until the official campaign period starts, there are still no candidates – even if they have already filed their certificates of candidacy. Unfortunately for our country, SC justices can get away with such acrobatics in logic, without fear of removal from office.

The SC invoked Republic Act 8436, enacted on Dec. 22, 1997, which provided for automated elections. Section 11 of the law declared that even after a person has filed a certificate of candidacy, he or she becomes a candidate only when the campaign period opens.

This superseded Section 80 of the Omnibus Election Code, under which candidates found campaigning before the official campaign period could be disqualified and even sent to prison. The Comelec had invoked this in disqualifying a mayoral candidate in Sta. Monica, Surigao del Norte. But the SC overturned the Comelec order, citing RA 8436.

So today the Comelec is powerless to stop the proliferation of thinly disguised campaign materials and campaign activities by declared candidates – until Feb. 12, when the public can finally have some respite from many of those ugly faces. Really, the best-looking folks will become ugly in your memory if they saturate you with unwanted, unabashed self-promotion.

Campaigning is banned on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, April 18 and 19. This early, the Comelec should issue guidelines on whether publicity-seeking candidates can engage in self-flagellation or have themselves nailed to the cross on those two days.

Starting on Feb. 12, campaign materials will be confined to common poster areas. For those who try to go around the rules, there’s social media to alert voters and the Comelec about the kapalmuks. Being shameless or, as we like to translate the word, thick-faced, they probably would be clueless about their offense. It would then be up to the Comelec to read them the riot act – but would the poll body be up to it?

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James Jimenez says yes. Realistically, of course, the Comelec can’t monitor everything and penalize all offenders. But citizen vigilance can help, and social media can mobilize public outrage.

The Comelec has too much on its plate. Jimenez told us that the poll body isn’t even monitoring campaign fund raising. There are no such election rules, and lawmakers have consistently resisted any attempt to regulate the money trail in their campaigns.

If President Duterte is serious in his battle against drug trafficking and corruption, campaign fund raising is a good way to hit certain offenders where it hurts, preventing them from laundering their dirty money or buying influence through the political process. With his still considerable approval ratings, Duterte can lean on his congressional allies to pass the needed legislation. So far, however, he has been silent on the need to regulate campaign finance.

The Supreme Court ruling on early campaigning also emasculated the Comelec in monitoring campaign fund raising. Until the start of the campaign period, the sky’s the limit for raising funds and spending for campaign materials. Any expenses incurred before the campaign period will not be included in the Comelec’s computation for campaign spending limits.

Social media helped level the playing field in 2016 for certain candidates with limited means. But now the privileged candidates have caught on and are also flooding social media with their campaign spiels. They can hire more trolls for character assassination of their rivals. Social media is a double-edged sword, giving lesser-known candidates a greater chance at name recall, but also providing a potent tool for black propaganda.

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What the Comelec can do, Jimenez told us, is to monitor campaign spending.

All candidates have until the end of the election period – June 12 this year – to submit to the Comelec their Statements of Contributions and Expenditures, as provided for under RA 7166 or the Synchronized Election Law of 1991. The question is whether the Comelec is capable of verifying the declarations made in the SOCE.

Jimenez reassured The Chiefs that the Comelec does have some capability to carry out this task – by monitoring ad placements on TV, radio and newspapers, for example, and even paid appearances disguised as guesting on certain TV shows. Coordination with the Bureau of Internal Revenue and even the Anti-Money Laundering Council is also possible.

Penalties for violating the SOCE requirement, however, are so laughable that even presidential candidates have ignored the rules. This is merely an administrative offense, whose fine is P1,000 to P30,000. For a second violation, the administrative fine is P2,000 to P60,000.

A second violation, however, can also include permanent disqualification from public office. So compliance may be enforced.

The SOCE won’t include spending by certain candidates on ads that are now flooding the airwaves, or on billboards and streamers greeting us a merry Christmas, happy New Year and happy Chinese New Year, or even endorsing consumer products.

Some senators who aren’t up for reelection are pushing for legislation in the next Congress that will effectively restore the law against premature campaigning, which the SC overturned.

All candidates should in fact find merit in any effort to regulate campaign spending and strictly enforce a period for campaigning.

If properly implemented, such rules can drastically cut election expenditures. Winners will then have fewer political debts to repay. They can then give priority to repaying those to whom they truly owe their position: the voters. And the best repayment to the people is efficient public service.

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