No ningas cogon
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - May 24, 2019 - 12:00am

There’s a positive development in the just concluded elections that people are hoping would be pursued to its legal conclusion and would not be ningas cogon or a mere flash in the pan.

This is the arrest of hundreds of people for buying and selling votes. The number is just a drop in the bucket and some of the biggest buyers have been proclaimed as winners in the elections. No doubt they are preparing to reap immensely handsome returns on investment.

Still, if even a fraction of those hundreds could face trial and be convicted and sent to prison, it could make people believe that buying and selling votes are truly criminal acts for which violators could suffer the penalties.

Philippine National Police spokesman Bernard Banac told “The Chiefs” yesterday on Cignal TV’s One News that PNP chief Oscar Albayalde had given cops instructions to watch out for vote buyers.

Apparently, people thought it would be business as usual in the midterm elections and no one would go after them for what is a criminal offense in this country. The alleged vote buying in Bacoor, Cavite, involving supporters of gubernatorial bet Jonvic Remulla, was done right in the presence of uniformed cops, Banac told us, so the suspects were arrested.

Remulla said the P200 in cash given to each supporter, contained in brown envelopes and totaling P75,800, was “transportation allowance” for a training session. Banac acknowledges that in court, it will be the word of the cops against the defendants and Remulla.

Still, the publicity that accompanied the arrest created a groundswell of reporting about more alleged cases of vote buying, Banac said. The PNP responded to the complaints, recording arrests in 225 vote buying cases nationwide.

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It would be better, of course, if candidates who bought votes could be included in the charge sheet and convicted, which could lead to their permanent disqualification from public office.

So far, however, officials of both the PNP and its mother agency, the Department of the Interior and Local Government, say they have found no evidence to directly link any candidate to vote buying.

What they have, according to Interior Undersecretary Epimaco Densing III, are photos, witness testimonies, and video footage from closed-circuit television cameras and smartphones showing money being handed over.

*      *      *

As we saw in Bacoor, however, we know that it’s one thing to record cash handovers and arrest those involved, and another to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt to warrant imprisonment and disqualification from public office.

Talking with Densing on The Chiefs, and considering the vulnerability of judges to political pressure, I was glad about the arrests, but skeptical about the success of prosecuting the offenders.

As in criminal payoffs, no receipts are issued for votes bought and sold; no signatures or thumbprints are affixed. Following the paper trail is a challenge. I was told that in one Metro Manila city, many ATMs crashed on election day – an indication of heavy withdrawals.

The withdrawals, however, must be linked to the buying and selling of votes. Otherwise, they won’t even qualify as circumstantial evidence.

A new mode of payment, through multilevel marketing, is even more difficult and perhaps impossible to trace.

Candidates also have layers of deniability in case supporters are caught buying or selling votes. How do you link a handover of money to the recipient’s actual vote?

But the grassroots leaders of every candidate are usually known in a community. So it shouldn’t be impossible to pin down a candidate for buying votes. Former Comelec commissioner Gregorio Larrazabal, a lawyer, told us on The Chiefs that it can be done. He wouldn’t go into specifics, but I’m guessing that if there is a video of someone handing out money to vote sellers while pitching for a particular candidate, the case will have a chance.

Putting even one candidate behind bars for buying votes could be enough to make people think twice about committing the offense.

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Aside from arresting and prosecuting vote buyers, lawmakers can deal with another aspect of this problem: campaign spending limits set by law have become unrealistic.

President Duterte has pointed out that there are unavoidable expenses in a campaign that for practical considerations cannot be outlawed, such as food and transportation for supporters. But spending limits set by law leave no room for adjusting to inflation.

The country has long needed a comprehensive law on campaign finance. Candidates, however, can earn a fortune from the opaqueness of campaign financing. Such a law has as much chance of hurdling Congress as anti-dynasty legislation.

Still, those rounded up in the PNP crackdown will now have a record of arrest for a crime. Even if they are eventually cleared, the arrest will have to be declared in applying for a visa, for example, or a job especially overseas.

The hassle is a long way from imprisonment, but it’s a start in the effort to discourage vote buying.

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DYNASTY FOLLY: Talking to the 41-year-old guy who broke the 50-year grip of Joseph Estrada’s clan in his real bailiwick of San Juan (not Manila), you get a good idea of what made it possible.

Mayor-elect Francis Zamora told The Chiefs this week that after a détente brokered by patriarch Erap for the 2016 elections, the sibling rivalry between half-brothers JV Ejercito and Jinggoy Estrada apparently worsened in this year’s race.

With Jinggoy refusing to withdraw from the Senate race, and his Estrada surname seen to be eating into voter preference for JV in the pre-election surveys, JV and his mom, outgoing Mayor Guia, aligned themselves with PDP-Laban and its candidate for mayor, Zamora. 

The Zamora sample ballot carried JV but not Jinggoy. Also, Zamora said his opponent Janella, seen as a proxy for her father Jinggoy in the mayoralty race, did not campaign as energetically as he did.

There’s also the possibility, Zamora said, that Estrada fatigue had genuinely set in, that the people of San Juan felt their ruling clan was preoccupied with too many other things (and another city) and was neglecting their home turf.

In the final count, JV ranked third in San Juan and Jinggoy 13th. Zamora beat Janella by a convincing margin of over 10,000 votes.

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