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Opinion

‘Full, true, itemized’

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

The Omnibus Election Code or Batas Pambansa 881 devotes 19 lengthy sections under Article XI to electoral contributions and expenditures.

Among other things, the detailed provisions require every candidate and party-list group to file a statement of contributions and expenditures within a prescribed period. No winning candidate can assume the elective post unless the SOCE has been filed.

For this year’s elections, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has said the June 8 deadline for filing SOCEs will not be extended.

The original requirement is for every candidate and treasurer of a political party to file a “full, true and itemized” SOCE not later than seven days before the polls, and a supplemental SOCE within 30 days from election day.

Considering the detailed requirements, I don’t know if anyone has ever submitted a “full, true and itemized” SOCE since the law was passed.

The section on “lawful expenditures” is also crying out for an update. It allows campaign expenditures for, among others, “telegraph and telephone tolls, postage, freight and express delivery charges.”

Your grandkids will probably ask, what’s a telegraph? The law passed in the analog age in 1985 obviously does not specify expenditures for social media campaigning including payments for influencers and troll armies, and buying votes through GCash, which allows Comelec-imposed ceilings on expenditures per voter to be bypassed.

As for prohibited contributions, the law expressly bars certain persons, groups or businesses, such as those operating public utilities and financial institutions, from donating to candidates or political parties.

Considering the wide range of businesses operated by politicians and their clans nationwide, however, with many having contracts with the government, if this provision would be enforced to the letter, so many violations could be established and a slew of candidates could face penalties including perpetual disqualification from holding public office.

But we all know there’s the rub: has anyone ever been penalized for breaking the SOCE laws?

*      *      *

Comelec officials have admitted that enforcement of the law has enormous room for improvement. But they say it’s not all sound and fury signifying nothing.

In this year’s polls, Comelec officials say over 500 candidates face perpetual disqualification after failing to file their SOCEs for two consecutive elections. Fines also await violators.

Establishing two consecutive failures to file the SOCE is the easy part. Obviously, the challenge is determining if the SOCE provides a “full, true and itemized” description of the campaign contributions and expenditures plus the sources.

Donors themselves typically don’t want a “full, true and itemized” description of their contribution to any campaign. This is true especially for families or organizations that hedge their bets by contributing to the campaign kitties of rival candidates, although the larger amount goes to the perceived frontrunner.

Even when a candidate wins, the major campaign donors, while openly celebrating the victory of their bet, typically prefer to keep details of their contributions as vague as possible. Receipts are not issued for such contributions.

These days, digital financial transactions and layering of ownership in many business enterprises have made it fairly easy to sidestep requirements on the detailed disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures.

*      *      *

Apart from the amounts and sources of funding, candidates must also disclose any excess in campaign funds, and if suppliers of materials used in the campaign paid the proper taxes.

During the just concluded campaign, presidential candidate Isko Moreno drew flak after admitting that he kept P50.8 million in leftover campaign donations when he ran for the Senate in 2016.

Moreno explained that he declared the excess and kept the money because there are no clear rules on what to do with excess funds. All donations also went to a pooled war chest so he wasn’t sure who among the donors should get back their contribution.

The typical campaign donor in this country sees the contribution as an investment. A return on that investment rather than a return of any leftover cash is expected in case the candidate wins. Even in case of defeat, there’s a chance that the candidate might make a comeback – as Moreno did, in his 2019 bid for mayor of Manila.

Moreno’s case is rare only in his official declaration of the unspent cash, and what he did with it.

The amount involved gives us an idea of how expensive an election campaign can be in this country. That was back in 2016, long before the pandemic, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine that has led to a dizzying fuel price surge and a global supply chain crunch, which have made the prices of my favorite fast-food items surge by an average of 10 percent in recent days.

This year’s campaign has been even more expensive, as social media expenditures added to the costs of advertising on traditional media particularly TV.

Maintaining troll armies, influencers and pop-up ads on popular social media platforms, even before the formal start of a campaign, is not for those with limited resources. Instead of leveling the election playing field, socmed has made it even more lopsided in favor of wealthy candidates.

*      *      *

Some Comelec officials have been pushing for campaign finance reforms. While the proposals may seem as doomed as efforts to at least put some curbs on dynasty building, proponents of the reforms might appeal to the enlightened self-interest of lawmakers: drastically cutting the cost of election campaigns can be good for them, not only in terms of their finances but also by making them less beholden to special interests.

In our society that puts a premium on returning favors, repaying political debts often leads to corruption. There must be politicians out there who want to reduce this kind of indebtedness incurred during election campaigns.

They can review their SOCEs to remind themselves how much it has cost them to win a post with long hours, challenging tasks and modest pay.

Often, the expenditures cannot ever be recovered within the entire term of office, even with all the legitimate allowances and perks on top of the basic pay.

And often, with the enormous amounts required for running a campaign, a return on investment is possible only through kickbacks, sweetheart deals with government for winning candidates’ family businesses, and generous “gifts” that are prohibited under Republic Act 6713, the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees.

Such lucrative ROI must be why there is strong political resistance to campaign finance reforms.

OMNIBUS ELECTION CODE

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