By Karol Anne M. Ilagan and Rowena F. Caronan
DESPITE MANY ATTEMPTS to minimize the impact and influence of money in Philippine elections, the playing field is still not level, complained the nominee of one of the party-list groups vying for a seat in Congress.
On the second day of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism’s training-seminar for journalists and bloggers at the Bayview Park Hotel in Manila, aspiring candidates and their representatives weighed in on campaign finance issues using their experiences in previous elections.
Prof. Leonor Briones, first nominee of Kaakbay Party-List, said that those who deserve a seat in public office do not have a chance to win unless they have money to sustain a long-term campaign. “A marginalized party would definitely not have the resources to run a two-year campaign,” she said, noting that campaigning usually start even before the official campaign period or a few months before election day.
This observation brought her to several suggestions that she hopes would help balance the electoral exercise or give aspiring candidates a fair chance to win. Briones was also one of Kaakbay’s nominees in the 2010 elections.
Briones suggested that media agencies should perhaps give free airtime to marginalized parties or candidates. “No honest candidate would be able to afford … to buy airtime that costs at least P30,000 an hour on radio or TV ads that run up to six to seven figures,” she said.
Briones, who is also the lead convenor of Social Watch Philippines, observed that she would usually get calls from reporters early in the morning asking her about economic issues. But during the 2010 elections, she said that she was completely shut off. She added that an ambush interview then needed to be paid for if you were a candidate.
According to Briones, winning or losing in the elections in the case of the Philippines has nothing to with the quality of a candidate’s platforms, which is why she considers exposure to be very important especially for marginalized groups.
Aside from looking at the spending of candidates, Briones also said that there’s a need to look at the various communications firms and media agencies that earn much more during the election period. “Who sets the price (of advertisements)? You regulate the parties, but do you regulate the communications companies?” she asked.
Meanwhile, for Oriental Mindoro Governor Alfonso Umali Jr., the current spending cap on election expenditure is no longer realistic. By law, candidates for president and vice president are allowed to spend only a maximum of P10 per registered voter while political parties are allowed to spend P5 per registered voter. Local candidates, meanwhile, are allowed to spend P3 per registered voter.
In previous elections, Umali said that the spending report he submitted to Comelec did not reflect the true details of his elections expenses because his campaign could simply not work within the spending limits set in law.
Atty. Ryan Quilala, chief legal officer of Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, also agreed that the spending caps do not correspond to the reality of campaigning anymore. But he said that these limits should still be followed; candidates must not overspend. But he suggested that limits on the allowed airtime or space for political advertisements should be removed.
Umali, who is now the treasurer of the Liberal Party, said that reforms on campaign finance needs to be implemented but it might be more helpful if the Comelec could just set targets and try to work on what’s doable at a given time.
Kristina Uy Gadaingan, project officer of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms (IPER), said that the Comelec would have to find ways to monitor, among others, the more creative ways by which candidates and political parties try to get around existing campaign finance laws in order to get an advantage in the elections. For example, Gadiangan cited the use of new propaganda materials such as colored ribbons and bus advertisements that highlighted the 2010 national and local elections.
Aside from using traditional campaign materials such as posters and streamers, Gadaingan said that candidates in 2010 distributed colored ribbons and paraphernalia to identify themselves. For instance, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III (Liberal Party) was associated with the color yellow, Joseph Ejercito Estrada (Partido ng Masang Pilipino) with violet, Gilbert ‘Gibo’ Teodoro (Lakas-Kampi-CMD) with green, and Manny B. Villar (Nacionalista Party) with orange. In 2010, IPER monitored the use of campaign materials of these four candidates.
Gadaingan said that the use of mobile campaign or vehicle advertisements also became widespread in 2010. She estimated the cost of a bus advertisement at 5,000 to P15,000 each.
She also said that candidates declared minimal spending on propaganda materials that were used at rallies and sorties. Celebrities who joined these events, meanwhile, were supposedly unpaid.
While the Comelec requires candidates to submit a comprehensive report of their election contributions and expenditures 30 days after election day, former Comelec commissioner Gregorio Y. Larrazabal said that candidates and parties do not often prioritize this report.
Larrazabal admitted that monitoring of campaign finance continues to be a problem because Comelec is undermanned and has no adequate budget. In fact, he said it was the project of the Pera at Pulitika Consortium on the 2010 elections that brought the need for a campaign finance unit at the forefront.
But, as a matter of practice, Larrazabal said that Comelec officials defer asking for financial help from local chief officers to remain independent. “Comelec should not only be impartial; it must be perceived as impartial,” he said.