NEW YEAR, NEW RULES. So get rid of all those old bad election habits.
It’s a warning issued by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to all politicians, political parties, and local and national candidates running in this year’s midterm elections as it prepares to fully implement and enforce the rules on campaign finance.
In all the decades that Filipinos have been trooping to the polls, this will be the first time that the Comelec will be turning a serious eye on the issue of campaign finance. In all previous elections, the issue of campaign finance, or the dynamics between campaign expenditures and the results of the elections, has only been given token observance.
These issues include the use of state resources for campaigning, the identity and amount of campaign donations, the restrictions and the limits for campaign expenditures, and the quality of the reportage of these donations and expenditures to the Comelec. The Comelec has so far been unable to enforce the laws on campaign finance because it has been so busy with the administrative burden of ensuring peaceful and honest elections.
But with the recent creation of an ad hoc campaign finance unit within the Comelec, the poll body says it will start giving more attention to campaign finance beginning with this year’s elections.
In fact, Comelec commissioner Christian Robert Lim said the campaign finance unit intends the 2013 elections to be a pilot run of sorts for the 2016 Presidential elections, when the contributions and expenses are expected to be much greater.
“We are looking at 2013 as the institutional step going to 2016 and future elections, to start plugging loopholes,” Lim said during a campaign finance seminar-workshop sponsored by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).
The workshop, which brought together several stakeholders including political parties, the Comelec, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, civil society organizations, and the media, was aimed at getting the stakeholders together to discuss all the issues related to campaign finance that had previously been either of no interest to all but the apparently most obsessive.
This interaction is necessary if all the stakeholders are to have a greater understanding of both their rights and obligations any elections, said PCIJ Executive Director Malou Mangahas.
Lim said the campaign finance unit is hardly fully equipped to do a thorough audit, with only 12 full time lawyers who are also tasked with other jobs in the Comelec. As such, Lim said the unit is looking at a graduated enforcement of the campaign finance rules, so that the Comelec would be better prepared once 2016 comes around.
“We still have a lot of changes to make, but it is a first step in changing how politicians and candidates approach the elections, by not doing it in the traditional level anymore,” Lim said.
During the workshop, both the regulators and the regulated were invited to raise all the questions and concerns they have regarding campaign finance. For example, representatives from some of the attending political parties expressed concern that that some of the current campaign finance rules that have so far been unenforced were really impractical and impossible to implement fully.
At the same time, some television and radio executives said the Comelec did not have a full understanding of how the broadcast industry works. This understanding is necessary if the Comelec is to enforce either the airtime or the spending limits for political advertisements, which are often exceeded by candidates.
Interestingly, several broadcast executives took the initiative to set a conference with Comelec officials in order to brief the poll body on what really happens between the broadcast networks and the political candidates during the election period.
Lim welcomed the initiative, and said the seminar-workshop on campaign finance is an important signal that all stakeholders are now willing to confront an issue that for many years has been considered too complex to deal with.
At the same time, Bureau of Internal Revenue Commissioner Kim Henares announced that the BIR would also be seriously looking into campaign expenditures and donations as a means to check whether both campaign donors and candidates have been reporting their income taxes accurately.
This, after the PCIJ noted that some of the biggest donors in the previous elections never seem to crop up in the list of the country’s biggest taxpayers, even though they seem to have all the money and goodwill to spread around during election time.
Henares said the BIR will be carefully scrutinizing the campaign donations and expense reports to see if they tally with the BIR’s own list of taxpayers.
All candidates and political parties are required by law to submit a statement of contributions and expenditures (SECE) to the Comelec after the elections. While winners regularly submit their SECE for fear of disqualification, the Comelec has never had the opportunity to audit and validate the reports for accuracy.
Henares said the BIR will cross check the contribution reports with the bureau’s own list of income tax returns to see if the big contributors have been declaring income in proportion to their donations. Henares and her deputies gamely took part in the campaign finance workshop in order to answer questions related to taxes and the elections.
“We can compare the expenditures by candidates and the ITRs. We are looking at that as one of the areas of cooperation with the BIR,” Lim said. “If we can’t get you by election laws, maybe we can get you by tax laws, like Al Capone.”
Henares also reminded all businessmen that they need to pay taxes for income generated from election activities. Economic activity normally spikes during the election season, as candidates splurge on campaign materials and paraphernalia and spend millions for campaign advertising.
For example, Henares said that the average gross domestic product for 2010 would have just been “four or five percent.” However, the enormous spending during the 2010 presidential election pushed the GDP up to 7.6 percent.
“If the campaign finance reform or mechanism is put in place, it will make people more responsive in reporting whatever income they generate,” Henares said.
“We want to avoid the situation where the basis for a candidate’s winning his seat is because he is the most moneyed,” Lim said. “We want to equalize the situation for all Pinoys.”