By Malou Mangahas
THE ELECTION campaign period is on and in the nick of time, the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has spelled out in no uncertain terms the rules of the game on election spending and donations for all candidates, political parties, service contractors, election personnel, and voters.
Campaign finance has always been a muddled issue in these parts, the laws observed largely in the breach. Except for a few thousand pesos of fines that had been imposed on a handful, not a single candidate, party leader or voter had been jailed for the most gross and the most willful violations.
On Jan. 16, 2013, the Comelec en banc issued Resolution No. 9616, or the General Instructions for the Implementation of Campaign Finance Laws, as well as the relevant provisions of the Omnibus Election Code and The Fair Elections Act.
Tuesday’s resolution supplements Comelec Resolution No. 9467 issued last year, which created the Comelec’s Ad Hoc Campaign Finance Unit (CFU) now under the diligent stewardship of Commissioner Christian Robert S. Lim.
A 25-page edict (including template filing forms), it is clear and exact about the roles, duties, accountabilities, procedures, and penalties for violations as well as acts of omission, and covers the various phases of the election period from monitoring and reporting of expenses to the audit of election spending reports, after the vote.
Because it is precise to the extent of defining which parties are liable for which violations, the resolution is at core fair warning to all election actors that violations may be committed only as pure acts of ignorance or defiance of the law, or even, as sheer failure of logic or character or intention on the part of violators.
Comelec personnel from headquarters (Campaign Finance Unit) to the field have been designated as implementing agents throughout the election period, and unto the audit of election spending reports.
It lists down as well the duties of all parties authorized to receive and spend donations, issue and secure contracts for advertising and other services from the candidates and parties, and proscribes what expenses are allowed and disallowed in law.
It stresses, too, the prohibitions against use of state resources, funds, and facilities for partisan campaigns, and against civil servants and uniformed personnel, entities with government contracts, foreigners, and all public agencies from donating or serving with the candidates and political parties. The resolution spells out 16 various “unlawful acts, omissions and activities related to campaign finance and The Fair Elections Act.”
Just as important, the resolution reminds voters and citizen groups that they may not sell their votes, nor solicit cash, favors or promise of favors from the partisans.
The new resolution finally settles the tricky math matter of how many minutes of TV airtime and radio airtime candidates are allowed to procure for political advertising. Incongruent Comelec issuances and laxed enforcement of the laws had left this issue muddled for so long.
For the May 2013 elections and onward, the Comelec has also ruled that a candidate is entitled to an aggregate total of 120 minutes of TV airtime, and 180 minutes of radio airtime — across all national, regional and local broadcast media entities, on both free or cable platforms. The wealthy and wizened candidates had in the past insisted on placing viral political ads on TV and radio stations across the nation, and counting these as separate 120-minute or 180-minute airtime caps per station.
Comelec’s Resolution No. 9467, which created the Campaign Finance Unit, had earlier clarified that election propaganda, for the May 2013 elections and in all subsequent elections, will now include “newspaper, radio, television and other advertisements for purposes of promoting the candidacy, including website or Internet ad placements.
The web, until now, has remained outside the ambit of campaign finance laws even as a growing number of candidates have invaded social media networks and websites as a playground for their propaganda since four elections ago.
Any citizen may file suit against any candidates or parties for any violations of campaign finance laws. Additionally, the resolution mandates Comelec personnel to act motu propio on apparent and clear violations that they have witnessed.
The Comelec has deputized the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the Commission on Audit, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Anti-Money-Laundering Council, and law enforcement agencies, and opened a window for civil-society groups to be designated as partners and co-monitors, to track and run after violators.
Monitoring checklists and templates for reports have been annexed to the resolution to assist Comelec personnel in their “continuous monitoring” and enforcement of campaign finance rules.
So will all those concerned now play by the rules?
It’s a big maybe, and a truly most critical task that assigns the Comelec lead role, and all citizens common duty to help enforce. If we so abhor the pre-eminent influence of money in defining and deciding who wins or loses, no matter undeserving or crooked, in our elections, this is the time to help monitor, track, and report to the Comelec violations and violators.
The Comelec’s table of penalties for violations includes provisos that winning candidates who fail to file true, accurate, and complete election spending reports within deadlines, may not be allowed to take oath and serve in office. This, the Comelec said it will enforce, on strength of a memorandum of agreement that it signed with the Department of the Interior and Local Government under the late lamented Secretary Jesse Robredo.
The DILG supervises all local government units, and under its agreement with the Comelec, the poll body must first issue a certification of compliance with campaign finance laws, before a winning candidate can be allowed to take his/her oath of office.
Meanwhile, whether he/she wins or loses, a candidate who will not file reports for two consecutive elections he/she had participated in could face perpetual disbarment from running again for elective positions, the Comelec had ruled earlier.
Indeed, integrity and transparency in how they deal with, and how truthfully they will disclose, details of their campaign donations and expenses are perfect tests for all candidates and political parties. It’s also a preview of whether they will do well by taxpayers’ money, when or if they come to power after the balloting.
It is during elections, a veritable job-application process for those who aspire to lead the nation, when all citizens — their employers in truth — must rate most critically who will pass or fail campaign finance laws. This early thus, we’d all do well to keep our eyes fixed on the purses of these wannabe-leaders.