NOTICE ANYTHING? The official campaign season is now in full swing, but while election gimmicks are as annoying as ever, campaign ads in general are decidedly a little less glitzy this time around and campaign paraphernalia not as ubiquitous as before.
Once the dust settles, the candidates’ campaign spending for the May 13, 2013 elections may even be revealed to be a lot more prudent compared to previous years.
All these may be because the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has issued a number of resolutions aimed at curbing campaign spending and strengthening the poll body’s capacity to monitor and audit campaign finance.
Combined with the stern voice of Chairman Sixto S. Brillantes Jr. in media, the resolutions make for a seemingly resolute poll body that is committed to holding violators of campaign finance rules to account. Indeed, at the Palacio del Gobernador in Intramuros, the commission’s highest-ranking officials are upbeat about leveling the playing field in the upcoming polls.
On the ground however, the state of affairs is less than peachy. Many of the commission’s field offices, for one, appear to be lacking in basic resources that are required to carry out the poll body’s mandate.
These field offices, which will be primarily responsible for enforcing the new resolutions on campaigning and campaign finance, are suffering from a serious dearth of personnel and funds. For another, Comelec field officers seem to be working in less than ideal conditions, hindering them from fully performing their duty as the country’s premier guardians of the ballot.
This is the dreary landscape revealed by a cursory survey of 39 Comelec provincial, city, and municipal field offices conducted by nine journalists working as PCIJ fellows in Luzon and the Visayas. The survey — done from December 2012 to March 2013 — was complemented with discussions between PCIJ and the election supervisors and officers in key Comelec field offices in Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao from August 2012 to January 2013.
The Comelec field officers interviewed for this story say that they lack not only the numbers, but also the capability to fully monitor campaign finance on the ground. In fact, some of them admit to having been pressured into poring over the full text of the Campaign Finance Rules (Comelec Resolution No. 9476) because of the anticipated encounter with journalists.
Comelec Resolution No. 9476, or the “Rules and Regulations Governing Campaign Finance and Disclosure in Connection With the 13 May 2013 National and Local Elections and Subsequent Elections Thereafter,” was issued by the Comelec En Banc on June 22 last year. The resolution mandates the creation of the Campaign Finance Unit, a dedicated body within Comelec that shall look into the contributions and spending of candidates and political parties, and enforce the laws on campaign finance. The General Instructions for implementing the resolution came out last January, with Comelec’s issuance of Resolution No. 9616.
Also in January, the Commission issued Resolution No. 9615 or the Implementing Rules and Regulations of the Fair Election Act. This resolution set the cap for TV ads at an aggregate of 120 minutes and 180 minutes aggregate for radio. For the first time, too, the resolution set the rules for campaign advertising online. Just last Tuesday however, the Supreme Court issued a status quo anteorder against Resolution No. 9615, which means that airtime limits for political ads will have to be computed on a per-station basis, just like in the 2010 national elections.
On paper, the intent of these resolutions to curb campaign spending and level the playing field in the elections is clear. But whether the poll body will be able to fully enforce these policies depends in large part on the ability of its foot soldiers — the commission’s field personnel who man the poll body’s offices in the regions, provinces, cities, and municipalities — to implement them.
Field personnel themselves say they understand that the rules are essential to having fair elections. Yet most of those interviewed for this story seem to be struggling with the idea of incorporating the additional tasks they now have to take on, considering that their current duties are already quite overwhelming.
One election officer from the Visayas commented that there is a misconception that Comelec field personnel “are working only when there are polls.” But, said the officer, “that is not true.” The officer added that the period between elections is usually spent just “to continually cleanse the list of voters aside from attending to other administrative tasks like the issuance of certifications for voters.”
A regional-level officer from Mindanao, meanwhile, explained that the election officers handle all activities that have to do with campaigning, such as taking down illegally placed posters.
Now the General Instructions of the new Rules on Campaign Finance will have Comelec field officers conduct price surveys in their respective areas, monitor political rallies and public meetings, issue notices to candidates to remove illegally placed campaign materials, send written reminders and receive reports related to campaign finance, check these reports for conformity, and accomplish monitoring forms and reports and submit them to the Campaign Finance Unit in Manila, among others.
In Region 7 where Cebu, the most vote-rich province, is located, each municipality has on average only two permanent Comelec personnel: an election officer and an election assistant. This is certainly the case in Aloguinsan in the 3rd District of the province of Cebu, where the lone election officer and his assistant will have to cater to the needs of the town’s 18,327 registered voters and 15 voting centers. Barili town in the same district, however, has it worse; its one election officer and one election assistant have to deal with the town’s 46,045 voters and oversee Barili’s 34 voting centers in the upcoming polls.
These two plantilla positions are the minimum required by the Omnibus Election Code (Batas Pambansa Blg. 881) for Comelec city and municipal field offices. But the law also provides that “the commission may appoint” additional personnel to carry out its tasks.
This provision has given rise to the practice of hiring casual and contractual employees in many Comelec field offices, especially in urban areas where voter populations are higher. Too, it seems to have become common practice in many field offices to take in local government unit (LGU) employees to supplement the staffing shortage.
In fact, in many Comelec city offices in Luzon visited by the PCIJ fellows, the number of casual and supplemental LGU staff outnumbers Comelec’s permanent staff. In Mabalacat City, Pampanga for instance, there is only one permanent Comelec staff to serve the city’s 91,978 registered voters. To augment the staffing shortage, the City Comelec had to hire two casual employees. The city government of Mabalacat also provided the City Comelec an additional 10 employees.
Comelec Region 7 Director Temie Lambino says hiring casual employees every election period is “impractical” because such casual employees are “not familiar with the dynamics of the Commission.” It’s an observation echoed by other ranking field officers; they told PCIJ that the staffing problem lies in the lack not only in staff members, but also in the capability of existing personnel to track campaign spending, check the veracity of reports submitted to them by candidates, and check compliance with spending caps.
Providing training to its field staff would appear to be the most logical way to address this problem. But for Lambino, “investing” in casual employees by way of training would be counterproductive because these temporary personnel would be on the job for only two to three months. Lambino says Comelec would do better to hire additional permanent staff who would then be able to “repay” the Commission many times over for the training opportunities they would receive by providing ever-improving services afterward.
Then again, hiring additional permanent personnel is a move that, by all indications, would bring for the poll body an entirely new set of problems. As it is, nearly all the field offices visited by the PCIJ fellows are grappling with work space-related problems. This situation is most acute in the poll body’s municipal offices. All but one of the 29 municipal Comelec offices visited by the PCIJ fellows occupy a space that could hardly contain all the materials, documents, and election paraphernalia of the office.
Too little space
Twenty-one of them occupy a 12-square-meter space or less, while the rest do not fare much better. The Comelec office in Northern Samar’s capital town of Catarman, for instance, must see to the needs of 45,234 registered voters — the largest number of registered voters among the municipalities surveyed. And yet, Comelec Catarman’s seven permanent and supplemental staff from the LGU share an office space of only 24 square meters. Meanwhile, the Comelec office in the town of Murcia, Negros Occidental, which has the second highest number of registered voters among those surveyed (43,786), does much of its work within 15 square meters.
The concern about limited office space is likewise shared by four of the six city Comelec offices surveyed, which have workspaces ranging from 30 square meters (Bacolod City and Batangas City) to 90 square meters (San Carlos City in Pangasinan and Angeles City in Pampanga).
It is the LGU at the provincial, city, and municipal level that is supposed to see to it that the Comelec field offices have adequate working areas. Section 55 of the Omnibus Election Code also states that if an LGU fails to provide a “suitable” office space for the Comelec field staff, the field officers “may lease another place for office.” The LGU, however, would have to be given prior notice as it would still be the one that will be responsible for paying the cover rental costs. The Comelec central office itself provides only limited funding support for its operations on the ground. In truth, aside from the salaries of its permanent, contractual, and casual employees (not counting the supplemental staff from the LGU), most Comelec field offices receive little else from the central office.
No funds for bills
In nearly all of the 39 field offices surveyed, it is also the LGU that foots the electricity bill. Some LGUs pay the water bill of the local Comelec as well. In some instances, the LGU is generous enough to provide supplemental funding for the supplies of the Comelec office. An example is Mabalacat City, where the city government provides the City Comelec office a monthly operational budget of P4,000.
In addition, the Mabalacat City government has set up an “election reserve fund,” which the City Comelec can tap upon presentation of a “program of work” that will justify the amount being requested. The election reserve fund is also where the salaries of the supplemental personnel from the LGU are sourced. For the May 13, 2013 elections, City Election Officer Francisco David says he plans to request P200,000 from the fund.
But Mabalacat City seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Besides providing the office space and paying for some of the utilities, the LGUs in other areas provide little else by way of budgetary support to the Comelec field office.
This situation has left some election officers with little choice but to make do with whatever resources they could lay their hands on. Such is the case in Legazpi City, where the Comelec field officer managed to salvage office furniture that had been discarded by other government offices as ‘unserviceable property.’ In Bacolod City, the Comelec city office still uses an obsolete dot-matrix printer donated by the LGU. In the Angeles City Comelec office, staffmembers have brought in their personal equipment just so they would be able to do their tasks. In many other areas — such as all the 21 municipal Comelec offices surveyed in Northern Samar — even Internet connectivity is absent.
The City Comelec officers interviewed by the PCIJ fellows say they receive a quarterly petty cash amounting to P3,000 to P6,000 from the Comelec central office. This petty cash, which amounts to a monthly budget of a mere P1,000 to P2,000, may be used only to purchase office supplies. It is also subject to liquidation. One election supervisor from the Visayas remarks that in areas where commercial activity is seldom receipted, that becomes a very tedious task that results to delays in the release of subsequent petty cash allocations.
Support from LGUs
During an election year, field officers say they also receive from the central office an additional “mobilization fund,” which ranges from P20,000 to P30,000. That sum, however, is supposed to last them for the entire six months of the election period. (For the May 2013 elections, that is from Jan. 13 to June 12, 2013.) Translated, the mobilization budget amounts to just P3,000 to P5,000 per month. In municipalities and cities occupying a large land area, or where the barangays and municipalities are separated by mountains or bodies of water (like in Davao City and Northern Samar province), such a “mobilization fund” would come to a standstill after just a very short while.
This predicament usually leaves election officers in a bind. More often than not, they say, they are left with only two options to get the job done: Ask for more money from the incumbent local chief executive or spend money out of their own pocket.
Each option has its pitfalls. Given the many tasks that have to be accomplished by a Comelec field office, personnel volunteering their own wallet to get things done may well end up in the poorhouse. But if an election officer asks for more money from the incumbent, the latter could demand “allegiance” from the Comelec officer in exchange. Between the two choices, some election officers say that they would rather spend their own money for operations. Apparently, the fear of demands of payback from the LGUs far outweighs any fear of penury.
The perception among some of the officers is that there are local chief executives who think of a well-located and well-equipped office as a reward bestowed on an election officer for being a good ally. They also say that an election officer who refuses to cooperate with the mayor gets banished to some dilapidated office located in, say, the public market.
For the election officers, Comelec would best be able to maintain its independence from local politicians by covering the rent and utilities of all its field offices. Another field staff says that the hiring of all Comelec personnel must be done independently of the LGU. A Comelec field office thus should not have LGU employees among its staff.
But since all that is unlikely to happen any time soon, Comelec field staff are expected to manage for the May 13, 2013 polls, with or without additional personnel and funding.
Leaders on ground
Commissioner Christian Robert S. Lim himself has been reminding them of their campaign finance duties in the coming elections. Lim, who heads Comelec’s Ad Hoc Campaign Finance Steering Committee, has been doing the rounds of briefing sessions on the new set of rules for the Commission’s field offices across the country.
PCIJ caught up with Lim on one such occasion in Pampanga last February, where he was promptly bombarded with the various concerns of Region 3 election officers. Lim’s quasi-solution was that Comelec’s field officers would just have to be “practical” in finding ways of going about their duties despite the staffing and financial shortage.
For instance, when monitoring public rallies, which could extend up to the wee hours of the morning, Lim advised field officers to tap Comelec’s deputized agencies and citizen’s arms to assist.
Lim said he does not expect field officers to be able to monitor all public rallies. “But I expect the effort,” he said.
“You are the leaders on the ground,” Lim also told the Comelec personnel. “People look up to you. All we ask is do your duties because the moment they see a Comelec (staff) who’s not doing his duties, then nobody will take us seriously.” — PCIJ, April 2013