Second of Three Parts

THEY are avowed representatives of the poor and the marginalized, but in the May 10, 2010 elections, 12 party-list groups allied with two candidates for president, one for vice president, and one for senator splurged a staggering P426.16 million on television ads that aired in the last two weeks of the campaign period.

Where they got the millions to burn for these candidates, despite their claimed poverty, is the ambiguity. But why they burned millions on political ads that featured the four candidates, not their party-list groups, is the absurdity.

To be sure, these presumed defenders of the powerless and voiceless seem to have allowed themselves to be used as front and proxy of the powerful in band — a first time in Philippine political history. But did the party-list groups use the candidates for money or other, or did the candidates, the party-list groups?

It was a quirky exchange to say the least, although there appears to be an attempt to defy election laws on campaign spending limits.

The party-list groups got some exposure when their names were flashed for a fleeting second in the last frame of the ads of Liberal Party candidates Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III and Manuel Roxas II, Nacionalista Party’s Manuel B. Villar Jr., and re-electionist senator Juan Ponce Enrile.

By then, these candidates had nearly maxed out their campaign airtime limits. But with the party-list groups as surrogates, they managed to lodge more ads on television.

Yet it seemed like an unfair exchange for the party-list groups. It was like having two riders on a bicycle, one positioned behind the other – the front rider (politician) basked in the glory of the limelight, and the back-rider (party-list group) wallowed in his shadow.

The advertising contracts and booking orders that media agencies submitted to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) enrolled these party-list groups as both the buyers and the products of millions of pesos worth of political ads with ABS-CBN Corp., GMA 7 Network, and TAPE Inc., producer of the popular noontime variety show, “Eat Bulaga.”

A number of the parties declared these advertisements as part of the costs they incurred in the Statement of Electoral Contributions and Expenditures (SECE) that they filed with the Comelec.

The actual TV ad clips and documents support the fact or irony that the supposed “marginalized” party-list groups spent millions to support well-funded national candidates.

Aquino’s party-list groups

In mid-April, Aquino began winding down his TV ads because he was about to breach his airtime limits. Suddenly, however, six party-list groups endorsing his candidacy ramped up their ad buys on TV – with Aquino and his running mate Roxas as their veritable poster boys.

The ads by these party-list groups increased progressively in volume until the campaign period’s last day, May 8.

These six pro-Aquino party-list groups are the Agricultural Sector Alliance of the Philippines (AGAP), Akbayan! Citizen’s Action Party (Akbayan), An WarayKatipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (Kaakbay), Parents Enabling Parents (PEP), and Bagong Bayan na Nagtataguyod ng Demokratikong Ideolohiya at Layunin (BANDILA).

Akbayan, Kaakbay, and PEP booked similar versions of ads that had Aquino and Roxas as talking heads.

Devoid of any hints to the platforms and identities of the party-list groups, but full of motherhood statements, the ads, with end tags that alternately named the three groups, showed Aquino and Roxas promoting their candidacies.

In the first ad, Aquino was shown endorsing Roxas, saying his running mate was already with him when he started his campaign toward the “daang matuwid” (straight path). It ended with Aquino urging viewers to help him further strengthen his partnership with Roxas through voting for the latter.

The second ad showed Aquino and Roxas both clad in barong with the image of “daang matuwid” as their background. The ad ended with the candidates saying, “Kayo ang aming lakas (You all are our strength).”

Akbayan even had a separate ad that featured Aquino being endorsed by a taxi driver, an aguador (water-carrier), a student, and a housewife. The ad ended with another motherhood statement saying, “Noynoy Aquino at Akbayan Partylist, Ipapanalo ang Mamamayan.”

Meanwhile, AGAP and An Waray promoted the candidacy of Aquino in their ads that used Batangas Governor Vilma Santos-Recto and Senator Francis Escudero as endorsers.

In AGAP’s ad, Recto said, “Noy, ang sabi mo kami ang iyong lakas. Ang sagot namin, ikaw ang aming pag-asa (Noy, you said we are your strength. Our answer, you are our hope).”

In An Waray’s ad, Escudero was shown talking about his kind of president (“Ang Presidente Ko”). Photos of Aquino with his family and while at work were also shown on TV.

Meanwhile, BANDILA’s ad of Aquino with then vice presidential candidate Jejomar Binay of the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (PDP-Laban), was shown on TV from May 6 to 8, the last three days of the campaign period.

Villar’s party-list groups

To Aquino’s six, Villar, the lone billionaire among the nine candidates for president, also marshaled six party-list groups behind his candidacy.

The groups bought TV ad spots that invariably featured the candidacy, image, and message of Villar, who finished only third in the race.

These are the Association of Administrators, Professionals and Seniors (AAPS); Alyansa ng mga Grupong Haligi ng Agham at Teknolohiya Para sa Mamamayan (AGHAM); Alay Buhay Community Foundation (Alay Buhay); Buhay Hayaan Yumabong (Buhay); Butil Farmers Party (Butil); and Pwersa ng Bayaning Atleta (PBA).

One version of the ads was that of Butil, which featured Villar’s mother, Curita ‘Nanay Curing’ Bamba Villar. Butil got token mention in the ad’s tagline, “Manny Villar at Butil Party List, Galing sa mahirap, tumutulong sa mahihirap (From the poor, helping the poor).

Another was AGHAM’s ad that extolled Villar’s record in providing poor sectors housing, jobs, and education. But the exposure that AGHAM got from its own ad was a mere mention of its name in the last frame with this tagline: “Manny Villar at AGHAM Party List, Karanasan, Kakayahan, Kontra Kahirapan (Experience, Capability, Anti-Poverty).

Other ads from AAPS, Alay Buhay, Buhay, and PBA had the same contents that centered on Villar. In fairness, Buhay and PBA also had TV ads that talked only about their own respective advocacies minus Villar. These ads, however, were rendered almost irrelevant by the sheer frequency of their ‘tandem ads’ with Villar.

Dangerous benevolence

Yet if party-list groups think these supposed acts of selflessness and generosity in favor of their candidates is not bad, they have another think coming. Such benevolence, according to Comelec Law department head Ferdinand Rafanan, could actually put them in possible penalty of campaign finance laws.

Rafanan explains that the ads are considered donations of the party-list groups to Aquino and Villar because it was the two candidates who were the main beneficiaries of the aired election propagandas.

Rafanan says the candidate or the party treasurer must issue a letter of acceptance or a statement authorizing the donor to incur expenses on his or her behalf. Otherwise, the donor is unauthorized to incur election expenditure, which is in violation of Section 103 of the Omnibus Election Code of the Philippines.

The provision states: “No person, except the candidate, the treasurer of a political party or any person authorized by such candidate or treasurer shall make any expenditure in support of or in opposition to any candidate or political party.”

Incurring expenditures for a candidate without the letter of acceptance or authorization as proof of campaign donation is an election offense, says Rafanan.

Any person found guilty of the offense shall be punished with up to six years of imprisonment and will be disqualified to hold public office.

Meanwhile, a political party found guilty shall pay a fine of P10,000, which shall be imposed upon such party after criminal action has been instituted in which their corresponding officials have been found guilty.

After going through the piles of documents submitted by media entities and the candidates to the Comelec, the PCIJ found out that not one of the 12 party-list groups had a letter of acceptance authorizing them as donors of either Aquino or Villar.

The PCIJ sent a letter to the Liberal Party asking if Aquino or Roxas issued letters of acceptance to party-list groups.

The brief reply of lawyer Doris G. Ramirez, LP’s deputy director general for finance and legal affairs, through a text message was, “With regard to the ads of other partylists, those were not donations to Liberal Party nor is LP in any manner involved in it.”

For its part, Kaakbay said that Rafanan’s opinion did not represent that of Comelec. Its first nominee, Alain Pascua, also said that Kaakbay did not receive any resolution or communication from Comelec saying that its ads were considered as donations to Aquino and Roxas.

Akbayan treasurer Arlene Santos, meanwhile, maintained that all of “Akbayan’s ads were paid for by Akbayan, and thus they are ads of the party, and were not donated to any other candidate.”

Santos argued that the Comelec’s position during the campaign period was that all ads “would be considered as being for a particular party or candidate based on the official record of the station/publication as to which candidate or party paid for it.”

Through several calls and letters, the PCIJ tried but failed to get the side of An Waray, PEP, and Bandila on the issue.

Villar ‘buys’ Butil airtime

Interestingly, the PCIJ found one document attached to the advertising contract of Butil that authorized Villar to pay for the campaign ads of the group.

The undated letter signed by Butil Party chairman Agapito H. Guanlao and submitted to the Comelec states that the signatory is “authorizing SEN. MANNY VILLAR to place in behalf of the Party, One Hundred Twenty (120) minutes of television airtime for advertising for the 2010 National Elections in accordance with R.A. 9906,” or the Fair Election Practices Act.

The letter also authorized Villar to spend money in the party’s name. The letter states that Villar’s authority “shall include the right to incur expenses in the name of the Party up to One Hundred Million Pesos (P100,000,000)” as well as “the right to contract with STARCOM PHILIPPINES to make the said placements.”

In a phone interview with the PCIJ, Guanlao explained that his party agreed to the arrangement because Villar would “subsidize” Butil’s ads. “Sila ang maghahanap ng contribution (They will seek contributions).”

Paolo, Villar’s son, together with a representative of Starcom, was the one who coordinated the agreement with Butil, according to Guanlao.

Pioneer in pol ads

Apart from these party-list groups, there was Akap-Bata, which started the forays into expensive political ads by marginalized groups when it aired TV ads on February 26 using Villar’s at the time very popular “Dagat ng Basura” jingle.

Unlike the “tandem ads” of other party-list groups however, Akap-Bata’s ads did not show Villar’s face or name. In interviews, Akap-Bata first nominee Joy V. Alcantara vehemently denied any association by her group to Villar, but admitted that both her group and Villar “benefited” from their use of the jingle.

Based on the ad contracts signed by Alcantara and telecast orders issued by her group’s media agency PHD Media Network 2006 Inc, Akap Bata bought ads on ABS-CBN and Tape Inc. worth about P40 million.

Following a deluge of negative reports on Akap-Bata’s ties with Villar, the group’s media agency issued a memo on March 11 cancelling a number of these ad spots. Despite this, Akap-Bata’s ads that actually aired amounted to about P39 million.

In its SECE, however, the group reported a much lower spending on campaign ads of P30.19 million, and receiving donations of P30.47 million. The group had said it raised money “from donations, pledges and contributions from members, fellow child advocates and well-off allies.”

First in party-list history

It could very well be the first time in the history of the 15-year-old party-list system introduced in the May 1998 polls that party-list groups used costly TV ads for their campaigns.

The supposedly poor party-list groups representing marginalized sectors, used to campaign on the ground and win the polls through their mass base of supporters from the grassroots level.

Like in the case of old-timers Butil, Akbayan, Buhay, Agap, and An Waray, party-list groups previously won in the polls without allying themselves with any traditional politicians.

But this year’s elections differed from the previous ones, with party-list groups now having millions of pesos and a willingness to be identified with so-called ‘trapos’ or traditional politicians, whom they used to disassociate with.

This unusual set-up prompts the question: If the groups still claim that they are representing the marginalized sectors and thus have members who are poor, where could the multimillion-peso funds that they used to pay for their TV ads come from?

When queried by PCIJ, most of the groups denied that the funds for the costly TV ads came from the camps of Aquino and Villar. Most of them also denied that the money solely came from them.

The rather vague explanation offered was that the funds were either pulled from “common” resources or were donated by common supporters of their groups and that of Aquino and Villar.

“Not a single centavo came from Villar,” AGHAM Rep. Angelo Palmones recently told the PCIJ in a phone interview. He said that his personal friends, who also happened to be Villar’s friends, helped AGHAM raise campaign funds.

This was also the claim of Butil’s Guanlao in denying that Villar put money into the group’s pocket. “Walang dumaang pera sa amin (No amount of money was coursed through us).”

Akbayan’s Santos, a signatory in the advertising contracts of her group, also said that the money that was used to pay for the ads came from “contributions made by those who supported the partnership of Akbayan and Noy.”

“It’s a case of sharing of resources to advance shared advocacies made possible by our common friends and supporters who contributed and financed the TV ads,” Kaakbay’s Pascua said in a statement.

AGAP’s legal counsel Erwin L. Aguilera said the money used to place the ads came from the group’s donors who were mostly farmers and those who were into agri-business. “Galing ito sa mga tao ng naniniwala sa programa ng AGAP (This came from people who believe in AGAP’s program).”

He even said that the Lipa City-based party-list group, which helps poor farmers, “has a working relationship” with re-elected Governor Santos-Recto and that their alliance with her greatly helped AGAP’s campaign. The TV ads complemented their campaign on the ground, he added.

Asserted Aguilera: “Sa tingin namin, makakatulong ang pag-alyado ng AGAP kay incumbent Governor (Santos-Recto) at Aquino. Naniniwala kami na makakatulong sila sa magsasaka (In our view, AGAP’s alliance with the incumbent governor and Aquino would greatly help us. We believe that they can help farmers).”

By comparison, AAPS’s party president and first nominee Dr. Edna Azurin sounded clueless when asked by PCIJ how her group booked its political ads. This is despite the fact that her signature was affixed in all of AAPS’s advertising contracts