The May 9, 2022 elections is a year away. Filipino voters will elect a new president, vice president, 12 senators, over 300 district and party-list representatives, and thousands of local officials.
While the government aims to inoculate a big majority of Filipinos against the coronavirus disease within the year, slow vaccine rollout and mutating virus strains have prompted fears that mobility will continue to be restricted beyond 2021. How will these concerns affect the coming elections?
PCIJ Executive Director Carmela Fonbuena spoke with James Jimenez, Comelec spokesperson and director for education and information, about preparations for the 2022 national and local elections.
“We are definitely planning on the basis of the pandemic not going anywhere anytime soon. [It’s a] worst-case scenario planning and, obviously for the campaigns, we are preparing guidelines that will affect the physical conduct of the campaign,” Jimenez said in an interview on May 7, 2021.
Jimenez sees an increase in online campaigning, but he said the digital divide would not make it possible to reach all of the country’s voting population online. A significant percentage of Filipinos still do not have access to reliable internet connections or are digitally illiterate.
Below are excerpts from PCIJ’s interview with Jimenez.
How is the registration of voters going?
It’s going more slowly than usual, but it seems like we are getting the numbers anyway. As of last week, registration of new voters is around 1.7 million. There’s also 1.2 million from the SK registry. These are the kids from the Sangguniang Kabataan elections who are going to be transferred to the regular elections because they’ve turned 18. That’s 2.9 million and then we still have until September to go.
How will the 2022 campaign be different given the raging coronavirus pandemic?
We definitely are planning on the basis of the pandemic not going anywhere anytime soon. [It’s a] worst-case scenario planning and, obviously for the campaigns, we are preparing guidelines that will affect the physical conduct of the campaign. This will be a first. In previous elections, we’ve only just regulated things like what paraphernalia are legitimate [and] what kind of propaganda is allowed. We’ve never really tried to regulate the physical aspects of campaigning. We’re going to do so now. We cannot probably realistically ban in-person events. The digital divide is too broad for that. There will instead be restrictions on how they do things.
For instance, we cannot allow an unlimited number of people attending rallies. There will have to be a cap right at the very start. One of the things that’s probably going to be very painful for a lot of politicians is our desire to prohibit people from eating at these public events. There will be problems when they take off their masks. They may spread droplets.
What will be the maximum number of people who may attend a campaign sortie? Will you differentiate between indoor and outdoor venues?
We will be talking about percentages of capacities. Whether that’s 50% or 30%, we’re still talking about it.
There will have to be rules for both [indoor and outdoor activities]. It will be unlikely, especially in a GCQ (general community quarantine) environment, to prohibit indoor [activities]. But there will still be restrictions like social distancing [and] masking. [What is also] very important is the behavior of the politician. What’s the use of having people mask when the politician will go to the crowd and shake the hands of everyone. We will prohibit these kinds of physical interactions.
No shaking of hands, no embracing, no kissing babies?
We haven’t taken it down to that level of detail yet. But, yes, we expect that the regulations will be along those lines.
How will these prohibitions affect the way voters get to know the candidates?
It’s going to be difficult because it’s the political rallies that draw people. It’s the theater that draws them in. As far as the Comelec is concerned, where we can control their behavior, we will control their behavior. For instance, [we can control movements during] elections [and the] registration process. Outside of those activities, it’s a little more difficult. It will have to be in the realm of personal responsibilities.
Incumbents will have the advantage against their challengers because they will have more freedom to move around.
I think that’s a fair assessment, but I also think that whether or not there is a pandemic, challengers of the incumbent are always at a disadvantage. [It’s the case] probably even more so now obviously, because [challengers in the past] could make up for the disadvantages with a little innovativeness and risk-taking. They won’t be able to do that now. It becomes super dangerous.
That’s why the burden I guess is on the Comelec to make sure that [we try to level the playing field]. For instance, when we talk about restricting physical campaigning, we have to also talk about loosening up the online campaigning environment, right? We have to balance it.
What do you mean by this?
We need to encourage more people to campaign online for sure. We need to rationalize how we track and control spending online.
And at the same time that we’re loosening up the online campaigning environment, it’s very critical also that Comelec pays attention to the fact that [candidates] don’t have equal capabilities to [maximize online platforms]. Some of them will have a lot of resources at their disposal. Others will have very little. So we have to make efforts to level [the field] everyone.
How will you do this?
That’s the question. We can do that through brute force. We can probably try to make certain platforms freely available to them. That is one possibility. Or we could harness the power of the private sector. For instance, if the problem is that people don’t know how to use social media effectively, then we can partner with the private sector to provide training for potential candidates on how to use social media. It will have to really be a whole-of-nation approach.
This means you’re seeing the 2022 campaign moving online?
It’s not going to be possible for it to be 100% online. There will still have to be in person campaigning. I think compared to the previous elections, you’ll probably see more than 100% increase in the utilization of online campaigns. But vis-à-vis physical campaigning, it’s hard to say. I think a lot of politicians will still default to physical campaigning.
You will issue rules to govern social media use during the 2022 campaign?
Well, we’re going to have to, aren’t we? [Laughter.] Otherwise, you guys are going to say Comelec did nothing.
And these rules will be out before the official campaign period?
Yes. It will have to be.
I also want to ask about lessons from Palawan plebiscite in March 2021. It went well despite the pandemic, didn’t it?
It did. The biggest takeaway from Palawan was people were really not that afraid of Covid. They were not afraid to go out and vote, and that’s a critical learning because it is the most prominent fake news campaign now. They’re saying the elections will be suspended because they’re afraid of Covid-19. The problem there is it’s going to frighten a lot of people unnecessarily, perhaps drive down the voter turnout.
You mentioned physical restrictions earlier. In Palawan, we saw plastic barriers inside voting precincts. Will you do this again in 2022?
Yes, for sure.
What else will be done?
Number one, health screening at the entrance to the voting center. You’ll have isolation polling places for those with questionable health statuses. You’ll have personal protective equipment (PPE) for teachers manning the electoral boards. They’re not going to be in full PPEs obviously. It will be too hot and uncomfortable if they’re going to wear it the entire day, but there will be some personal protective equipment. The teachers who are manning the isolation polling place (IPP), they’ll be the ones who will wear full-body suits. And then there will be sanitation supplies per polling precinct. And yes, the most obvious will be physical barriers within the precincts to enforce social distancing.
TOP PHOTO: File photo of an Isolation Polling Place (IPP) for voters set up by the Department of Education during the March 2021 plebiscite in Palawan. Photograph courtesy of the Rafael R. Estiandian Elementary School in Brooke's Point, Palawan