Early birds be warned – the Supreme Court is strictly interpreting Section 3 of the Omnibus Election Code setting the number of days allowed for the election campaign.

Voting 8-7, the High Tribunal disqualified Santa Monica, Surigao del Norte Mayor Rosalinda Penera for holding a campaign motorcade immediately after filing her certificate of candidacy in January 2007, BusinessMirror reported in an online story this afternoon.

Under Batas Pambansa 881, also known as the Omnibus Election Code, the campaign period for local officials only starts 45 days before the elections. This means Penera was only allowed to campaign beginning late March 2007. For President and Vice President, the campaign period is 90 days before election day.

But what makes today’s ruling really interesting for prospective candidates is that it makes it harder for candidates to use all sorts of excuses to start an early campaign.

There was a lot of confusion with the dates when the Comelec moved up the filing of candidacies to November 30 this year, a clear five and a half months before election day, to allow more time to prepare for the first nationwide automated elections. Despite the new schedule for the filing of candidacies, the start of the election period is still pegged at 90 days before election day and 30 days after; while the campaign period for national positions is also still pegged at 90 days.

Among the early questions that have cropped up:

1. If a person files his candidacy in November, can he start campaigning even before the start of the campaign and election periods in mid-February? What can he do in the two months between the filing period and the campaign period?

2. Is he even considered a candidate after filing his candidacy?

3. Which definition of “candidate” should Comelec use?

Some definitions that the SC had to grapple with in ruling on this case:

Section 15 of the poll automation law states that a person who files a certificate of candidacy is not considered a candidate until the start of the campaign period . This means that a person is not a candidate until 90 days before election day, and a person who is not a candidate cannot be accused of premature campaigning. Using this argument, a Presidentiable who files his candidacy in November can do any song and dance, spend any amount, and not be bound by the rules on campaigns and expenditures, until he officially becomes a candidate in mid-February, or 90 days before election day. Dissenting justices said this new definition virtually made the law against early campaigning “unimplementable.”

But the majority, slim as it may be, upheld the primacy of the Omnibus Election Code, in that a person is a candidate as soon as he files his certificate of candidacy, regardless of when the campaign period starts. And as a candidate, he is automatically bound by the rules of the election code. And the rule clearly states when he can start campaigning.

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