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Beneath the field of election campaigns, a money game thrives

This month marks the beginning of the campaign period for national candidates—inevitably the most expensive period of every election cycle.

With the Philippines divided into several regions, people vying for a government seat prepare a huge sum of campaign budget to establish their image to the public and reach as many voters as possible. While the constitution intends for equal opportunities for its citizens in gaining public office, a disparity in the win-loss records is often seen between those who have the financial resources and those who have little to none.

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Dissecting the dime

Gerardo Eusebio, Department of Political Science professorial lecturer and a former campaign consultant, determines two key components to a candidate’s winnability: image, or the candidate’s persona and carried advocacies, and organization, or the target groups of people that a candidate hopes to get votes from. Money, being a tool for persuasion, can both amplify these by allowing access to platforms or securing votes, regardless of tactic.

And the involvement of money in campaigning has mostly, if not always, proven itself significant in the polling results. President Rodrigo Duterte, while only being fourth in spending, allocated P371,461,480.23 for his 2016 campaign. Meanwhile, Vice President Leni Robredo—top veep spender—spent a total of P418,664,330.60. 

In the 2019 senatorial polls, only three candidates among the 10 biggest spenders—who each spent at least P100 million—have not been able to lock in a spot in the Senate. This includes top spender and 16th placer Mar Roxas, who exhausted a hefty sum of P179,193,153.04.

Multimedia advertisements, particularly primetime television ads, take up a huge proportion of the budget, says Eusebio. While social media is a cost-free campaign platform that can generate a lot of human traffic, he believes that social media campaigning alone would not be enough to actually reach the majority of the voting population. This highlights the importance of sorties and on-ground campaigns that are accessible across all socioeconomic classes, thus, signifying that travel fares are necessary, even in a pandemic-stricken electorate. Transportation costs are also among necessary costs taken into account by candidates, entailing the inclusion of food, lodging, staff payments, media sourcing, among other needs. By convention, the aim of these costs is for candidates to travel and campaign within localities—especially vote-rich ones—regardless of whose bastion the area will be in the polls. More than touring, it also matters that a candidate’s presence is felt with the help of local politicians who can further their campaign.

With regard to this, Eusebio acknowledges the importance of local allies. He recounts that candidates usually offer campaign money or post-election promises to their local allies in exchange for sworn loyalty and local campaigning. This transfer of resources from the patron to the client, as Eusebio says, is called patronage politics.

“Patronage still marks our political electoral system. [For example], if I were a senatorial candidate, [then] most probably, I would have [to identify local] allies [that will translate] my political campaign efforts into actual votes. [And to do that], I’ll transfer money,” Eusebio explains, also mentioning that most political parties are only for convenience and grassroot campaigning.

With that much spending on these primary things alone, it would be hard to believe that most candidates actually manage to pass under the financial bars the Commission on Elections (Comelec) has set. 

A game of money limbo

As per Section 13 of Republic Act No. 7166, presidential and vice presidential aspirants running under a political party are only allowed to spend P10 per voter, while a P3-budget is allocated for other candidates under the party. Independent non-presidential and non-vice-presidential candidates, on the other hand, are allowed to spend P5 per voter. Political parties and partylists are also allowed to spend P5 per voter within the members’ jurisdictions. 

This current policy roots from the said 30-year-old legislation. Despite the peso devaluing as years pass, these caps are still in place. This is what Comelec Campaign Finance Office (CFO) Acting Director Efraim Bag-id has been trying to emphasize as he admits that current campaign finance policies would not suffice.

“We propose that…the Comelec would be allowed to revisit [spending limits] every three years or from time to time. Otherwise, kung i-fix nila ngayon, [then] 20 years after, ‘yun na naman problema,” Bag-id asserts.

During the 2016 elections, the Comelec flagged 54 declarations out of about 45,000 submissions coming from both local and national candidates—with the smallest breach amounting to P10 only. These numbers are actually a vast improvement from the 2013 polls, where 936 out of about 45,000 candidates were declared violators. Then, the smallest of these violations amounted to 70 centavos.

Having presented these numbers, Bag-id guarantees that the CFO is serious and committed to their work. As they continue to cross-check and penalize even the law offenders that go beyond a few cents, Bag-id calls on the public to take part in ensuring a clean and corruption-free election.

Any time, all these [campaign spending] records are for public consumption. Kung may makita kayong mali doon, invite niyo attention ko, ic-cross-check natin ‘yan. Iyan naman ang commitment ng Comelec,” Bag-id assures.

(If you see something wrong, call my attention and we’ll cross-check it.)

Leveling the playing field 

In hopes of solving the number of campaign expenditure issues such as overspending, a bill on raising the allowable campaign spending was discussed in the Senate last May 2021, which includes provisions on amending the current P5 to P10-cap per voter to P10 to P50 per voter, depending on the position the candidate is running for. 

“[The law] must be revisited so that it will be applicable in changing times,” Bag-id explains, stating Comelec’s favor over this bill. “Sa halip na maging transparent ‘yung candidate, napipilitan tuloy magsinungaling just to comply. Because otherwise, if they will be disclosing it honestly, then they will be prosecuted by law.”

(A candidate is forced to lie instead of being transparent with their campaign spending just to comply with the law.)

However, some politicians have openly criticized the bill, particularly the reasons for its creation. Partido Lakas ng Masa senatorial candidate Atty. Luke Espiritu, although clarifying that he does not oppose the bill, asserts that providing uniform access to platforms will reduce overspending.

“We must have equal access to interviews, equal access to news, or equal access to [explain] ourselves, to equal posters; the government can very well do some regulation regarding that area, and not allow for elections to be determined by monetary resources,” he says. 

Some members of the chamber have also expressed their concerns regarding the bill. In one of their plenary sessions, Sen. Koko Pimentel remarks that the proposed allowable campaign spending is “unrealistic or too favorable for the moneyed candidates.”

Besides this, Bag-id bares that Comelec has also been consistently pushing for electoral law reforms, including a proposal to reform the omnibus election code. “[Our purpose is to] give opportunity [for] people to decide based on the merit of the candidate and not on the financial ability of the candidate or the political party,” he declares.

As money politics continue to flourish despite the strictly imposed provisions every election, amending outdated electoral policies would be a crucial step in bettering the campaign system. But whether or not these spending regulations are implemented, it is ultimately in the hands of every voter to decide whether a peso or a competent candidate holds more value.

By Carl Joshua Mamuri

By Rheine Noelle Requilman

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