• Defanging the Comelec

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    The 2009 Supreme Court (SC) ruling that practically obliterated “premature campaigning” from the statute books ought to be revisited. It has made the political playing field uneven between rich and poor candidates.

    In a resolution dated November 25, 2009 on G.R. No. 181613, known as the Penera vs Comelec case, the SC ruled that a candidate is liable for an election offense only for acts done during the campaign period, not before.

    In its interpretation of Section 80 of the Omnibus Election Code, which was last revised in 1985, the High Court noted that a person officially becomes a candidate only at the beginning of the campaign period, and it is only during that time can partisan political acts be given effect as premature campaigning.

    So, those who will be filing their Certificates of Candidacy on October 12 to 16 are not yet candidates, but only expressing their desire to become candidates. They will officially become candidates only once the campaign period that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) will set for the 2016 elections starts.

    Once the official campaign period begins, the candidates can already be held liable for premature campaigning. Rival candidates should therefore be vigilant over each other’s political activities prior to the campaign period so that they can raise disqualification proceedings for premature campaigning. If, however, both or all parties are engaged in premature campaigning, who can we expect to raise violations of the law?

    Would you expect private citizens or ordinary voters to seek the disqualification of all candidates for premature campaigning? The legal process on cases like this will definitely need a lot of time and money, and who would be willing to take that on?

    The 2009 SC decision simply means that candidates can legally buy newspaper, television and radio advertisements even before the campaign period, and their expenses during the time will not be included in their limited official campaign expenditures.

    Even the Comelec is aware that political parties and candidates were untruthful in declaring the amount of their campaign contributions and spending because of the unrealistic limit set by law.

    The 1991 Republic Act 7166 or the Synchronized National and Local Elections Law set the following spending caps for candidates and political parties: P10.00 per voter for President and Vice President; P3.00 per voter for other candidates who are part of a political party; P5.00 per voter for independent candidates; and P5.00 per voter for political parties.

    Perhaps it would somehow level the playing field if Comelec became stricter in going after politicians exceeding their limit on campaign finance once the campaign period starts.

    But then, in another decision, the High Court had also declared unconstitutional a Comelec resolution limiting airtime for political propaganda.

    In September last year, it struck down a portion of Comelec Resolution 9615, as amended by Resolution 9631, that limited the airtime that candidates could buy from broadcast stations, and which required the poll body’s permission before candidates could guest on TV and radio shows.

    The ruling paved the way for candidates for national office to place 120 minutes of airtime per television station and 180 minutes per radio station during the campaign, instead of just 120 minutes for all TV stations and 180 for all radio stations.

    The longer airtime limits had put at great disadvantage the poor and lesser-known candidates who could not afford the exorbitant cost of TV and radio political ads, particularly on prime time slots that could cost as much as P500,000 for a 30-second plug.

    In the ruling on the Penera vs Comelec case, the Supreme Court noted that it was Congress that clearly defined a “candidate” and set the period during which he could be held liable for election offenses like premature campaigning.

    “Congress has laid down the law–a candidate is liable for election offenses only upon the start of the campaign period. This court has no power to ignore the clear and express mandate of the law that ‘any person who files his certificate of candidacy within [the filing]period shall only be considered a candidate at the start of the campaign period for which he filed his certificate of candidacy.’ Neither can this court turn a blind eye to the express and clear language of the law that ‘any unlawful act or omission applicable to a candidate shall take effect only upon the start of the campaign period,’” part of the SC decision said.

    Can we expect Congress, whose members would clearly benefit from this provision and ruling, to redefine a candidate and premature campaigning, and for the Comelec to set realistic limits and penalties for violations of election laws?

    Laws against misuse of public funds must be stricter and more defined. Project billboards with names and photographs of politicians, and out-of-town trips in the guise of consultations or project visits must be prohibited, or at least limited.

    These put the non-incumbents at a disadvantage because those in positions can use government resources and time going around the provinces at taxpayers’ expense to promote themselves. They can produce and buy media ad space or airtime for self-promotion ads in the guise of promoting the agency.

    Let us hope that the present composition of the will be able to correct the major flaws in the election system and procedures and level the playing field in a more realistic manner.

    Comments are welcome at tvalderama@yahoo.com

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    1 Comment

    1. jesus nazario on

      With all due respect, the issues discussed here are not the critically serious problems the nation is faced with regards to the coming elections. The SINGLE most serious and possibly fatal-to-our-democracy issue confronting us today is the planned use of the discredited Smartmatic PCOS in next year’s election. This and only this. Everything else are peripheral issues which maybe will have importance again once we have gotten rid of the Smartmatic PCOS curse besetting us.