THE official campaign period is yet to start on February 9 for president, vice president, senators and party-list groups; and, on March 26 for local officials. However, without a law against premature campaigning, aspirants have begun advertising themselves without limit in time and cost.
Technically, there are no candidates yet for the May 9 elections. They will become official candidates only when the official campaign period starts. That’s what the 2009 ruling of the Supreme Court in the Penera vs Comelec case provides, based on Section 13 of Republic Act No. 9369.
As of end-2015, monitoring by media research firm Nielsen Philippines of political advertising placements by the top four presidential aspirants between January and December have cost nearly P1.6 billion.
Vice President Jejomar Binay, who has been accused of massive corruption in transactions from the time he was mayor of Makati City, appeared as the biggest ad spender for having paid P595.7 million for TV ads alone.
Senator Grace Poe, whose disqualification case remains unresolved at the Supreme Court, came in second with P448.2 million, followed by Liberal Party (LP) standard bearer Manuel Roxas 2nd with P424.9 million and Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao City with P115.4 million.
While Duterte paid out the least for TV ads, his running mate, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano spent the most among vice presidential aspirants on ads worth P398.3 million, followed by Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. with P103.4 million.
Camarines Sur Representative Leni Robredo, the running mate of Roxas‚ spent P91.6 million; Sen. Gregorio Honasan, Binay’s candidate for vice president, shelled out P43.6 million; and, Poe’s vice presidential bet, Sen. Francis Escudero, was listed as the least spender with only P30,000.
These amounts were used only for those irritating TV ads, which would mostly pass for false or deceptive advertising. Where did they get all those funds? How will they recover that cost if they win the elections? What if they lose? How will they repay their donors?
These are not covered by the spending and airtime limits set under the Comelec regulations.
In a resolution dated November 25, 2009 on G.R. No. 181613, known as the Penera vs Comelec case, the Supreme Court ruled that a candidate is liable for an election offense only for acts done during the campaign period, and 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.
Once the official campaign period begins, the candidates can already be held liable for premature campaigning. Rival candidates should, therefore, be vigilant in watching over each other’s political activities prior to the campaign period so they can raise the possibility of disqualification proceedings against anyone found guilty of premature campaigning. However, if both or all parties are engaged in premature campaigning, who can we expect to raise the issue of 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 involved in such cases will definitely need a lot of time and money, and who would be willing to take that on?
Premature campaigning was supposed to level the playing field for moneyed and poor candidates. But with unlimited TV ads shown before the official campaign period, those who have money, regardless of whether that was stolen or clean, are able to campaign so much longer through costly media exposure with a wider audience reach.
Perhaps, Congress should prohibit politicians from appearing in product endorsements, with or without talent fees, or from appearing in infomercials for government agencies. They should also not be allowed to appear in media programs as anchors or talents. These place them at an advantageous position over other lesser-known or less influential candidates.
The present situation also defeats the purpose of requiring candidates to submit to the Comelec their campaign contributions and spending within 30 days after the election. The reporting covers only donations and spending during the 90-day campaign period for candidates in national positions, and 45 days for the local bets.
Besides, most candidates and political parties do not report the truth. They get caught only when rival candidates contest their reports with evidence. The Comelec does not have people to follow the money trail of politicians and check the veracity of what they report.
The Comelec is aware, or at least suspicious, when political parties and candidates have been untruthful in declaring the amount of their campaign contributions and spending because of the unrealistic limits set by the law in 1991.
When the next Congress convenes, the Comelec should be more aggressive in pushing for a reversal of the Penera doctrine to restore the provision against premature campaigning, and set realistic spending limits for advertising and campaigning.
In the ruling on the Penera vs Comelec case, the Supreme Court noted that it was the Congress that clearly defined a “candidate” and set the period during which he could be held liable for election offenses such as 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 cited.
Can we now expect the Congress, whose members 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?
Voters really have to be more vigilant against abuses of politicians who promise and swear to serve the public, yet, most of the time, end up with a sense of entitlement to the privilege and power carried by the offices they seek.