Elections: They’re all about money

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

Do those television advertisements trumpeting the virtues of individuals who have either announced their intention to run for elective office in 2016, or whom many assume will be candidates next year — or even those who keep saying they’re not interested — constitute what’s usually referred to in these neck of the woods as “premature campaigning”? And are these individuals liable to such charges under Philippine election law?

Most Filipinos will probably say yes, but that’s only because they’re sick unto death of how the politicians are almost daily testing their patience and assuming they’re too naive to see through their wiles.

The Commission on Elections (Comelec) says otherwise, and in support of that position, we have the explanation of Comelec Director James Jimenez, who has said so in his blog, and who said again in a recent radio interview, that the TV ads in question will constitute “premature campaigning” only if their subjects have already filed a certificate of candidacy (CoC) and have begun campaigning before the mandated period.

What’s more, just because the ads have been paid for by people who are not yet official candidates, or by their friends, they’re not yet liable to charges of campaigning ahead of the campaign period from February to May next year.

And no, says Jimenez, even if a political ad, whether on TV, radio or print were to urge viewers, listeners and viewers to vote for the person it’s pushing, the individual, so long as he hasn’t filed a certificate of candidacy, still can’t be accused of breaking the law.

That law is the Fair Election Act (RA 9006), which mandates the number of hours of exposure through an ad in any of the media a candidate may expend, supposedly in order to give everyone the same opportunity to address the electorate through political ads.

But don’t blame the Comelec for its position on the ads. In a 2006 decision, the Supreme Court declared that political advertising, when aired or published before the campaign period, would merely be a form of free expression, which the Constitution protects. The Court also ruled in 2009 that anyone can promote himself/herself through advertising even before the campaign period so long as he or she is not yet an official candidate.

Most television viewers have seen the television ads by, among others, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, former Senator Panfilo Lacson, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, and lately Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. They’re not openly campaigning for anything, although all have declared that they’re at least thinking of running for some elective post or another.

There’s a “movement” of a sort for Duterte for President, although the mayor has been saying he’s not interested, and has been touring the archipelago solely in behalf of his supposed advocacy for federalism. Lacson’s being bruited about as a possible Duterte running mate, which seems logical (although that word seldom applies to much of Philippine partisan politics), given the duo’s peace and order, shoot-’em-up approach to governance, and their shared notoriety.

Former senator and Philippine National Police Director-General Lacson has been accused of various crimes (which have been dismissed) including salting dollars abroad and multiple murder. For his part, Duterte has been accused of organizing, funding and encouraging the Davao Death Squad, which, it has been fairly well established, targets for assassination not only drug dealers but drug users as well, and even street children.

Cayetano, who has been said to be also interested in the Presidency, demonstrated during the Senate hearings on the Mamasapano incident a level of bigotry against Muslims, although disguised solely as antipathy toward the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), that should appeal to the fundamentalists among the Christian majority who look at the Moros solely in terms of their religious affinity rather than as citizens worthy of the same rights as every other Filipino. One can even argue that Cayetano’s anti-MILF, anti-Muslim bias was something he deliberately projected, by pandering precisely to those prejudices rampant among the Christian majority as a vote-getting tactic just in case he runs in 2016 for some post or another.

Marcos, Jr.’s TV ads have emphasized his anti-BBL (Bangsamoro Basic Law) position and his pledge to put a substitute bill together in ads that claim to be reports to the public (Ulat sa Bayan). It’s no secret that Marcos, Jr. hopes to do a Marcos himself by returning to the Malacañang of his youth, and he’s used the presumed surge in his popularity occasioned by his anti-BBL posture to get into the TV talk shows and interviews, and to generally enhance his media presence.

Name recall via media presence is indeed the name of the election game in the Philippines, especially when a politico is running or intending to run for a national office such as the Presidency, the Vice-Presidency, or the Senate.

The Fair Election Act is supposed to have “leveled the playing field,” as Jimenez and company are fond of saying. Because of the Supreme Court decision, however, between now and October, when candidates for 2016 will have to file their CoCs, the moneyed can flood the media with a tsunami of ads promoting their candidacies — so long as, of course, they have the means to pay for them. As Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago once pointed out, ads, whether political or not, cost — and running a 30-second TV ad a number of times a day can easily cost a million pesos or more, which means that airing them for days, weeks and even months can easily run into the hundreds of millions.

Not that the media, especially television, are complaining. The orgy of ad spending every election period means billions in revenues for them, which is probably why there’s not even a hint in the old media (print and broadcasting) of any concern over “premature campaigning.”

In 2010, said the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, candidates for national office spent P4.3 billion in ads, while candidates for local office spent P162 million. As Defensor Santiago has candidly declared, that means that once in power, these candidates will want to recover these costs by, among others, raiding the public coffers through various creative ways.

But aside from that by now glaring indication of how the electoral process itself feeds corruption, there is as well the question of how the same process and practices effectively keep the political system in the hands only of the monied and powerful, meaning the same families that for decades have monopolized political power in this country at the exclusion of those who really need it — the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized.

This column said last week that Congress intends to convene as a constituent assembly to amend the Constitution. That is inaccurate, its preferred mode being to amend the Charter solely through legislative action. My apologies.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.


Published in Business World
June 11, 2015

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