Much of the media reported the low turn-out when it officially began,  but thatsoon changed as the week progressed. The Commission on Elections (Comelec)  had received  hundreds of filings as the week was ending.

It isn’t for the  registration of new voters — the turn-out there has been exceptionally high; despite pandemic fears thousands are in endless queues  and  even spending the night outside Comelec centers just to get their names in the rolls — but for the filing of Certificates of Candidacy (COC) that began October 1 and  ends today, October 8.  

At stake in the May 2022 elections are the Presidency and the Vice Presidency; seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate; governorships; and mayoralty posts, among others.    

For the privilege  of running for public office, there has never been a shortage of aspirants in this country. Every three years or six, dozens of people file COCs for this or that elective office, including the Presidency. Eventually, however,  the Comelec disqualifies quite a number for supposedly being “nuisance candidates.” 

To be so described, the Omnibus Election Code declares that one has to (1) put the electoral process “in mockery or disrepute”; (2) confuse the electorate because he or she  has the same name as another candidate; and (3) have  no real intention of  running  for public office, and is thus preventing the “faithful determination of the true will of the electorate.” 

Some would-be candidates do qualify as nuisances under those three categories. They include those who claim to be in communion with aliens from other planets, who promise to pay off the national debt out of their own pockets, or who’re thinking of air-conditioning the National Capital Region to shield residents from the summer heat.  

In addition, however, the Comelec can also disqualify a would-be candidate for not having the means to run a “credible” campaign, which translated  simply means he or she doesn’t have the millions or billions needed — the amount depends  on what post one is running for — to pay for political advertising and to finance an organized effort to win one’s coveted post. There is as well the unspoken measure of one’s fitness for running for office  that consists of whether one has a name that millions recognize and are familiar with.

As a result, although one can argue that at least some of the Comelec-approved candidates could also be accused of mocking the electoral system and putting it in disrepute by cheating and/or bribing voters and intimidating them, the people whose COCs end up being accepted are the very same ones — or their wives, sons and daughters — from among whom every three years the voters have to choose who would govern them. 

Itisn’texactly the same as the Nazi occupation of Europe that the Nobel Prize Laureate Albert Camus likened to a deadly pestilence. But the  consequences to this country of the plague of already powerful, well-connected and prominent or notorious  dynastic candidates that every three years  bedevil it are nevertheless close to those of the Nazi pandemic. 

From that motley crew, the uninformed choose — if that is indeed the word — whom to vote for on the basis of name recall or on the say-so of those who’ve either bribed or intimidated them. The more knowledgeable end up choosing the “lesser evil,” meaning those whom they think are likely to do the country the least harm. 

From the welter of aspirants for public office,  the usual crooks, incompetents, clowns and assorted ne’er-do-wells are therefore elected to this or that post from which they perpetuate the poverty, injustice, hopelessness and mass misery that eventually kill millions while they line their pockets with the billions in  public funds to which they have gained access. There are of course exceptions, but those are so out of the ordinary as to bewilder the public into condemning rather than celebrating them.

But the built-in advantages of the dynasts don’t start only with the filling of COCs. Even before that undertaking,  the moneyed and well-connected are already in the public mind, and way ahead of  their less well-endowed rivals.  They flood almost every available space with streamers and billboards with their names and faces plastered on them. They take advantage of every flood, earthquake,  or volcanic eruption aftermath to distribute relief goods. They arrange through their PR handlers interviews in this or that broadcast network. They record their every act and statement on a public issue in a range of accounts in social media. In addition, in uncritical observance of the news value of prominence/notoriety, the media faithfully report what they say and do. All this occurs even prior to the 90 days before elections that constitute the official campaign period.

The  Omnibus Election Code describes campaigning prior to the official campaign period as “unlawful” — which all the above undoubtedly  are — and punishable by disqualification from the office one is running for. But the election-relevant laws mandate that no one who has not yet filed a COC can be held liable for such acts, and can be so charged only once the official campaign period has begun. In addition, the Comelec has also ruled that unless one explicitly urges voters to vote for him or her, no one can be held liable for campaigning before the official campaign period.

Again,  the result is to give those with huge campaign war chests as well as incumbent officials the edge over those who may not be as blessed but who are nevertheless competent — and, what is even more important, honest. 

Leveling the playing field should start with plugging  legal loopholes. But the Comelec also has to modify its definition of one’s  capacity to run a credible campaign by making it less dependent on one’s possession of huge amounts of campaign funds.

Previous  attempts to do the first have failed. A bill by the late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago would have required those aspiring for public office to file  Certificates of Intention to Run for Public Office (CIRPO)  before the deadline for the filing of  COCs.  It would have barred anyone who has filed a CIRPO from endorsing a product, being hired by any media organization, and buying advertising space or time prior to the official campaign period. It was meant to limit the media exposure of the more moneyed candidates, but the bill died at the committee level. The same fate met other bills with a similar intent.

As for the second, that seems hardly likely. The entire electoral process is so completely driven by money that hoping for the opposite is almost like asking for the moon in a political context in which not even civil discourse has become possible.

But something can still be done about this distressing state of affairs. The news media can help the electorate look beyond the money, the power, the connections and the notoriety/prominence of the dynasts and incumbents  by reviewing their track records in government and  their competence, honesty and commitment to this country and its people’s well-being.  

What the media need to do as well is to direct their attention  to the less moneyed and less well-known, and to look into their backgrounds, their qualifications and their programs of government.  

They may yet be surprised by their findings. Many of the latter do have such programs, are eminently qualified, and have much more to offer than the usual breed of mindless scoundrels this country has been plagued with.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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Luis V. Teodoro

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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