President Noynoy Aquino endorses Mar Roxas
Pres. Noynoy Aquino formally endorses DILG Sec. Mar Roxas for president during a gathering at Club Filipino in San Juan on July 31, 2016. (Malacañang Photo Bureau)

Liberal Party (LP) Secretary General Mel Senen Sarmiento says that the LP will run a “positive campaign” to elect Interior Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas II to the Presidency.

“It’s just sad that some people are using name-calling and foul personal attacks to bring down their perceived political rivals,” Congressman Sarmiento said. “We at the LP are not only committed to reform the old and corrupt system of governance, we are (also) working hard to change our prevailing political culture.”

That’s all well and good. But Philippine political culture as the political elite has fashioned it is first and last also premised on assuring dynastic supremacy. Over the last decades since EDSA 1986, that culture, thanks to Congress among other political institutions, has devised a number of ways to guarantee the continuing dominance of a handful of families in government.

The anti-dynasty bill is practically dead in Congress, for example. But it’s not only by default that Congress has made sure the government will continue to be the domain of the moneyed and powerful. It has also made sure that that situation will prevail through, among other means, what is known as “premature campaigning.”

In a plea that resonates with frustration, Commission on Elections (Comelec) Chair Andres Bautista recently asked election watch groups to expose and oppose the practice. The electorate has to be educated so it can refuse its votes for those who’re guilty of it, said Bautista. Bautista lamented the fact that because the likely candidates for next year’s general elections have not filed their certificates of candidacy (COCs), the Comelec cannot penalize those who’re already flooding the media with their campaign advertisements even before the official campaign period.

Supposedly to give the less-moneyed candidate a fighting chance against his or her multi-millionaire/billionaire rivals, only during the three months prior to Election Day can any person engage in partisan political activity, according to Section 80 of the Omnibus Election Code.

But thanks to the usual suspects—the enterprising members of Congress—what has been called “premature campaigning” is no longer an offense despite that provision.

Congress passed in 1997 Republic Act 8436. Section 15 of the Act provided that “…the Commission (on Elections) shall set the deadline for the filing of certificate of candidacy/petition of registration/manifestation to participate in the election. Any person who files his certificate of candidacy within this period shall only be considered as a candidate at the start of the campaign period for which he filed his certificate of candidacy…”

RA 8436 was amended in 2007 by RA 9369, which authorized the Commission on Elections to use an automated election system for the May 1998 elections and all subsequent elections. It declares that “any person who files his certificate of candidacy (COC) shall only be considered as a candidate at the start of the campaign period” and that “unlawful acts applicable to a candidate shall be in effect only upon the start of the campaign period”. In short, even someone who is officially already a candidate by filing a COC cannot be guilty of “premature campaigning” because he or she is not yet a candidate until the start of the campaign period in February!

As a result, the Supreme Court in 2009 reversed its 1997 resolution on a disqualification case against a candidate for Mayor in Surigao del Norte, and ruled that an individual may not be disqualified from running for office for campaigning before the official campaign period.

Anyone, including an individual who has declared or demonstrated that he or she intends to run for public office can flood the media with political ads whether he or she has not filed a COC.

If the pricey (the radio and TV networks earn billions from those ads every three years) political ads flowing from the offices of the publicists of the prospective candidates for national posts to the media, particularly radio and TV, is this early already a veritable deluge, expect it to swell into a tsunami by October. Those aspiring for national office must file their certificates of candidacy by then. But the torrent will turn into a super tidal wave by February next year, when the official campaign period begins for the candidates for President, Vice President and Senator.

If the intention of the Section 80 of the Omnibus Election Code was to make the chances of a relatively poor candidate of winning an elective post equal to those of the wealthy, that purpose has already been defeated. In a repeat of a pattern in most of the country’s laws—that of favoring the wealthy over the poor—RA 9369 and its antecedent laws practically assure that Philippine elections will remain in the hands of the political dynasties.

What of Sarmiento’s claim that the Liberal Party (LP) is “not only committed to reform the old and corrupt system of governance, but (is also) working hard to also change our prevailing political culture”?

That culture is quite simply characterized by the rule of money. “Premature campaigning” is among the most potent weapons of assuring victory at the polls in the hands of the wealthiest candidates, most of whom also belong to the political dynasties that Congress is making sure will continue to rule the country to the exclusion of other groups and sectors.

If the Liberal Party is indeed committed to the transformation of the “prevailing political culture” and to the making of an authentic democracy in which anyone qualified rather than only those with huge campaign war chests can run for public office and win, it can demonstrate that commitment by at least condemning the practice.

Unfortunately, it seems to be completely oblivious to the need for a truly transformative political party to call “premature campaigning” what it is: as contrary to the democratic principle of equal opportunity, whether in employment or politics. Instead, we have Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda outrightly admitting that Aquino’s anointed, Interior Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas II, has indeed been campaigning this early, by declaring that, after all, Roxas spends his own money for his ongoing campaign—months before the official campaign period begins in February, 2016.

Why “pick on” the LP and not on “those others” (i.e., Jejomar Binay, Rodolfo Duterte, Grace Poe) who also inflict their political ads on radio listeners and the TV audience? Precisely because it is the LP that claims to be the party of reform, to be following the straight path (“Daang Matuwid”), and, according to Congressman Sarmiento, “working hard to change our prevailing political culture.” It was the LP that opened that particular door. Binay and Duterte, who have been unashamedly and unapologetically campaigning for months—and lately, Grace Poe through that “Happy Birthday, Papa” ad—did not.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from Malacanang Photo Bureau.

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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