Bets on money matters:
Spend more, speak less

IN THE unnervingly expensive race for the Philippine presidency, the candidates who splurge are those less open to discussing their campaign spending, while candidates who spend the least are the most open to talking about their finances.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) managed to ask most of the presidential candidates about their positions on various issues involving campaign finance: where they get their campaign money, their major donors, and their expenses.

In a series, the PCIJ interviewed Senators Benigno Aquino III, Manuel Villar Jr., Richard Gordon, Maria Ana Consuelo ‘Jamby’ Madrigal, Joseph Ejercito Estrada, John Carlos de los Reyes, Nicanor Perlas, and Gilberto Teodoro Jr. It missed out on Bangon Pilipinas standard bearer Eddie Villanueva, who was not available, according to his camp.

Candidates were all given a common set of questions; a few of the candidates were candid, some gave oblique answers, some waved specific questions away; one candidate teetered dangerously close to admitting, albeit unwittingly, that he would violate the law. Indeed, talking about money made many of them go around – and around – rendering them close to suffering verbal vertigo.

How much for Palace?

Frontrunners Aquino and Villar both sidestepped the question of how much they would spend in their bid for the presidency. The Liberal Party’s Aquino merely said he would not spend as much as his adversaries because his campaign was heavily reliant on volunteer work. This, as against what he called a more expensive “media-centric” campaign of his rivals.

“We would need the least in terms of funds,” Aquino said. A campaign focused on creating a better public image from scratch would be more expensive, he said. “You’d be creating a product. Just the FGD (focus group discussion) would cost how much? You’d make a lot of commercials, and how much would that cost?”

He said showbiz personalities are helping in his campaign without asking for payment. “They donated not only their talent, but also whatever they spent getting (to sorties),” said Aquino. “So again, we don’t need a lot of resources, so we have less to whom we’d be indebted.”

(Incidentally, election laws state that even the rendering of free services must be quantified and computed as part of a candidate’s campaign expense.)

Last year, Villar had touched off a storm when he confidently declared: “If you can’t even raise one billion pesos, why even run?” Critics slammed him for allegedly turning elections from a numbers game for votes, to a numbers game for pesos. More than that, P1 billion is almost twice the allowed campaign spending limit for a presidential candidate.

But a more cautious Villar, standard bearer of the Nacionalista Party, now skirted the question on how much he would spend for the campaign, except to say that he will not violate the law on campaign spending. Republic Act No. 7166 limits campaign spending for a presidential and vice presidential bet to only P10 for every registered voter.

With 50 million registered voters, this means that a presidential candidate can spend only about P500 million during the 90-day official campaign period, including advertisements in media and paraphernalia for his/her entire campaign, or face disqualification. Political parties are allowed to spend an additional P5 per registered voter, for all its candidates and not necessarily for its presidential candidate alone.

Villar instead made a jab at Aquino, saying he needs to spend more because he did not have a famous celebrity for a sibling. Aquino, of course, has his youngest sister, celebrity host Kristina Bernadette ‘Kris’ Aquino of ABS-CBN 2 openly wooing voters for him.

“That depends, because if you’re an artista or you have a sibling who is one, or you’re supported by a studio or a TV station, you won’t really be able to say how much you need,” said Villar. “Now if you’re not an artista, you’re just one of the poor and no one recognizes your family name, maybe you would need to spend more to make yourself known. But what’s important is that you don’t violate any laws.”

Massive, ‘legal’ spending

A study by the PCIJ for the 2010 Pera at Pulitika Consortium, a network of media and civil society groups that aims to focus attention on campaign finance and expenditures, had shown that Villar had spent almost half a billion pesos in television advertisements in the three months before the campaign period started.

This spending, however, is not yet regulated by election laws since this was done before the start of the 90-day campaign period that started last February 9.

The second biggest pre-campaign period spender was Teodoro, spending P184 million. Aquino came in third with P127 million in TV ads for that three-month period.

A look at their TV expenses for the first month of the campaign period, when the spending limits already applied, show a more restrained spending.

From February 9 to March 8, Villar spent only P106 million for TV; Aquino P83 million; Estrada P72 million; and Richard Gordon P48 million.

How much again?

If Villar and Aquino avoided pegging a number on their spending, Lakas-CMD bet Teodoro appeared unsure of his spending limit.

He told PCIJ, “With presidential candidates, the maximum limit is about P600- something (million), I think. But this would be leveraged because of the party. The party will spend, and whatever it budgets for one candidate will include others.”

Asked where the money will come from, Teodoro said his family and personal friends have been shouldering the pre-election period expenses. “But there isn’t really any big money yet because the party will take care of that,” he said

Curiously, on the first month of the campaign, Teodoro’s TV campaign spending nosedived to just P266,000 for a 28-day period, an amount considered unusually low for an administration candidate.

A billion again

For his part, the controversial former president Estrada — who was ousted from the presidency in 2001 and later convicted for plunder and then pardoned — said he already has a built-in advantage of name recall because of the time he spent in show business. But he appeared to have missed out on the controversy generated by Villar’s “one billion peso” comment, and the legal questions that remark had raised.

“I guess it won’t go below one billion,” he said, when asked how much a presidential candidate would need to run a decent campaign. The Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino candidate also said that the money would not come from his pocket but from donations by friendly businessmen.

Bagumbayan Party’s Gordon, by contrast, was still bristling over Villar’s one-billion peso remark when PCIJ caught up with him. Gordon said he would be lucky if he spent half the amount. “I told him (Villar), that’s (arrogant),” he said. “It’s like saying if you’re poor, you can’t ever be president of the Philippines.”

“Me, I’m aiming for P300 million to P400 million,” said Gordon. “It would be nice to have P500 million. But I can raise only P300 million.”

Ang Kapatiran’s de los Reyes was less sure of any figure, but he appeared unworried since he indicated that his party’s spending would certainly be on the low side anyway.

“According to some it’s five billion, according to some it’s P500 million,” he said of campaign spending estimates. “But to Ang Kapatiran party, we will stick to what the law allows. We will not campaign more than (what) the law allows, which is I think two to three pesos per voter. Anyway, we don’t have that kind of money, but our machinery and our campaign kitty is a work in progress.” (The P3 per voter campaign spending limit applies to local candidates.)

Independent candidate Madrigal also refused to put a figure on her campaign, although she couldn’t resist a poke at Villar. “It is hard to put an amount because you don’t know who Villar is bribing,” she said. “By putting a price on the presidential campaign that is exactly the kind of politics I am against.”

No names please

The PCIJ then asked the candidates how much of their campaign expenses would come from contributions, how much would come from their own pockets, and who their major campaign contributors were.

None of the major campaign spenders volunteered any names, not even when the PCIJ offered to show them a list of prominent businessmen who are known to contribute heavily during presidential polls. But for the candidates with little resources and name recall, the issue was more elementary: there were simply no major campaign contributors.

Surprisingly consistent, Estrada stayed within his P1-billion estimate, even as he said he didn’t know how much of his own personal money he would have to use. But he said he wasn’t closing the door to the possibility that the entire P1-billion campaign kitty would simply be handed to him by contributors.

When asked who have already contributed or promised to contribute to his campaign, though, Estrada balked. “That can’t be revealed, that can’t be revealed,” he said. “They don’t want their (donations) to be public knowledge.”

When PCIJ reminded him that the law would later require him to divulge the identity of his donors anyway, Estrada said while he would obey the law and name some of his contributors, he did not think it necessary to name all his contributors. “Yes, it’s in the law, which we are following,” he said. “But it’s not necessary to put down every contribution you receive.”

In addition, Estrada saw no problem giving favors to campaign contributors, so long as these do not get in the way of his governance. “But if it’s going to affect the way the government runs or harm the economy, of course I won’t allow it,” he said. “There were many who helped me who I didn’t grant favors to – now this is true, there were those who helped me a lot but they got nothing from me in return.”

No donors?

According to Villar, all of them would like to avoid spending their own money in the campaign “as much as possible.” But he tried to strike a sympathetic note when asked about contributions to his campaign. “That’s the sad thing,” he said, “it looks like there isn’t any yet, because you keep saying I’m rich, so no one’s donating and now I’m feeling sorry for myself.”

Yet when PCIJ asked him to identify his contributors from a list of prominent businessmen, Villar brushed aside the question, saying, “Ah, huwag ‘yun, pass ako diyan.”

Villar also said he has the advantage of using his own money in the campaign when asked how he would turn down down special requests from a major contributor should he win. He added, “Everyone knows that we are independent…we aren’t dependent on any business interest.”

Like her arch-nemesis Villar, Madrigal said that she is running under her own steam, with little or no contributions from anyone.

“My family has had money for a hundred years, and this money came from industry, real estate, banking, and shipping, not from politics,” she said. “My grandfather was a senator, and my father said he got poorer because he was a senator. I am running funded by my own person, my inheritance, so (I won’t be beholden to anyone later). I have nothing, I am not spending lavishly and I am in this as a principled candidate, and that is the real reason I am running.”

No deep pockets

Meanwhile, Aquino, Villar’s closest rival, admitted that he was not as liquid as Villar, and relies on more contributors. “My own finances aren’t that extensive compared to my rivals,” he said. “The truth is many of our family assets aren’t liquid, so whatever is left is what’s being used for my campaign.”

He was vague about who his contributors were, although he said his campaign team carefully screens donors to prevent any conflict of interest.

“There are businessmen, but they’re not that big,” he said. “And if we see that we might be put in a sensitive spot, we turn down contributors in a very nice way, just so we don’t create enemies that we don’t need.”

Aquino’s cousin, Teodoro, said that it is important that donors and candidates have full disclosure – “cuentas claras ang donasyon antiimano.” He also thinks that so long as this is carried out, it is unlikely that businessmen would get any special favors later. According to Tedoro, this is also because government contracts are now too transparent for any hanky-panky to take place. “You’d be investigated from head to toe, even if your (deal) is legitimate,” he said.

Gordon, for his part, said that he is spending some of his own money, but that he has no intentions of splurging his family’s money on the campaign. “That would mean hardship for my wife and I, and we are getting on in years,” he said. “I don’t want to grow old and still scrounging to get by.”

“I have a lot of friends, a lot of clients who believe in me,” he also said. “These are the ones who donate, and that’s what I use.  In fact, one day, I was able to raise P18 million at Manila Hotel. So whatever I can raise, that’s what I spend. But I will not buy the position because I would only learn how to steal when time comes.”

But Gordon said he was willing to reveal his donors only at the appropriate time provided by law, arguing that he was concerned that some of them would get unwanted attention if he did that now.

“Those who contribute (to my campaign), the biggest would be P1 million or P2 million,” he said. “But I will divulge it at the proper time in my sheet. It might be unfair, why would I reveal them now, it might put them in a tight spot.”

No money from me

Apparently unable to think in as many digits in terms of spending is De los Reyes, who said that his party has taken a very unusual tack in funding campaigns. “Very strict is the party’s rule, that no money should come from the candidates’ pockets,” he said. “The candidates are sacrificing themselves already, this is a big sacrifice. So the party will spend for everything.”

As for fund-raising, De los Reyes said he is not familiar with the nitty-gritty of the contributions, but said even the party’s candidates have been auctioning off their own personal items to fund the campaign. For one, his wife auctioned a painting she made for P100,000; a caricature of De los Reyes was also auctioned off for a similar amount. “New methods, new fervor in engaging in politics, that’s what Kapatiran offers,” he said. “Nowhere in the world could you find the kind of politics that we are doing.”

Independent candidate Nicanor Perlas is in the same situation, which he preferred to call an advantage rather than a problem.

“The contributions are small, not only in the Philippines, but also global,” he said. “There are five dollars here and there, ten dollars from abroad. Here, there are volunteers giving food. Small amounts, for now no one’s giving big sums. Others may see that as a problem, but to me, that’s actually an advantage, because my hands don’t get tied down (unlike), if there are big contributions.”

Enough or too much?

Interestingly, the candidates were divided between those with big war chests who think the election spending limits are unrealistic, and those with limited budgets who think the spending limits are in fact too much.

Aquino said he would rather that government provides counterpart funding for the campaign of legitimate political parties, as is done in other countries. This way, he said, there is less pressure on candidates to woo campaign financiers who may call in their debts later on.

Gordon said the spending caps could still be lowered, if television and broadcast networks charge less for their 30-second spots. Television rate cards of the top two networks list a 30-second primetime commercial at more than P400,000 per spot, although the law requires networks to give candidates a 30-percent discount during the campaign period.

“I think the law should give a little more by way of advertising to people like us who have followed the rule,” Madrigal also said. “I think there should be a law against advertising before the campaign period, and during the campaign period, they could give us a larger allowance in order to tell people what our platform is.”

De los Reyes thinks as well that the spending limits are more than enough. “When you have so much money, I think that is the problem,” he said. “If you have a billion, how will you budget that, how will you allocate that? Where will you allocate that?”  – Wth interviews conducted by Tita Valderama, Karol Anne Ilagan, Justine Espina-Letargo, Jaemark Tordecilla, and Aura Marie Dagcutan, PCIJ, March 2010