Big, bold reforms

NO LESS than its highest-ranking officials have repeatedly stated in media a serious intent to curb campaign spending and other illegal campaign activities in the May 13, 2013 elections. This has set the bar rather high for the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to prove itself capable of putting its money where its mouth is.

So it’s rather ironic that for the upcoming elections, money for campaign-finance enforcement is something that Comelec just has to do without. In fact, the poll body does not even have a line budget for enforcing its rules on campaign finance.

That is money that could have been used to subscribe to a media-monitoring database, set up the necessary hardware and software to digitize data and build a database, and of course, hire skilled staff, says Comelec. Put another way, it’s money that could have made campaign-finance monitoring and auditing easier and more efficient for the Commission.

But now that Comelec has found itself lacking in funds meant for enforcing the campaign-finance regulations it recently issued, Commissioner Christian Robert S. Lim, who chairs the Ad Hoc Steering Committee on Campaign Finance, intends to find other ways to go around this setback.

For instance, Lim has taken to spending his own money just so he could apprise Comelec field officers around the country of the new rules on campaign finance and their corresponding duties.

On the national level, Lim is counting on the support of its partner civil-society organizations to fill in the gaps in resources and personnel for campaign finance monitoring and auditing. Just recently, Lim and other members of Comelec’s ad hoc Campaign Finance Unit met with election watchdogs to take stock of the resources that each one can bring to the table, and to come up with a “workable, achievable action plan” for enforcing the campaign finance rules, starting at the campaign period until after the elections.

It’s a predicament that is not entirely new for the poll body. Thus, despite the many rules and statements issued by Comelec, some people remain skeptical about its capability to enforce many of the regulations it had issued for the May 13, 2013 polls, including the new campaign-finance rules.

Among the pessimists are journalists who participated in PCIJ’s seminar series on covering the elections and campaign finance conducted in Metro Manila, Luzon, the Visayas, and Mindanao from August 2012 to February 2013. One Manila-based reporter, for instance, said that Comelec “has been taking baby steps since 1987, but nothing much has changed.” A TV desk manager from Manila meanwhile remarked, “You have Comelec admitting they have laws but can’t implement them; and you have a politician outrightly admitting that the figures stated in his SECE (Statement of Election Contributions and Expenditures) are not true, as casually as that.”

Others however, seem to be more understanding of Comelec’s predicament and even expressed empathy for the commission. Another Manila-based reporter said, “Comelec is doing its best, though slowly, to correct or plug holes in the filing of statements of contributions and expenditures.” A citizen media from Mindanao even called on her colleagues to be more understanding of Comelec’s situation: “Local journalists must not be too hard on the local Comelec officers for their hands are tied.” A news manager from Mindanao, for his part, commented that he was sad to hear “about the current state of our Comelec being understaffed, overworked, and inefficient due to the centralized nature of the organization.”

Lim himself readily admits that in many areas, the poll body’s field offices are seriously undermanned. “The reality is, you’re looking at just two [Comelec permanent field staff per municipality or city],” he said. “We’re asking the public to help us. Comelec alone cannot do it.”

A Manila-based reporter seems to echo Lim’s sentiment. “Comelec is now taking campaign finance seriously,” she said. “Now it’s up to netizens, civil society groups, and media to pressure, monitor politicians to take it seriously as well.”

Despite the shortage in funding and personnel, Lim would rather look at the 2013 elections as an “experimental” exercise for the poll body that will enable it to see its “weak points.” Based on its experience in the 2013 elections, Lim said the poll body “can develop focus areas going to 2016.” But with all the challenges in campaign finance enforcement, Lim admitted: “There’s a big chance that we’ll fall flat on our faces.”

He added quickly, “Pero kung ‘di mo sisimulan, wala ring mangyayari sa ‘yo, ‘di ba (But if we won’t start doing it, nothing will happen, right)? You have to start somewhere.” — PCIJ, April 2013

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